Down in the Dumps

John Nicol February 26 2001

Down in the Dumps

John Nicol February 26 2001

I am writing to urge you and the city council of Toronto to reconsider sending this solid waste to Michigan, not because the citizens of Wayne County don't want it, but rather because it is the reasonable thing to do and there are attractive, homegrown alternatives.

—a Feb. 6 letter from Michigan Gov. John Engler urging Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman to reopen the controversial Adams Mine deal

It is the plan that, seemingly, refuses to die. Critics thought the death knell had finally sounded last October, when last-minute negotiating disagreements killed a proposal to ship Toronto’s garbage to an abandoned open-pit mine near the community of Kirkland Lake, 600 km north. Beset by controversy and lambasted by environmentalists who claimed the site was unsafe, the Adams Mine plan faded off the radar screen. The new solution to Toronto’s garbage woes— the city produces 4,100 tonnes of waste daily and its landfill in Keele Valley will be closed in 2002—lay at one end of Highway 401, in Michigan, which has become a receptacle for trash from Canada and surrounding states. Or so it seemed.

Even as behind-the-scenes manoeuvring has continued to get the Adams Mine proposal back on the table, Michigan environmentalists weighed in. At a recent basketball game in Michigan between the Toronto Raptors and the Detroit Pistons, a few dozen protesters held up placards saying the Raptors were welcome, but not Toronto’s trash—up to 100 truckfuls of garbage a day delivered to two landfills near Detroit. “Toronto has always had a very clean image, and Canada was regarded as being a good deal more responsible about handling waste,” Michigan environmentalist Rod Hill told Maclean's. “Now they seem like just another company trying to save a buck—taking the cheapest, least environmentally friendly way out.”

Then, in his Feb. 6 letter, Michigan’s Gov. Engler waded into the debate, suggesting to Toronto’s Mayor Lastman that the city revert to its earlier plan to send its garbage to Kirkland Lake. It would not only help keep jobs in Ontario, said Engler, but shipping the trash by rail to the Adams Mine would be safer than clogging up highways with another 100 trucks per day— which may prove to be the volume when Keele Valley closes. It was a position echoed by the mayors of cities, such as London, Kitchener and Cambridge, that line the 401.

And then there is Queens Park. In December, a disappointed Ontario Premier Mike Harris, himself a longtime proponent of the Adams Mine deal, said he would have preferred Toronto’s garbage going north. Behind the scenes, he has been more strident—and furious at Lastman for letting the deal die. Harris, who is the MPP for North Bay, 250 km south of Kirkland Lake, is a friend of North Bay road contractor and one-time ski racer Gordon McGuinty—the main player in Rail Cycle North, the Adams Mine consortium. He is also friends with at least two of the investors, Peter Minogue and his wife, Barbara, who was his personal campaign manager. Now, his Conservative government is reportedly considering taking responsibility for garbage disposal away from Toronto—raising the possibility of Queen’s Park itself reopening the Adams Mine deal. And with Harris angry, the mayor may be paying a price: the city wanted provincial help with its current $305-million budget shortfall, but talks broke off last week, with Lastman saying he would have to freeze wages, sell off excess property and raise taxes.

For now, Toronto’s garbage will keep going down Highway 401. But if the Adams Mine proposal is indeed rising from the dead, so are the previous questions that made it so controversial. Environmentalists say leachate from the site may poison nearby rivers, which feed into Lake Timiskaming, the Ottawa River and ultimately the St. Lawrence River. Toronto, they say, would do better to emulate Edmonton and Halifax by diverting waste, either by composting, increased recycling or new technologies. Opponents of the deal also point to Harris’s links to the main players, claiming his support is nothing more than political cronyism. And in economically depressed Kirkland Lake, the renewed debate may once again split the community of 9,900 between those who want development—and those concerned that using the Adams Mine as a dump will cause irreparable damage to the Northern Ontario wilderness.

Norm Macdonald knows how ugly that kind of polarization can get. In 1992, he built his dream home on the shores of Round Lake, seven kilometres south of the Adams Mine. Macdonald loves the North; from his house, set in an idyllic lakefront perch beneath a stand of poplars, spruce and birch, he sees moose, deer and the odd bear. And when the Adams Mine plan was first raised in 1989, Macdonald, now a 58-year-old retiree, began to vocally oppose it.

He had experience to guide him. Macdonald had spent 32 years mining silver, copper and gold in Northern Ontario, and he knew the Adams Mine well. Fractured rock surrounds the site; water leaking in when the mine was operational was continually pumped out. After the mine closed, the pit filled up. But Macdonald and others say the site leaks—iron has since showed up in neighbouring wells. And last September, Macdonald got a tip that a secret leakage test using blue dye had been conducted at the site in 1998—which coincided with a neighbour’s discovery of blue dye in his well water (McGuinty denies that any such test was ever done).

Macdonald told others in the anti-mine movement about the tip. Soon after, he says, he became the target of psychological warfare. A mysterious black SUV would harass him. At times, Macdonald would see flashlights waving around his yard, then hear bangs on the walls. When he answered the phone, he heard either dead air—or a voice threatening him and his family if he didn’t stop investigating. Macdonald’s wife, Brenda, went for a medical appointment and to visit family in southern Ontario—back home, things got so bad he told her to extend her trip. Intruders broke into their home, stealing portraits and overturning drawers. In an implicit threat, they put a photo of the Macdonalds’ four grandchildren on top of a box of tissues in the middle of the dining room table. On the box, they scribbled the phone number, supposedly secret, of the place where Brenda was secluded.

By Oct. 16, Brenda had returned home—but the situation worsened even more. At dusk that evening, while stepping out to his woodshed a few metres from his house, Macdonald says he saw a movement in the shadows. He was struck above the eye with a small, heavy object, leaving him with a gash in his eyebrow. His assailant, Macdonald recalls, wore a military-style body suit that also covered most of his face. At the time, Macdonald told Maclean's during an interview, “I don’t care what they do to me, but leave my family alone. The threats we’re getting—they’re sick.”

Shortly after, the garbage deal was dead—and the harassment stopped. “What has really taken the toll on the community is the uncertainty, and the constant gnawing and fighting back and forth,” says Macdonald. It may not be over—Macdonald says he suffered a bout of nightmares this month when news broke that the deal might be revived. “The only way it’s going to go away,” he says, “is if government keeps its nose out of it.”

But politics has been at the heart of the Adams Mine story—and may yet keep it alive. In the early 1990s, when Toronto was searching for a landfill for the 21st century, it found few neighbouring communities willing to sacrifice valuable land for a dump. Enter McGuinty. tie started pitching the Adams Mine—a manmade crater 55 storeys deep, with the bottom 100 m below the water table—as an ideal place for Toronto’s garbage. With the backing of then-Kirkland Lake Mayor Joe Mavrinac, the lobbying began.

Ontario’s NDP government set up the Interim Waste Authority so Toronto could find a site closer to home. But McGuinty was lining up other supporters. In the summer of 1991, he, Mavrinac, Peter Minogue and others met with new Tory Leader Harris at a Toronto restaurant. McGuinty characterizes it as a chance meeting. But, coincidentally, two members of a law firm in New Liskeard, 75 km south of the Adams Mine, were at the restaurant and say they overheard Harris committing himself “to do whatever needs to be done to make this project happen.” Harris reiterated such a pledge on a cable TV program just before he was elected premier in 1995. Nine days later, he disbanded the Interim Waste Authority. Harris said the province should not be actively involved in the city’s search for a dump. But under his tenure, conditions for approving the Adams Mine site improved. For one thing, the government changed the Environmental Assessment Act, shortening— some critics say gutting—the review process. Then, during the two-week environmental assessment hearing, the three-member panel debated only one issue: whether a computer-generated model of the proposed leachate-treatment system for the mine was viable. In the end, the Adams Mine was approved as a dump without ever having to produce test well results to determine if it leaked. Representing the mine consortium at the hearings was Toronto lawyer and Tory insider Robert Power, who had served as a member of the committees that recommended changes to the environmental assessment process.

Harris tried to hasten the process even more. Last summer, he said the province would close the Keele Valley dump in 2002, even though Toronto had only a capacity limit, not a time limit, on the dump (according to the city’s estimates, it could have used the site until 2006). And when the Adams Mine deal died, the premier’s interest did not. One lawyer who is close to him told Maclean's Harris was “pissed” that the Toronto garbage was going to Michigan, “and particularly at Lastman for putting everyone in this position.” Lastman had, in fact, been a strong proponent of the deal. But when the consortium tried to negotiate a higher price in lieu of a contract clause removed by Toronto councillors because it could have resulted in future liability for the city, the mayor refused to budge.

Meanwhile, Harris’s principal secretary, John Weir, worked on ways to revive the deal. Among the possibilities: changing laws on the exporting of garbage, and asking for an environmental assessment of Toronto’s Michigan deal. Then came reports that the province was also investigating ways to buy out the Michigan contract and take responsibility for garbage away from Toronto. McGuinty helped to drum up opposition from mayors along Highway 401, who appeared before Toronto council on Feb. 7 to complain about the increased traffic and potential dangers along the highway. Harris’s office also helped the Michigan governor, a friend of the premier, with his letter to Lastman. A spokesman for Harris said the premier’s office responded to requests from Engler for information, but made no attempt to influence the letter’s content.

Last fall, when the ugliness in Kirkland Lake reached a crescendo, protesters temporarily blocked a railway near the Adams Mine and set up a camp next to the tracks. The camp storehouse, nicknamed “Mel’s Café,” drew a diverse group of northerners of all ages together: anglophones, francophones, natives, former miners. In Kirkland Lake itself, the two radio stations, the newspaper, several businessmen and investors supported the mine. Whenever the two factions crossed paths, icy stares and angry debates ensued.

It may yet happen again. The coalition that fought the mine is gearing up for more action. Chief Carol McBride of the local Temiskaming First Nation said protesters are prepared to do whatever it takes to kill the proposal once and for all. “We, as aboriginal people, have much more to lose,” said McBride. “If the watershed was poisoned, we would lose grounds where we fish, hunt and gather natural medicines.” Among those contemplating a move is Macdonald. The lingering bitterness of the Adams Mine battle has proven too much. “I was born here, and it was always my dream to live here,” he says. “But our dream turned into a nightmare. ” He knows what he wants: a view over water, with poplars, spruce and birch rustling in the wind— with the whiff of garbage and politics a long way away. E3