When a 36,000 tonne mound of recycled paper sludge was deposited at Fenwick farm in Ontario a year ago, concerned neighbours were assured it was safe.
But the paper sludge berm produces an odour when wet that has been described as resembling vomit or sewage, and leaches chemicals into a nearby municipal drain during heavy rain. It also does nothing at all for the view.
There are more than 30 such berms across Ontario, in places such as Oshawa, Orillia, Flamborough, Port Colborne and Peterborough. The sludge, which is mixed with other products, is used as berms on farms and at gun clubs to create sound barriers. It is also used as fertilizer.
The communities where berms are located are concerned about the lack of research regarding the effect the various chemicals in the paper sludge have on ground water, the environment and people's health, says Deb Vice, co-chair of Protect the Ridges, an Oshawa community group advocating for the safe disposal of paper sludge.
"Once those trucks roll into your community you have no idea how helpless you feel," says Vice. "The people of Ontario should not be made to feel victims of industry. We should be protecting everything we have in Ontario—our water and our farmlands—and that should be our priority."
Paper sludge is an end product of the paper making process from recycled paper. Once the pulp is taken out, what remains is paper sludge or biomass, which is laced with inks, dyes, clays and glues, as well as whatever chemicals are used in the recovery process.
In 2004, a 70,000 tonne berm built in an environmentally sensitive area near Hamilton was ordered removed when it was proven that leakage from it was contaminating the surrounding environment.
Protect the Ridges is pushing for the Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE) to regulate the disposal of paper sludge and classify it as waste.
"We want the Ministry to tighten the regulations around it so that people know that when this material comes rolling in truckload after truckload into their community, they know that it is being monitored and watched by the Ministry of the Environment," says Vice.
Currently, the companies that produce the sludge are responsible for testing and monitoring the berms, which Vice says is like "letting the fox watch the hen house."
Starting in 1991, paper sludge was given to farmers for use on their farms with MOE supervision. But many farmers didn't find it beneficial and quit using it. In 1999 the industry came up with a solution: they mixed paper sludge with sand and marketed it under the name Sound-Sorb. They also mixed it with fertilizers and called it Nitro-Sorb.
Once the sludge is mixed with sand or fertiliser, it is no longer classified as "waste;" it becomes a "product" and is therefore exempt from regulations and monitoring by MOE.
Vice says this exemption is a concern on many levels, including the fact that any kind of waste matter can be legally mixed into the sludge. Another concern is that the recycled paper does not all come from Ontario's blue boxes; over 70 per cent of it is imported, and it is unknown what kind of inks are used in the imported paper.
While MOE did not return calls requesting comment by press time, its website states that in response to public concerns regarding berms built of Sound-Sorb, the ministry tested a berm in 2002 for over 90 different elements and compounds.
"With the exception of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), toluene, free cyanide and chloride, all parameters measured were present in concentrations lower than those found in soils in Ontario that have not been subject to contamination by commercial or industrial activity," said MOE.
The ministry stated that the risks to human and environmental health associated with the TPH levels in the berm were "currently being addressed" in a Site Specific Risk Assessment.
In a 2003 Annual Report, the Ontario Environment Commissioner, Gord Miller, stated that MOE has "mishandled the Sound-Sorb issue repeatedly since 1999, when questions first arose about the status of this material." "This is an issue I've talked about for five or six years. It's a mystery to me why the ministry doesn't regulate [Sound-Sorb] as it does other industrial wastes," stated the commissioner in a 2006 report. In Ontario, Atlantic Packaging and Abitibi-Consolidated are the two main producers of paper sludge. Atlantic Packaging, with plants in Whitby and Scarborough, is estimated to produce 700 tonnes of paper sludge a day, 365 days a year.
All that waste has to go somewhere. Debbie Johnston, spokesperson for Abitibi Consolidated, says re-using the waste keeps it out of the landfill.
"We believe that we give value to a waste through a practice of land application that allows it to be utilized as a fertilizer, and as a fuel in boilers located at our facilities. Previously this material had been land-filled. It is now a valuable product that is called biomass" British Columbia is also having its problems with paper sludge disposal. In 2005, the B.C. Ministry of Environment announced its intention to allow landspreading of pulp mill sludge with no requirement for permits and with minimal monitoring, according to a report by Reach for the Unbleached published in the Watershed Sentinel. However, the new Soil Amendment Code of Practice met with such "great public concern" that it is now being reconsidered. Secretary of Reach for the Unbleached, Tammy Morris, who lives near Catalyst Paper's mill in Crofton, B.C., says she was disturbed to find that dredged sediment from the "heavily industrially contaminated" Crofton harbour has been classified as residential quality soil without having been tested.
"This is placed in the lime recaust waste area of the mill's landfill which is approved for landspreading under the new code of practice," says Morris.
Morris says CBC Radio has been reporting on the landspreading code of practice, and concerns are being voiced by everyone from local residents to organic farmers to First Nations, who are worried about the lack of consultation regarding landspreading on Crown Lands that may be under treaty negotiations.
"There are no provisions in the code to inform neighbours until after the fact," she says.
Each year, B.C. pulp and paper mills create over half a million tonnes of sludge from secondary treatment plants, power boiler ash, chemical processing, waste fibre, sawmills, and other sources, according to Morris.
The sludge is disposed of by burning it in power boilers (when mixed with salty hog fuel, coal, tires, demo waste, etc), as landfill on mill property, as landspread on agricultural and forest land, and as a "soil amendment" product for turf. Vice hopes to see the day when the technology is developed to "incinerate the waste and use the energy." In the meantime, she wants the government to manage and regulate the sludge as it would any other waste "rather than using rural Ontario as an unregulated dumping ground for industry."