Toronto

Clarington repaving project halted after residents find 'all kinds of crap' in material for new road bed

Durham Region has halted work on a road rebuilding project after neighbours complained they stumbled upon contaminated waste in the new road bed.

Ontario Environment Ministry says it's looking into complaints from locals

John Presta, Durham Region's public works commissioner, stands on the shoulder of Regional Road 18, which was being rebuilt when work was halted last month. Residents said they detected a strong odor coming from materials used in the new road bed, and found unusual items mixed in with the recyclables. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Durham Region has halted work on a road rebuilding project after neighbours complained they stumbled upon contaminated waste in the new road bed.

Work was shut down on the rehab project in Clarington, 100 kilometres east of Toronto, about two weeks ago. A consultant was called in to check what crews had been using in a lower layer of the rebuilt road.

"I was picking up syringes, batteries, pieces of metal, razor blades," local farmer Andrew McVey said this week.

"There's all kinds of crap ... various garbage that I felt should not be part of what's being buried in the road "

Durham Region unveiled a pilot project last spring that aimed to use recycled glass and plastic fibres from blue boxes as an experimental bed during the repair of a three-kilometre stretch of Regional Road 18, also known as Newtonville Road.

But shortly after the more than 400 tonnes of recyclables were deposited at the site, neighbours complained about a bad smell. On Sept. 19, McVey and several others took their complaints to Clarington's municipal council. They also went to Ontario Environment MInister Dave Piccini, whose riding includes Newtownville Road. 

Clarington farmer Andrew McVey holds up a battery he says he found in the road bed at the stalled project, one of two he says he uncovered in about 15 minutes. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

The Ministry of the Environment (MOE) launched an investigation and ordered Durham to look into the complaints. A few days later, the region suspended the project. It's remained mostly idle ever since.

McVey said he worries about how run-off from the foreign material in the recyclables could affect the well water that he and his neighbours use.

"We drink that water and our kids drink that water," McVey said. "I wasn't too happy about it at all."

John Presta, Durham Region's public works commissioner, said he and his staff are taking the complaints "very seriously."

He said the region has brought in an independent consultant to collect samples of the new bed and analyze the contents for dangerous contaminants. That happened last week, Presta said, and a report is expected within the next two weeks or so.

But he also pointed out that when material from residential blue boxes is being used, some contamination is inevitable. 

Repaving work on a three-kilometre section of Regional Road 18 has been stalled since Sept. 22, after neighbours complained that inappropriate material was used in the road bed. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

"It's not a 100 per cent clean system," he said.

Durham's blue box materials were transferred to a private recycling facility in Puslinch, near Guelph, called NexCycle. The company processed the glass and some plastics into fragments and fibres.

According to Presta, some countries have already used similar materials in road beds as a way of disposing of waste that would otherwise languish in landfills.

"It goes from the blue box collection, that's about 25-30 per cent non-glass, and they've processed it and screened it down to less than three per cent," he said.

"So that's quite a jump from 30 per cent down to less than three per cent, but it's not 100 per cent."

He said the odour initially reported by neighbours could possibly have been caused by some organic matter left inside old cans or jars within the material sent for recycling.

Coun. Joe Neal says he feels Clarington is too often used as a guinea pig when it comes to Durham Region's waste disposal projects. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

NexCycle has come to the attention of the provincial environment ministry in the past.

"During a 2012 inspection at the Puslinch facility, run-off from the site and glass particles were impacting an off-site ditch," according to an MOE statement.

"The ministry issued NexCycle a provincial officer's order with specific compliance dates for the actions identified in the company's plan. The order has been complied with."

In 2019, the MOE ordered NexCycle to apply for a licence to operate as a waste transfer and processing site.

"The ministry has asked the company for additional information, so the application is still being processed," the statement reads.

NexCycle has not yet returned calls from CBC Toronto about the contents of trucks that delivered the recycled material from its plant to the site.

A 'trust issue'

In the meantime, Joe Neal, a local councillor who also represents Clarington on Durham Region council, said he wants to see a thorough investigation.

He said if inappropriate material has been included in the Newtonville Road foundation, it wouldn't be the first time his community has been made to feel like the region's dumping ground.

Last summer, Neal fought a decision by Durham Region to build a waste separator in Clarington on the grounds that the community already hosts two incinerators. That project was eventually shelved.

Neal says there's a "trust issue" between Clarington and Durham.

"We're used as the experimental project for different waste proposals," he said. "No other municipality in Durham Region is asked to be the forerunner of this sort of project."

As for the source of possible contaminants in the glass mixture, Presta said he's not yet sure exactly where that three per cent came from.

"But I can theorize and one example might be that someone throws their children's toy in the blue box. It's made out of all plastic. However, there's a battery in it ... That battery is crushed in the process with the glass and the battery ends up in the material."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Smee

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Michael Smee has worked in print, radio, TV and online journalism for many years. You can reach him at michael.smee@cbc.ca

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