Canada needs billions for toxic clean-up - report
OTTAWA - The Canadian government has bungled the clean-up of thousands of toxic sites and abandoned mines across the country and needs to spend billions of dollars to deal with the mess, according to a damning report released by the country\'s environmental watchdog yesterday.
Environment and sustainable development commissioner Johanne Gelinas also said Ottawa was not doing enough to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, regulate the use of pesticides and deal with the spread of species alien to Canada.
\"Overall, our findings leave me more concerned that ever about the inadequacy of the federal government\'s investment to protect the environment and meet its sustainable development commitments,\" she wrote in the six-volume report.
\"The federal government has failed to clean up its own backyard,\" said Gelinas, who reports directly to parliament.
Her insistence on more money comes at a time when Finance Minister John Manley - who will deliver a budget next February - is facing with a shrinking surplus and demands for a multibillion-dollar investment in the health care system.
Gelinas said Ottawa knew it had about 3,600 contaminated sites on its hands and another 1,500 where contamination was suspected. These include harbors, ports, military bases, government laboratories and abandoned mines.
\"We estimate that the cost of dealing with known sites under federal responsibility is in the billions of dollars,\" she said, noting there are no laws obliging Ottawa to clear up the mess left at federal sites.
By contrast, the United States runs a federal Superfund program to clean up the most dangerous contaminated sites.
Gelinas said Ottawa did not know the full health risks posed by the federal sites and had failed to draw up a list of the worst Canadian spots and develop a plan to clean them up.
One serious concern is the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of toxic chemicals such as arsenic and cyanide now left at abandoned mines in northern Canada. Cleaning up the 30 worst sites alone would cost C$555 million ($355 million).
The government currently spends C$26 million a year to prevent water contamination at the mine sites, which Gelinas dismissed as \"a Band-Aid approach\".
In one site alone - the Giant gold mine near Yellowknife - there are 237,000 tonnes of arsenic dioxide dust stored underground. The storage area is now starting to leak.
Gelinas said the problem of abandoned mines had \"become dramatically worse\" since 1998 and noted the federal approach to tackling the situation was \"diffuse and inconsistent\".
One reason for the problem is that until recently Ottawa did not oblige owners of mines on federal territory to put up enough money to cover the cost of cleaning up the sites. This meant that when mines closed down, the operators walked away and left the government to clear up the mess.
Gelinas also noted infighting between government departments and expressed surprise that more action had not been taken to identify the risks posed by pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
\"To us, the whole situation is confounding. The processes we have observed seem to defy timely, decisive and precautionary action,\" she said.
\"None of this augurs well for the protection of our health. In my opinion, the current situation and future prospects are not environmentally, economically or socially acceptable.\"
Story by David Ljunggren
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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