Christmas came early this year for the City of Kingston. Staring down the barrel of two potentially expensive and embarrassing legal decisions, the city finds itself the recipient of an unprecedented reward.
For the last nine years, the City of Kingston has fought charges that it knowingly allowed pollutants to leak into the Cataraqui River from the Belle Island landfill. The city was convicted in 1998 and just last year lost its bid to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. When it could not dodge conviction, the city vowed to fight the sentence: a court order to devise a plan to cover the landfill so rainwater could not penetrate to the waste below.
On Wednesday, the provincial Ministry of Environment and the city disclosed details of a sweetheart deal that no longer requires the city to even study a cap for the site. The deal contradicts the advice of experts that came out at trial and marks the first time the Ministry of Environment has publicly allowed a municipality to leave a leaking landfill uncovered.
On Friday, the Ministry of Environment announced to Waterkeeper and the Canadian Environmental Law Association that it had rejected their appeal for stricter permits for Kingston's aging sewage system. In June, the two groups filed an administrative request, asking that the City of Kingston be required to provide public notice, monitoring, and clean up of raw sewage spills. The request came after raw sewage and bio-waste washed up on Wolfe Island following one of the city's common sewage bypasses.
Rather than instituting enforceable rules that would ensure the City of Kingston remains accountable for sewage discharges, the Ministry of Environment signed a non-binding "letter of commitment".
The deals between the City of Kingston and the Ministry of Environment reflect a growing trend towards elective environmental protection in Ontario. This trend is a grave threat to our communities for a number of reasons. Environmental standards are set to protect clean water, air, and public health; when polluters can opt in or out of the rules, our natural resources are not protected and there is environmental inequity between our communities.
Mostly, the voluntary arrangements created by provincial bureaucrats breed cynicism. Why would a citizen launch a private prosecution again, knowing the province might step in to undermine the court's decision? Why would residents take their complaints to the province again, knowing the Ministry of Environment cannot enforce its own arrangements?
While it's easy to adopt the cheap philosophy that "everything's a racket," it is the last thing we can afford to do right now. Most of Lake Ontario's wetlands have been lost. All of our fish are so contaminated they carry consumption warnings. With no enforcement activity after Kingston's E. coli turned up in Wolfe Island's shore wells, one of the last pure drinking water supplies has been compromised.
The Walkerton Inquiry taught Ontarians that voluntary compliance alone does not work. Yet somehow, convicted for allowing an old landfill to leak into the Cataraqui River and caught red-handed failing to notify the public in advance of massive sewage spills, the City of Kingston emerged this week unscathed.