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Democracy dies with dump deal
By Fred Ryan, Thursday, October 12, 2006, The Ottawa Citizen

We are, it seems, the garbage-producing animal. If even Aristotle overlooked this as he sought to define what it is to be human, I suppose we can be forgiven for also missing the importance of the huge trail of waste we leave behind us.

Except we seem to be missing it on purpose, at least in the Pontiac, where the regional government, the MRC, just blindsided a citizens' effort to have the Danford Lake landfill proposal publicly discussed and voted on by the people most affected.

The MRC's council of mayors, after promising the citizens earlier this summer that it would have a referendum on the landfill, decided at the end of September to short-circuit both a referendum and a public hearing by the province's environmental public-hearings agency, the BAPE.

The MRC managed this sleight of hand by declaring the Danford site "of regional interest" and not merely a local issue. To create a landfill site on its own, the municipality would have had to go through the BAPE's environmental hearings and then open the zoning change process to its citizens via a referendum.

The MRC decision was not unanimous. Five of the council's 18 mayors voted against this flip-flip. According to Shawville Mayor Albert Armstrong, the five refused to go back on the promise they had made to the citizens' group. We can presume, since Mr. Armstrong described the question in these terms, that the other 13 mayors had no qualms about breaking their promise.

But mayors are honourable people, so why would they act in such a cavalier manner? It could be that the Danford project is, in fact, "of regional interest." Quebec has ordered all municipalities to close their local dumps by 2008 because all waste must go to a modern landfill. Since none of Pontiac's small municipalities can afford to build their own landfill, a regional one is in their interest.

What doesn't make sense is the mayors' decision to shut out residents from the process. Citizen advocacy does make for messy processes, and citizens have been able to kill similar projects, as they did in the nearby Municipality of Pontiac two years ago. The same landfill promoters moved their project to Danford Lake, determined to out-flank any residents' unrest. When an information campaign didn't do the trick, legal shenanigans were brought into play.

And although the MRC Pontiac's mayors are honourable people who keep their promises, there is one circumstance that allowed them to wash their hands of this touchy question. That is the unspoken rule that mayors will not interfere in the municipality of one of their peers, in opposition to that peer.

This gives each mayor considerable power, since it means each mayor can count on the weight and legal force of the regional government to back up whatever each mayor might wish to see within his or her own turf.

It is this unspoken rule of "don't mess with me, and I won't mess with you" that tripped up the citizens' effort. Danford Mayor Joseph Squitti, in appealing to this rule, did no more than other mayors have done in the past. It is nevertheless the Achilles heel of rural government, preventing it from cohesive action.

Presumably Mr. Squitti is hoping that once the project with its safety features is running, the citizens will realize their fears were unfounded.

Take, for example, the town of Cantley, which has been battling to have a large construction materials dump closed by the province.

At about the moment the MRC Pontiac was opening the door to Danford's big landfill, the province was closing the Cantley site.

The Quebec environment ministry found the dump owners were taking too long to comply with clean-up orders. The dry dump, citizens claimed, was issuing noxious fumes that had caused several families to evacuate their homes in the area.

This is not the high-tech landfill site promised for Danford Lake, but it was not the site or lack of technology that closed Cantley. It was the inappropriate behavour of the dump's owners and operators. This could happen to any dump.

Good intentions are no substitute for careful monitoring, and citizens' groups have proven effective monitors -- much more effective than the environment ministry, as the Cantley example has shown. Shutting the citizens out at the start is asking for trouble in an industry known to be prone to trouble.

Fred Ryan is the publisher of the Aylmer Bulletin, the West Quebec Post and the Pontiac Journal.

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