Le Lézard
Classified in: Environment
Subjects: PSF, ENI, ENP, AVO

Hurricane Harvey, Irma's and soon to be Maria's Lessons for Ontario

By Michael Scott, Michael G. Scott & Associates, former CEO of Waste Diversion Ontario.

TORONTO, Sept. 20, 2017 /CNW/ - Ontario should not look upon Hurricanes Harvey, Irma or even Maria as distant events. They have a scary relevance for us, with lessons we should heed.

Michael G. Scott (CNW Group/Michael G. Scott Associates)

Not only were lives lost and homes destroyed in the Caribbean, Florida, Texas and Louisiana, but there are fears of an environmental disaster. The floods may have unleashed a calamitous brew of toxic waste and other hazardous materials. With over 200 chemical plants, 33 oil refineries and thousands of small manufacturing plants in the Houston area alone, operators are struggling to limit unintended discharges.

Climate change brings the risks of more severe weather events and it would not take a storm as powerful as Harvey or Irma to bring a catastrophic deluge to Ontario.

We need to ask: what would happen to toxic wastes here in a major flood? How much do we produce? Where is it going? How much do we really know about toxic waste in Ontario?

The short answer to all those questions is: 'not nearly as much as we should'.  

Various estimates indicate that we produce a total of about 11 million tonnes of waste each year in Ontario, or about 850 kilograms a person, placing us amongst the worse per capita generators of trash in the world.

Largely thanks to our Blue Box program, we are diverting about 25% of our garbage from landfills.

What about the other 75%, coming mostly from what we call the IC&I sector ? industrial, commercial and institutional?

This is a gaping hole--we simply do not know much about it. We have not yet analyzed and studied all the data needed to tell us how much toxic waste is produced each year, where it is coming from and where it is going.

Waste management and recycling companies in Ontario are no doubt diverting an increasing amount of toxic wastes and processing them into marketable materials, even though government regulations have not yet done enough to support these industries.

But we still rely heavily on landfills, with 31 of them operating in Ontario which receive more than 1.5 million cubic metres of waste a year.  No doubt a lot of bad stuff is still going into them. And there are thousands of abandoned dump sites across the province.

Even more troubling is the amount of toxic waste entering our municipal sewer system. Consider this: virtually every small and large business, from dry cleaners, beauty salons and printing shops to huge manufacturers are connected to these systems and under permit can discharge wastes, some of them hazardous. But our municipal sewage treatment plants are not equipped to eliminate this material, which means it ends up in our rivers and major lakes.

 A major flood would bring it into our homes.

We must do more to prepare ourselves. Important work is underway as a result of the recently approved Waste Free Ontario Act. Over the next several years we will begin to collect, analyze and communicate important, comprehensive data that can help form the basis of many new recycling initiatives.

But this is going to take time, and we may not have time, as weather patterns continue to increase in intensity.

Chemical and petroleum industries in the southern US have made improvements in their safety standards but they were overwhelmed by the power of Harvey and Irma, which caused more than two dozen uncontrolled releases of toxic material.  

I hope this disaster will encourage major industries in Ontario to launch a thorough review of their emergency response plans.  

Equally important is the need for a province-wide assessment of where we are most vulnerable to uncontrolled releases of toxic materials. This is a daunting exercise given the current state of our data on toxic waste. The province should be reaching out now to generators and processors of these wastes who can help develop an emergency response plan that can mitigate the release of toxic material under severe weather conditions.

We must be ready because as climate change experts tell us, it is no longer a question of if the severe weather will come, but when.

SOURCE Michael G. Scott Associates

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