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March 26, 2013

John Willms Quoted in Article - Beyond Dig-And-Dump: New Approaches to Soil Remediation

John Willms quoted in article by Camilla Cornell, Environmental Consultant, January 29, 2013.

When Theresa Phillips began her career as an environmental consultant some 15 years ago there was a lot of excitement over bio-remediation techniques for contaminated soil.

Stakeholders foresaw a time when genetically modified bacteria would “chew up” contaminants like Pac-man on steroids. But when concerns arose over releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment, interest cooled. And so did talk of alternatives to simply digging up contaminated soil and dumping it in landfill.

“People aren’t really using risk assessment and remediation to its full advantage,” reflects Phillips, a senior toxicologist and risk assessment specialist with exp Services Inc. in Markham, Ont. “Dig-and-dump isn’t really remediation at all,” she says.

Though governments tend to pay lip service to the need for innovative soil management, they also default to overly conservative approaches, she adds.

“We find when we do an ecological risk assessment, the MOE (Ontario Ministry of the Environment) requires us to build in all kinds of levels of conservativeness,” she explains. “We make all these assumptions on the ultra-conservative side, because it’s an assumption so you can’t know for sure.”

The risk assessment might indicate chemicals on the site that are harmful to plants and the best alternative is to dig the soil up and get rid of the contaminants. “Then you go to the site and it’s covered with plants,” says Phillips. “They’re surviving. Is the solution to kill them all by digging them up?”

While she feels Ontario’s MOE is beginning to loosen up a little, at least in the case described, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Jim Skeoch echoes the idea. As head of business development for AIM Environmental Group (with offices in Stoney Creek, Ont. and Calgary), Skeoch says soil remediation will have to change as regulations grow tighter and landfill becomes scarcer and more expensive.

 “In Europe, it’s very expensive to get rid of contaminated soil, so they’ve come up with alternative solutions and methodologies,” he says. “As things tighten up here, they’re going to increase the cost of landfill, particularly for soil.”

It’s a trend he welcomes, given the environmental damage wrought by dig-and-dump. Not only does it drastically disturb the environment and potentially release harmful gasses and chemicals into the air when contaminants are dug up, there’s the increased carbon footprint and the dangers associated with trucking contaminated soil to landfill over public highways.

Most important of all, by treating contaminated soil as waste and digging it up only to chuck it in landfill, we’re really just moving the problem from one place to another, adds John Willms, managing partner with Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers of Toronto.

Because landfill space is scarce and expensive, private land-owners often accept clean fill for a fee and dumpers take advantage of the offer because “it’s cheaper than sending it to landfill—hugely cheaper.”

The problem, says Willms, is the Ministry isn’t policing those so-called clean fill sites to ensure the soil has been treated because they fall into a grey area in its mandate. And that leaves a void in the protection of human and ecological health.

To read the rest of the article, click here.