Settlers Park Residents Association
The German Mills Meadow and Natural Habitat
The Sabiston Landfill has been closed since about 1975. About 8 years ago, Markham proposed to install a scheme to enhance the aerobic decomposition of the remaining waste, and prevent the production of methane. Methane production was already at very low levels and the scheme was costly both in terms of dollars and environmental disruption. Residents opposed the scheme and had it put on hold.
Three years ago, there was again a proposal to install the same ill-conceived scheme. Again, residents came to the rescue and the scheme was killed once and for all. The site was designated, ‘The German Mills Meadow and Natural Habitat’.
At that time, the Settlers Park Residents Association (SPRA) was born. Our Ward Councillor, Howard Shore, also championed the formation of the Community Liaison Committee, as a forum for the exchange of information between Markham Council, Markham staff, and residents.
The Origin of the Leachate Controversy
In June, 2012, Councillor Shore made a motion to kill the aerobic scheme. Unfortunately, he added a clause to install a leachate collection system. There appeared to be no prior study of the need for it, its engineering feasibility, or its cost. We have now studied the data and found no need for such a scheme. It would be a major engineering task, phenomenally expensive, and hugely damaging to the natural environment. However, the clause received no publicity, escaped the attention of residents, and was approved by Council.
In November of 2012, Markham’s consultant, AMEC, recommended against installing the leachate collection system, so some sanity prevailed. However, the consultant proposed drilling additional monitoring wells in the Meadow, as a kind of compromise measure. Again, residents did not grasp the size of the project being proposed, didn’t mobilize against the scheme, and the motion for the new wells was approved by Council.
The Community Liaison Committee
It was a great concept. But what a charade it has turned out to be!
The first meeting was in April, 2013. It was then that the proposed drilling first really came to our attention. The SPRA representatives protested that there was no justification for drilling additional wells. We gained two key commitments from Markham staff and Councillor Shore:
- No work on the drilling project would be done until the Committee had discussed the matter further, at its September meeting; and,
- SPRA would be informed, in advance, of all developments relating to the Meadow.
What happened? Without our knowledge, plans proceeded throughout the summer for the drilling to take place.
On August 16, 2013, the consultant wrote to the Committee members with a so-called rationale for the project. The letter went to Markham staff, who delayed forwarding it to the Committee members until October 8th. Their excuse for sitting on it: they had been ‘going through the logistics of confirming the Liaison Committee members and Council’s approval.’ Sounds reasonable – except that Council had approved the Committee structure in June, almost four months previously. When SPRA characterized the explanation as lacking credibility, Councillor Shore said this criticism was ‘not helpful’. He commented that it was the Committee going through ‘growing pains’, a puzzling explanation he used more than once for broken commitments and poor communication.
The Rationale for Drilling New Wells
If SPRA believed there was any risk leachate from the old Sabiston landfill would reach the German Mills Creek, or negatively impact the water table, we would have urged Council to take action. The scientific data shows no such risk.
The Sabiston Landfill has been closed for over 39 years. Markham already has an extensive monitoring program that will continue for decades. The monitoring results clearly demonstrate that there is no problem with leachate, and that leachate levels are stable. Scientific expectations are that leachate will slowly decline with time, so it is highly unlikely any problems will arise in the future.
A letter from Markham’s consultant, AMEC, dated August 16, 2013, states:
‘… it should be noted that the results of the on-going (twice annual) monitoring of surface water quality in German Mills Creek indicate that there are currently no significant leachate impacts entering the water course.’
‘It should be noted that the groundwater quality monitoring indicates that the composition of leachate parameters in groundwater at this Site are not changing significantly over time, which is consistent with the fact that the Site has been closed since approximately 1975 (i.e. for 38 years).’
So, why are additional wells needed now? The answer is that they are not needed.
The only rationale that we have been given is that some water samples taken from deep within the old landfill site do not meet Ontario drinking water standards. But nobody drinks water drawn from deep within an old landfill site, so why is that an issue? The important point is that there is no evidence the leachate is reaching the Creek.
Last November, senior Markham staff met with a SPRA representative to answer technical questions about the drilling, but key answers weren’t forthcoming. The staff admitted that they had no expertise on the matter and relied totally on the consultant; the consultant who was to do the work if the project went ahead. The staff did however say that action was required because some water samples had contaminant levels that exceeded drinking water standards. This they said was contrary to the ‘Policy’. What ‘Policy’? They said they didn’t have a copy, and that they hadn’t read it. They promised to obtain a copy, and provide it to us. Weeks later, they had to admit no such ‘Policy’ existed.
Their excuse was that they had really meant Acts and Regulations. Yes, we agreed Markham should obey the law, but which Act, which Regulation, which Section of the thousands and thousands of pages of legislation were they talking about? On December 18, two SPRA representatives met with Councillor Shore. He agreed that these were good questions and assured us that he would make sure we got answers ‘within a few days’, but answers were never forthcoming.
In fact, when SPRA challenged the credibility of the consultant’s technical case, the consultant fell back on an old debating tactic – change the focus and scare people. They announced that the City of Kingston had been fined $5,000,000 for not taking care of an old landfill in its jurisdiction. SPRA researched court records, and it appears the fine was imposed because Kingston knew leachate was running into a river and chose not to do anything about it. The situation was not remotely analogous to our situation, where no detectable leachate is reaching the Creek. Oh, and the fine was $60,000 not five million dollars. Did anyone object that the consultant was providing seriously misleading information? Yes, SPRA complained. We asked for, but never received, an explanation.
Markham’s General Committee
Finally, February 3rd, and the drilling is to be debated at the General Committee, that is, the Committee that comprises all members of Markham Council. It was brought to our attention that we would face difficulties, if we did not have support from our own Councillor, on an issue within our own Ward. That was because many Council members give very substantial weight to the views of the local Councillor. Unfortunately, our Councillor did not support us, even though we were only asking for a delay until January, 2015. Such a delay would have:
- Permitted analysis of another year’s monitoring results;
- Permitted more analysis of the impacts on wildlife and, in particular, the bird species at risk;
- Allowed the drilling to take place when environmental degradation would be minimized; and,
- Allowed for an open forum on the pros and cons of the proposed drilling.
SPRA and the German Mills Residents Association made well researched deputations in favour of a delay. We argued that no one had presented a technical justification for drilling, and the consultant said little more than an amorphous ‘it is prudent’. A Markham staff member talked about the drilling equipment using the ‘road’ connecting the extension of Leslie Street to John Street. She was apparently oblivious to the fact that for much of its length it is a mere footpath, unsuitable for heavy tracked vehicles, which will inevitably tear up the ground. A staff member warned that the law provided for jail terms for breaches of various Acts, without putting the statement into any kind of perspective. The debate was not edifying. And it was all wrapped up with a perfunctory vote to ‘receive’ the staff report. The drilling will go ahead.
SPRA has expressed its concerns to Council members about the General Committee making decisions based on flawed information, but has so far received no response.
The Drilling Goes Ahead
So, sometime between the time of writing and April 1, we will see large tracked vehicles disturbing wildlife and chewing up the terrain. The site is one of the few remaining breeding grounds for two at-risk species of birds: the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. We can only hope the disturbance will not discourage them from breeding on the site. We will see $120,000 of taxpayers’ money spent on a needless scheme. And, worst of all, this could be the start of ever more industrial activity desecrating our beloved, ‘German Mills Meadow and Natural Habitat’.
Settlers Park Residents Association.