Guelph Waste Management Coalition Inc

Archive for the ‘Freedom of Information’ Category

Guelph Mercury - News - City knew long ago about wet plant odours - Mar 15/08
Report from 2000 raises red flags about odours, ammonia, humidity inside
Magda Konieczna - Mercury Staff
GUELPH
mkonieczna@guelphmercury.com

The city knew at least as far back as 2000 that the compost plant stank, newly released reports show.

A 1997 study shows things were operating smoothly just a year after the plant opened. But by 2000, it was a different story.

The 2000 report talks about “odorous air . . . leaking out of the composter building causing impacts on air quality in the tip/process building and outside in the surrounding environment.”

It also raised red flags about recirculating air through the building — it kept corrosive ammonia and humidity inside — which could have caused the inside of the building to rust. The plant was closed in 2006 at least in part because of the rusty roof.

The reports, conducted by environmental consultant RWDI and released through a freedom of information request, show the city knew there were odour problems long before it pleaded guilty for smells last fall, and was fined $40,000.

The 2002 report shows the problem was fixable. The previous year there had been 106 odour complaints, and testing confirmed the smells — at one of the test sites, smells were detected about 10 per cent of the time. But fixing up the filters got rid of the smells and there were no complaints for the rest of the year.

By 2005, the time of the next report, the filters had degraded again, and the consultant reported there were “fugitive emissions of odorous air.”

Provincial regulations also changed drastically over those years. In 1997, there was no provincial standard for odours. Now, the province requires new composters to produce no more than one odour unit at the nearest place where odours can be smelled — usually a home. At that level, only half the people can detect any odour at all.

That’s a tough standard, but experts say it can be done.

“If you run a plant correctly and put in modern technology and put in proper management, you can succeed,” said John Nicholson, an environmental consultant who has worked with compost plants around the province.

Lambert Otten is a professor at the University of Guelph, and an expert on compost odours. He consults for plants around the country, and was involved for a long time with Guelph’s compost plant. The technology worked, but the plant was simply not run right, Otten said.

Part of the problem was plant staff didn’t have enough money to buy wood chips to mix with compost to prevent it from getting too smelly, he said.

But smells can be avoided.

“I’ve been involved in many (plants) where odours are through the roof, and by changing the operating procedures, you can get them to run properly,” he said.

He’s disappointed about the failures of the plant.

“It’s sad because we’ve got a big problem in this province and that is organic waste,” he said.

And these days, as we truck organics to New York state to be burned or to Michigan to be landfilled, “we’re further behind in managing that waste than we were 10 years ago,” he said.

Staff at the city’s solid waste department were not available yesterday for comment.

laura.jpgGuelphMercury Sept 22 2007 - Magda Konieczna

It was March when Laura Marini set out for some detailed information about the city’s wet plant.

She still hasn’t gotten that information. Instead, she’s been navigating her way through a complicated provincial procedure designed to ensure public information is made public. But it’s a slow process.

Marini lives near the now-defunct composting plant on Dunlop Road, and she requested the information out of a concern the wet plant may have contaminated air and water in her neighbourhood.

“We feel it’s our right (to know),” she said. “Our wells are in that area. We’re breathing the air. Our kids are playing in that area.

“(The waste facility) is run with public money. It should be public knowledge,” she said.

When she was refused the information by the city — on the basis that much of it was tied up in charges laid by the province against the city over alleged odours coming from the plant — she appealed the decision to the province’s privacy commissioner. She said she’s glad she has that option, but doubts she’ll ever get the information.

“I’m skeptical I will ever receive that document,” she said. “I know (the privacy commissioner) is in place for the people, so hopefully it’ll transpire that way.”

She has gone through a non-binding adjudication process with the city, and is now in the mediation phase.

Her comments are not surprising in light of a national audit of how easy it is to get information across the country. In its third year, the Canadian Newspaper Association audit has reporters asking for the same information of agencies around the country and comparing results.

Journalists from across Canada asked government officials for 85 public records ranging from court documents to local water quality reports to federal food safety warnings. The answer was “no” nearly half the time.

Even after filing formal written requests under information laws, journalists were still unable to pry basic public records from government filing cabinets in 41 per cent of cases.

The findings illustrate how government secrecy undermines the public’s right to know, says Anne Kothawala, president of the Canadian Newspaper Association that conducted the audit.

“Year after year newspapers show through this exercise that many Canadian governments have a flawed understanding of the importance of transparency to the democratic system. But transparency is exactly what underpins the accountability principle at the heart of it all. You can’t have one without the other.”

Over two months, more than 40 journalists visited provincial court offices, federal government departments and city halls documenting how public servants respond to requests for public information.

Those responses varied widely across the country, pointing to a patchwork of policies, legislative interpretations and government staff training levels that make the process unpredictable and confusing.

Locally, results were mixed but showed it can be hard to get information that should be publicly available.

In court, a reporter posing as a regular citizen — something the Mercury did strictly for the purposes of this exercise — was asked for her identity. There is no requirement to reveal identity, but the court clerk said she was asking for it because there could be publication bans on the information.

After the reporter told the clerk she worked at the local newspaper, the clerk looked up the cases — which involved allegations of sexual harassment that had been heard in open court — and said they were covered under a publication ban. Then she refused to show details to the reporter.

“There’s nothing here to assist you in your story,” she said. When she was told the information wasn’t for a story, she said: “I don’t want to get in trouble. This just makes me uncomfortable.”

Across the country, those documents were released 70 per cent of the time.

In Kingston, St. Catharines and Sault Ste. Marie, the information was provided in a matter of minutes.

But in Timmins, a reporter was told it would take up to 15 days to get a copy of an indictment, and was charged $2 for a photocopy of his own request.

A reporter visiting the Newmarket courthouse was told it would take three to six weeks to provide the information. In Sarnia, the information on an accused was provided but copies were refused on the basis that “it’s policy. It doesn’t go out to the public.”

In Kitchener, a reporter asking for the information was told it could take up to two weeks and cost $2 a page. When she asked why she couldn’t see the information immediately, court staff replied: “Because I don’t have time to get them for you.”

Because the courts are not subject to freedom of information legislation, reporters had no recourse if access was delayed or denied.

Locally, information on accidental discharges of sewage was easier to obtain. A reporter who didn’t identify herself got some information from a clerk initially. When she went back for more information, she was recognized as a reporter.

The clerk became flustered and said she couldn’t talk to the media. “It’s because you’re a reporter,” she explained. “I thought you were just a student. I feel very uncomfortable.”

She directed the reporter to the head of waste water, Cameron Walsh. Repeated phone calls to Walsh were not returned, but the information was released quickly and in full when a formal request was filed.

A Calgary reporter had to file a formal request under provincial FOI legislation after failing to get the records informally. In response to the request, the provincial government issued a fee estimate of $581.35 for the records.

In Hamilton, a city staff worker curtly said she couldn’t let a member of the public see the documents. The reporter was told to file a formal information request. In Windsor, a reporter was bluntly told: “Those records are not given out to the public.”

And local information about surplus land owned by the province within city boundaries was released without a formal request. In that case, a clerk at the local office of the Ontario Realty Corporation — which deals with the province’s land holdings — said she wasn’t sure the information was public and directed a reporter to the agency’s community relations branch. After a series of phone calls back and forth, the information was released.

Across the country, this information was released in only 48 per cent of cases, the audit found.

In Montreal, an official at the Longueuil city hall refused a request for such a list on the basis that such a list did not exist and under Quebec’s access legislation she did not need to create one. A reporter in Timmins never obtained the records despite two visits to a provincial office requesting the documents.

In Saskatoon, staff at the Information Services Corp. of Saskatchewan laughed when asked for information on Crown properties saying it would take “forever to compile,” and they were not willing to do it. The reporter was later referred to another provincial department where an official initially promised to release the information but did not follow through. A formal FOI request was required to get it.

Requests for records at the federal level also ran up against some high brick walls.

An attempt to obtain energy audits and fuel bills at 24 Sussex Drive required a formal request followed by a $35 fee to search for the records. Two months later, the records still had not been released.

It took three months for the federal Canadian Food Inspection Agency to release records on health warnings related to rice cracker products and sparkling water — two months longer than the legislated 30-day deadline.

“A lot of people are very frustrated,” said Michael Dagg, an Ottawa-based researcher who files a couple of hundred information requests a year on behalf of clients. “Recently a client paid fees in the thousands of dollars for records and the department then said they were giving themselves an extension of 365 days.”

Dagg said Canadians face a culture of secrecy in government.

“(Information) requests are a bit like mosquito bites. Until there are thousands and thousands of them, the system won’t change. The problem now in Canada is we don’t have enough requests. There’s not enough pressure on the system.”

mkonieczna@guelphmercury.com

WHAT WE FOUND OUT:

There were four accidental discharges of sewage in Guelph in 2006. The biggest discharge was 6.7 million litres of partially treated effluent released in February 2006. The others ranged from 11,000 litres to 700 litres.

The province has five so-called surplus properties within the boundaries of the city. By far the largest of those is the York district — the area of the Turfgrass Institute and the former jail on York Road.

Information on court cases was not released.

WHAT WE DID

The National Freedom of Information Audit involved reporters at more than 30 newspapers in nine provinces, as well as The Canadian Press news service.

In all, the reporters sought access to 85 public records, including documents on how long it takes the federal government to alert Canadians about a food supply problem, surplus Crown real estate, sewage discharges from municipal sewage treatment systems, court records on individuals charged criminally, energy audits and fuel bills at 24 Sussex Dr. in Ottawa, food and drink aboard federal Challenger jets and costs of a federally operated radio station in Kingston that broadcasts in Afghanistan.

Requests were first made in person at government offices. If the information was released within five business days, the agency was deemed to have complied with the request. If some or all of the information was not provided, reporters then filed formal information requests using applicable provincial or federal legislation. The response to each formal request was recorded.

In all, information requested was released in 59 per cent of cases after both in-person visits and formal requests. In the remaining cases, some or all of the information was denied, agencies didn’t reply within the deadlines set for the audit or agencies requested fees be paid before information would be released.


photo by Darren Calabrese, Guelph Mercury
Laura Marini puts the last touches on cleaning her kitchen this week as daughter Hannah, 11, keeps watch.

City of Guelph’s refusal to provide a copy of “all/any peer reviews done by Zorix Consulting Inc regarding the composting facility at the Guelph Waste/Recycling facility”.

Guelph Zorix Consulting Inc Peer Reviews

The City of Guelph’s refusal to provide a copy of the “Non-Hazardous Waste Transfer Processing Inspection Report” and “Air Facility Inspection Report” of the City’s organic waste composting facility - inspection reports that were provided to the City by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

Guelph Non-Hazardous Waste Transfer Processing Inspection Report