Aging Landfills: Ontario’s Forgotten Polluters

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Each year, approximately 5.6 million tonnes of Ontario’s waste ends up in the province’s 32 largest landfills. However, thousands of smaller landfills are scattered across the province, some active and some inactive. Yet very little is known about these small landfills. The ECO has had longstanding concerns over the state of Ontario’s landfills, particularly older landfills that preceded the stricter environmental conditions introduced in 1998 by O. Reg. 232/98 (Landfilling Sites), made under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA).

Under section 27 of the EPA, a Certificate of Approval (C of A) must be obtained from the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) prior to using, establishing or enlarging a waste disposal site. The current application process requires a site assessment to determine environmental risks and the requisite mitigation measures based on criteria set forth in O. Reg. 232/98. Approvals under O. Reg. 232/98 contain stricter mitigation, monitoring and reporting provisions than Cs of A pre-dating the regulation. These older Cs of A were issued based on the basic rules of R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 347, the General – Waste Management regulation.

Without sufficient mitigation measures, landfills can pose a serious risk to the environment. As water filters through the landfill it mobilizes the metals, minerals, organic chemicals, bacteria, viruses and other toxic materials in the waste. The contaminated liquid, called leachate, can migrate from the landfill site into nearby ground and surface waters. The decomposition process also produces gases resulting in the release of noxious odours and greenhouse gases (methane and carbon dioxide). While modern landfills are designed to meet the O. Reg. 232/98 standards to prevent leachate from infiltrating water sources and to control air emissions, landfills approved prior to 1998 are not.

Both the ECO and the public have expressed long-standing concerns about the province’s oversight of these older landfills and the adequacy of its landfill tracking system. In our 2005/2006 Annual Report, the ECO critiqued the province’s waste site inventory, which was last completed in 1991, and found it to be seriously outdated. The ECO was also concerned that MOE did not have a plan to systematically upgrade the Cs of A for older landfill sites. The ECO urged MOE to rectify these deficiencies.

The ECO has also received numerous EBR applications, e-mails and phone enquiries expressing concerns over landfills. For instance, the Supplement to this Annual Report contains reviews of two troublesome landfill situations in Ontario – the Moscow landfill, which is summarized in Ontario's Old Dumps: Patch them Up or Shut them Down from this Annual Report. The ECO decided to re-examine this issue in October 2009 to determine whether the ministry has made any progress on the ECO’s 2005/2006 recommendations. The ECO concludes that while there are modest improvements with MOE’s tracking of large landfills, problems remain with MOE’s handling of small and aging landfills.


In conducting this review, the ECO spoke with MOE staff, participated in an MOE database training session, and submitted an information request to the ministry. MOE responded to the request by conducting a database search and a physical file search in 22 district offices, the Ontario Archives and the Environmental Assessment and Approvals Branch of selected landfills with a C of A. The ministry reviewed approximately 2,400 files in district offices and its databases. Additionally, the ministry provided the ECO with data on a cross-section of approximately 200 landfills from different regions of the province, which the ECO will review in the future. The ECO also consulted and shared findings with the Auditor General’s Office, who also are evaluating Ontario’s landfill management for their upcoming report.

Landfill Inventories – IDS and LIMO

MOE’s Integrated Database System (IDS) is the ministry’s primary tracking system. It consists of 23 modules housing 65 databases containing information, such as inspection reports and Cs of A. Older information (i.e., pre-1999 for Cs of A and pre-2002 for inspections) is not in IDS, but in paper files at the district offices or approvals branch or archives database.

The Landfill Inventory Monitoring Ontario (LIMO) system was created in response to the ECO’s 2005/2006 Annual Report landfill recommendations. This inventory contains basic information for Ontario’s 32 largest landfills, representing 90 per cent of the province’s landfill capacity in current use. These sites are plotted on an interactive provincial map.

Access to the inventories is very limited. Unless formal ministry approval is granted to a user, IDS can only be used by the Operations Division at MOE. However, all government employees can access LIMO from MOE’s intranet site. Unfortunately, the public cannot access either database, although MOE is considering options to make LIMO publicly available.

The inventories have limited diagnostic capabilities and the information is not comprehensive. IDS has basic analytical features where data selected from a database can be extracted from the system into a spreadsheet. Depending on the query, the extraction process can be complicated and lengthy. LIMO does not have analytical capabilities and only contains basic information for 32 landfills. A positive outcome of the ECO information request is that MOE committed to add more landfill sites to LIMO.

The inventories’ shortfalls are partly attributed to being under-resourced. In its 2005/2006 report, the ECO highlighted California’s waste inventory as a model for a public landfill inventory. However, MOE explained in 2010 it does not have the funds or the personnel to create a similar inventory.

The ECO is concerned that landfills, particularly older and smaller ones, are not on the radar screen of the ministry or its district offices, especially if they are not on IDS (see table below). In its preliminary 2010 findings, MOE informed the ECO there were 1,209 non-hazardous landfill sites with Cs of A (active and closed). Upon completing its survey of district offices, this number rose to 2,449, suggesting that 1,240 landfills are not on IDS and, therefore, their files are not readily accessible to Operations Division. MOE also discovered that 344 sites were incorrectly identified as landfill sites, and the records for 222 sites were missing but presumed closed. MOE indicated that the 1,042 fewer closed sites in 2010 than in 1991 were historic landfills (dumps) included in the 1991 inventory. These dumps do not have Cs of A because they were closed prior to the establishment of MOE, and therefore were not included in the ministry’s 2010 update for the ECO.

Year Reported Active Sites Closed Sites Total Sites with Cs of A
1991 1,358 2,334 3,692
2010 1,157 1,292 2,449
Difference -201 -1,042 -1,243

MOE’s survey of district offices also revealed that the vast majority of landfills are operating under the older, basic Reg. 347 rules. MOE reported that of the 2,449 landfills with Cs of A:

  • 700 were subject to Reg. 347 only (i.e., no site-specific conditions in the C of A);
  • 1,728 were subject to Reg. 347 and C of A site-specific conditions; and
  • 21 were subject to O. Reg. 232/98 and C of A site-specific conditions.

In other words, only one per cent of landfills are covered by the more stringent requirements of O. Reg. 232/98, and presumably these are the largest landfills operating in Ontario.

Older and smaller landfills, particularly those only subject to Reg. 347, generally have not been designed with the environmental protection measures set out in O. Reg. 232/98 including: mandatory air emissions control; groundwater protection; leachate control; buffer areas, final cover design and surface water control; and assessment monitoring, record keeping and reporting provisions. Moreover, any pollution prevention measures in place may have deteriorated over time. These older active or closed landfills may be releasing leachate into groundwater, which may be going undetected by MOE staff.

MOE does not conduct routine, proactive inspections of small and aging landfills. Instead, inspectors review IDS and consult district offices to determine priority inspection sites after considering program diagnostics, inspection history and risks. MOE estimates that 23 per cent of landfill sites with Cs of A are inspected annually.

Updating of Cs of A for landfill sites

In our 2005/2006 Annual Report, the ECO expressed concern over outdated landfill Cs of A. The C of A defines a landfill’s capacity, types of waste accepted, and conditions for design, operation and closure. Yet, many landfills are operating with outdated mitigation technology and operational rules. MOE has not made progress in terms of updating outdated Cs of A since our 2005/2006 report.

Based on the above figures, the majority of landfills with Cs of A were approved under the basic rules of Reg. 347. Therefore, unless the C of A contains protective site-specific conditions, the landfill is not covered by the stricter requirements of O. Reg. 232/98.

MOE does not have a comprehensive strategy to update the conditions of outdated landfills. MOE states it relies on its Protocols for Updating Cs of A for Waste Management, along with its Field Alert Program to update Cs of A. Essentially, when a C of A holder applies for an amendment to their approval, MOE’s Environmental Assessment and Approvals Branch will impose updated conditions of approval. When required by the ministry, the holder may be required to upgrade their property to meet those standards. Ninety per cent of C of A reviews are triggered by an owner’s request for amendment or expansion of landfill.

The Field Alert Program allows district offices to use the IDS system to identify landfill sites that require amendments. The IDS C of A Module includes Cs of A dating back to 1999. Over the past three years, only 55 Cs of A for landfills were updated as a result of field alerts. Nine per cent of reviews were initiated by ministry site-specific inspection or enforcement. Less than one per cent of reviews were triggered by ministry sector-wide initiatives or third party requests.

MOE expressed an intention to update Cs of A after they resolved their C of A applications backlog. However, no strategy or target completion date was articulated.

ECO Comment

Overseeing landfills is the responsibility of MOE. The ECO is troubled that the ministry does not have a comprehensive process to ensure older landfills are not polluting local water sources. Only a small fraction of landfills are inspected or have their Cs of A updated, while the ministry seems to have lost track of many others. The ministry’s 1991 inventory data was in a published format, yet the IDS Landfill Inventory Module only goes as far back as 2002. The public expects MOE to: keep an updated record of provincial landfills; monitor high risk sites; and update Cs of A where necessary. This role is vital to protect groundwater. MOE needs to work closely with its district offices to create a central and accessible inventory for all its landfills.

The ECO commends MOE on its handling of our information requests. The information was provided promptly and ministry staff were helpful. We are pleased that the request triggered MOE to begin compiling landfill records and to include the information gathered onto the LIMO network.

The ECO is pleased our 2005/2006 recommendations prompted MOE to create LIMO. However, LIMO is inadequate because:

  • it is not publicly accessible;
  • it contains only basic information;
  • its data cannot be sorted or searched; and
  • it is limited to only 32 landfills.

In comparison, the ministry’s 1991 Landfill Inventory which was published and available to the public, was more comprehensive because it contained information on all landfills in Ontario. The ECO is perplexed as to why MOE cannot complete the work it once did in 1991 and make the information available on its website. MOE administers other online public databases, such as the Environmental Registry and the brownfields’ Environmental Site Registry. It is reasonable to expect MOE to make landfill information available to the public.

The ECO urges MOE to make better use of its databases. IDS should be shared with all ministry branches, particularly those dealing with water and air issues. IDS could also be relevant to other ministries. The ECO encourages MOE to continue populating LIMO with smaller and older landfills and to make it publicly accessible on MOE’s website. Furthermore, additional information (i.e., compliance records and risks) should be included for each landfill on LIMO. The public has the right to know of potential environmental threats that exist in their area.

The ECO strongly urges MOE to develop a comprehensive strategy to update Cs of A. MOE must take a risk-based approach to identify high risk landfills that require stronger protection measures or operational procedures. Only 21 landfills in Ontario currently benefit from O. Reg. 232/98’s pollution prevention measures. The rest are operating under a wide range of inconsistently applied rules, only some of which are protective and the others require updating. MOE should be proactive in identifying landfills that require updated rules.

Landfills can no longer be the province’s forgotten polluters. It is imperative that high-risk landfills are monitored and managed to protect Ontario’s water resources and air quality.

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This is an article from the 2009/10 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2010. "Aging Landfills: Ontario’s Forgotten Polluters." Redefining Conservation, ECO Annual Report, 2009/10. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 126-129.

<metadesc>Environmental Commissioner of Ontario comments on the Ministry of Environment's landfill monitoring and tracking inventories (IDS and LIMO)</metadesc>