Toronto Turns to a Distant Dump

WASTE MANAGEMENT To address its garbage crisis, the city plans to transport trash via trains to an abandoned mine

TORONTO'S dumps are full to overflowing. Of the two sites used by the city, one will close this summer, the other by middle of 1993, maybe earlier. "We're in a crisis," says George Kelly, director of solid-waste management for Metropolitan Toronto, a city of more than 3 million residents. "And those closing dates are predicated on Toronto handling only our own solid waste. Peel [an adjoining county] fills up this summer, so if we take theirs, the sites will fill sooner."

Neighboring towns don't want the city's garbage. But Canada's biggest city did manage to persuade some hard-pressed northern mining towns to take its garbage.

The solution? Put 4,000 tons of compressed garbage on a unit train (specially built railroad cars) every day and dump it into an abandoned mine site at Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, 375 miles north of Metropolitan Toronto. In return for accepting 30 million tons of garbage over the next 20 years, the community will receive as much as C$450 million ($388 million) in benefits.

That 30 million tons translates into one long train every day for 20 years. At the other end of the 12-hour trip it would dump the garbage into an abandoned, open-pit iron-ore mine. It is a round hole in the ground, about half a mile wide and 600 feet deep.

The garbage doesn't go straight into the pit. There would be a recycling plant built there - at a cost of up to C$40 million ($34.4 million) - to extract the valuable bits. And pumps will be used to stop liquid waste from contaminating the water table.

But environmentalists say shipping the garbage north is the wrong solution. It is a waste of energy and it distracts people from what the environmentalists call the three R's of garbage: reducing, reusing, and recycling. And they say if people in the city have to live with their garbage, they might learn to control it.

"Metro Toronto has developed a severe garbage production habit in the past two decades and the Kirkland Lake deal is designed to allow the binge to continue," says David McRobert of Pollution Probe, a Toronto-based ecological lobbying group.

The Kirkland Lake dump plan has been agreed to by authorities in Toronto and Kirkland Lake. It now has to be approved by the province and faces an environmental assessment hearing.

There are other problems, especially with toxic runoff from rotting garbage leaching into the water table.

"Mine sites are usually unsuitable because there is water running into them," says environmental consultant Colin Isaacs, who has visited the Kirkland Lake site.

IN spite of environmental objections, the dumping plan seems almost certain to go ahead since there isn't much choice. The old mine could be accepting Toronto's garbage by 1994, just as the other dumps are full.

But there is opposition. In a letter to the province protesting the plan, Pollution Probe, an environmental group, said: "Garbage export encourages an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality. It is always a bad idea to separate polluter from their pollution because they have no incentive to change their ways."

Pollution Probe also says it is a waste of energy to ship material to a recycling facility so far away from where it will be reused.

Shipping garbage a long distance away from cities has been tried in some European countries, but this is a first for a Canadian city. It will cost about C$30 ($25.9) a ton to use trains to bring the garbage north, about twice what it costs now to bring it to nearby dump sites.

But the idea is to ship less garbage. That means government control and regulations on recycling, fewer garbage pickups, and a plan to cut back on the use of junk mail.

"Ontario already has the largest and probably the most advanced recycling program in North America," says Mr. Isaacs. Called the Blue Box program, it allows more than 2 million households to put out newspapers, cans, and bottles in blue boxes supplied by municipalities for a special once-a-week pickup.

Municipalities are also subsidizing the use of backyard composters so that people can get rid of kitchen scraps. While food waste may seem benign, it rots and creates methane gas, making landfill sites and dumps unstable.

"Take the problem garbage out before shipping it to the dump," says John Angus, who was one of the inventors of the Blue Box program and is now president of Eco Consulting Services in Toronto. "The best way is to get people to compost. There is very little cost and it gets rid of bad stuff [food waste] before it gets to the dump."

Mr. Angus estimates there are as many as half a million households using composters in Ontario. In some municipalities, the provincial government pays for half the cost of a backyard composter to encourage reducing waste.

And there is a proposal to cut back on junk mail, much of which is tossed away without even being opened. The solution: Raise the price of bulk mail from the present 9 cents a piece to the cost of a regular envelope, 39 cents. Or find a way to recycle the paper it is printed on and mailed in.

Shipping garbage in Canadian winters causes technical problems. It freezes and sticks to the inside of the railway car. And the road to Kirkland Lake is long and cold. While Toronto is relatively balmy by Canadian standards - average January temperature is 27 degrees F. - Kirkland Lake is cold even by Siberian standards. In January the average temperature is 3 degrees F. and it is not uncommon for it go down to 40 below zero and stay there for a few weeks. Experts are working on this problem. At th e end of last year, four garbage trucks, each laden with 10 tons of Toronto rubbish, made the 250-mile trip down the TransCanada highway to Ottawa. There at the National Research Council, the garbage was put in a deep freeze to study what happens to it during transport under bleak winter conditions.

"The test was done for CP Rail to see if garbage in containers could be discharged in intense climatic condition," said Roch Parisien of the National Research Council. "The test site is so big we can put an entire rail car in there and freeze it."

The job is to figure out an easy way to thaw it when it gets to Kirkland Lake. The rail cars will have to be custom-made for unloading frozen garbage.

CP Rail says it has tested two types of garbage car. "One, called a ram, uses a moving partition to force out the garbage. The other, called a walking floor, employs a series of aluminum floor slats that shuffle back and forth. The shuffling ejects the load," says Len Cocolocchio of CP Rail in Montreal.

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