Sudbury

Ontario's auditor general says province not doing enough to clean-up after toxic spills

A new report from Ontario's auditor general paints a grim picture of how the Ministry of the Environment responds to spills. The auditor found the province doesn't do enough to make sure toxic messes are cleaned up or make polluters pay for it. 

Ministry of Environment says it takes spills seriously and is looking for new ways to make polluters pay

Ontario's auditor general found that of thousands of spills in recent years, the oil train derailment in Gogama was the only one where the Ministry of Environment independently verified the clean-up. (Transportation Safety Board)

A new report from Ontario's auditor general paints a grim picture of how the Ministry of the Environment responds to spills. 

The auditor found the province doesn't do enough to make sure toxic messes are cleaned up or make polluters pay for it. 

One prominent northern Ontario example in the report was the response to the fiery CN train derailment near the village of Gogama in 2015, which spilled millions of litres of oil into local waters.

The auditor found that out of 73,000 reported spills in recent years, the Gogama derailment was the only time the Ministry of Environment got independent verification that the clean-up was done properly.

It also found that Gogama was one of only three cases where the province attempted to make the polluters pay some of the ministry's costs for responding to the spill.

Of the some $1 million the ministry spent in Gogama, CN Rail only ended up by covering $618,000 and the company did appeal to the environmental tribunal to try to get out of paying that bill. 

Former Gogama fire chief Mike Benson compares allowing CN and companies behind other spills to look after the clean-up 'the fox watching the henhouse.' (Erik White/CBC )

"It's ridiculous that the taxpayer was on the hook for any of it," says former Gogama fire chief Mike Benson.

He was the first person on the scene of the derailment and in the coming years, spoke out publicly about the poor response by CN and the province, especially when oil sheen was spotted in the Makami River years later. 

"The Ministry of Environment was nowhere to be found. They kept saying they don't have the staff to do stuff and 'Don't worry because CN is very good and they'll clean it up,'" says Benson.

"How can you say you're protecting the environment if you're sitting in your office in Kenora and the spill is 1,000 kilometres away?"

Ontario's auditor general found that the Gogama train derailment was only one of three incidents where the province tried to make polluters pay for government costs of the clean-up. (Erik White/CBC)

He says the Ministry of Environment is "our safeguard" in these situations and would like to see companies that cause spills pay to have government staff on site to make sure spills are remediated.

"I know people who won't fish there, I fish there myself but it's catch and release," says Benson.

"Because it's been six years and that's when all these scientists said if there was anything it would start showing up after five years."

The auditor's report also makes mention of a 2016 Ontario Northland train derailment near Kirkland Lake that spilled copper zinc concentrate into a local river, where the Ministry of Environment response cost taxpayers some $14,000.

There was also a truck that in 2018 spilled 20,0000 litres of gasoline into a ditch of Highway 11 in Chamberlain Township near Englehart. The clean-up took close to two years, but the auditor found that the official ministry report documents only two weeks of work.

The report also lists thousands of reported spills in northern Ontario in recent years, some that were large-scale contamination of land and water, others were small amounts of gas released as a normal part of industrial operations.

Enbridge gas is listed as having over 10,000 spills in recent years, but the company says the vast majority of those are natural gas leaks caused by home owners and careless excavators.

Hydro One had 684 reported spills, but the utility says in a statement that it has a "well-established spill response program" and in 2020 recovered 98 per cent of the "the liquid materials that were spilled."

The auditor general report lists 128 "spills" in recent years from Domtar, but the company says most of that is just regular non-toxic gas emissions from its paper mill in Espanola, which have been declining in recent years. (Erik White/CBC )

The Algoma steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie is listed with 112 spills and 207 at the Detour gold mine north of Cochrane. Neither company provided CBC with a statement.

The auditor general says there were 128 reported spills at the operations of Domtar in recent years.

Regional public relations manager Bonny Skene says the majority of those were at the plant in Espanola and were small non-toxic gas emissions that are a regular part of the papermaking process. 

She says environmental standards for the industry changed in 2016, causing smaller emissions to be reported as "spills," but she says staff have worked to cut those numbers in half by 2021.

"This constant focus on reducing our environmental footprint is what leads to that," says Skene.

Ministry of Environment response

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks did not make anyone available for an interview, but provided a statement which reads in part:

"Our government is committed to preserving and protecting our air, land, water, species at risk and their habitats, driving down emissions, and tackling spills, waste, and pollution, all while driving innovation to supporting families and businesses.

We take spills very seriously, and in the event of a spill or related emergency, the ministry quickly assesses any environmental impacts and ensures the responsible parties clean up the spill and restore the environment. We are committed to continuous improvement to ensure that we address spills in a timely, effective, and transparent way. That is why we are exploring ways to improve the environmental monetary penalties program to include more environmental contraventions and cover more members of the regulated community."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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