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New landfill, same old fight to keep others’ trash from Southwestern Ontario



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Small-town Dresden, deep in Southwestern Ontario’s farm belt, counts a few outside influences that have helped put it on the map.

From a beautiful city in Germany, long before it was incinerated by Second World War bombing, came the town’s name.

From the U.S., came its most famous son: Josiah Henson, an escaped slave who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson helped found a settlement for others fleeing slavery on the Underground Railroad, making Dresden a key stop today for visitors on the region’s Black history tours.

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But for all the outside influences and people who have helped shape the town of 2,400, one import almost no one seems to want is construction debris trucked in from across Ontario. But that spectre has suddenly made Dresden the newest ground zero in Southwestern Ontario’s decades-long struggle to keep outside waste out.

If a Mississauga company gets its way, up to 6,000 tonnes a day of construction and demolition debris – from rubble and metal to wood and non-hazardous contaminated soil – would be trucked to a dormant waste-processing and landfill site near the edge of town for recycling 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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York1 Environmental Waste Solutions
York1 Environmental Waste Solutions wants to open a recycling centre and landfill for construction debris at the site of this long-dormant landfill in Dresden. Photo taken on March 12, 2024. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

The processing area would balloon in size, from just under one hectare (2.5 acres) now to 25 hectares (62 acres), the equivalent of dozens of football fields. Opponents worry about heavy truck traffic, wear and tear on roads, noise and pollution – all of it, a relative stone’s throw from town.

The company also wants to reopen the site’s landfill, taking in up to 365,000 tonnes a year of non-hazardous industrial, commercial, institutional and municipal construction and demolition waste.

Area residents opposing the project have packed public meetings. The municipal council has voted against the proposal and written Ontario’s environment minister to underline its opposition.

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Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff said he even texted Premier Doug Ford to make sure he got the message.

“We are 100 per cent against this project,” Canniff said. “Knowing that the municipality is very much against it, I’d like to think the province will be supporting us.”

Southwestern Ontario’s long, not always successful struggle to keep other people’s trash out dates back to the 1980s, when activists starting pushing back as mega-city Toronto, running out of landfill space for its garbage, started looking westward. Already home to some of Ontario’s largest landfills, the region would wind up with Toronto’s trash after the mega-city snapped up a private landfill on London’s doorstep in Elgin County.

Now, with York1 Environmental Waste Solutions seeking provincial go-ahead for its Dresden proposal, some are asking: Why does Southwestern Ontario keep getting dumped on, and what will it take to stop it?

“It’s a good question,” said Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, a veteran of battles over the years to keep toxic waste and Toronto trash out of Lambton County, and nuclear waste away from the region’s Great Lakes water supply.

Bradley compares the persistent threat of other people’s rubbish being foisted on the region to something out of the Friday the 13th movies, the ones with the scary slasher character who never dies.

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“It reminds me of those terrible horror movies, where Jason comes back every time you think he’s dead,” said Bradley, one of Ontario’s longest-serving mayors.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley (Sarnia Observer file photo)

The same geography that makes Southwestern Ontario one of the nation’s richest farm belts also makes it an attractive dumping ground. Big, flat, with lots of land, within easy reach of major markets on super-highways that make moving waste easy, the region is just hours from where most of Ontario’s trash is produced.

Clay deposits in the region, needed for landfill barrier linings to keep nasty stuff from oozing into soil and groundwater, also make it attractive for dumps.

But those aren’t the only factors working against Southwestern Ontario.

Shifting provincial political approaches to waste disposal – from the days when cities were expected to get rid of garbage in their own backyard, to moves to ban trash exports outright, only to allow them if “willing hosts” were found – often have changed the landscape in recent decades, keeping environmental activists on their toes.

Along the way, waste has become a commodity for the industry’s commercial giants, whose landfills – unlike most municipal sites – typically are licensed to accept shipments from anywhere in Ontario.

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Yo-yoing provincial rules – Doug Ford’s government has effectively given municipalities a veto on new landfills – have made it difficult to start new ones, leaving existing sites like the one in Dresden natural options for expansion for an industry running out of room for all of Ontario’s waste, even with recycling programs.

The out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude, especially for Toronto-area waste, also works against the region, some say.

Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey, a backbencher in Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, said he opposes the Dresden landfill and believes Southwestern Ontario keeps getting targeted because “we’re far enough away from the big cities that people think it’s a great spot to bring your refuse.”

Some say only political will at the highest levels can end the region’s trashing.

But Bradley, whose decades in office dovetail with the region’s big garbage fights, flags another harsh reality: the region lacks the political muscle to stop the dumping under a provincial political system dominated by the needs of areas like Toronto.

“I don’t think the region is seen as politically strong,” he said. Drill down, and Toronto and the political parties believe “we can do it down there (in Southwestern Ontario) and there’s (only) a few ridings to worry about.”

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John Lamers has more than a little skin in the fight against the proposed Dresden operation.

One of the area residents fighting the project, the farm worker owns a three-hectare (7.4-acre) property separated from the proposed site by a small drainage ditch. His son and grandchildren live there, and, like many in the area, rely on a well for drinking water.

Lamers, who lives in Thamesville, worries about noise, pollution and heavy truck traffic from the proposed 24/7 operation. Something that big has no business operating less than one kilometre from town, in an area where some people live, he said. He’s also concerned about the potential threat to a nearby creek that runs into the Sydenham River, a sanctuary for endangered fish species.

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John Lamers
John Lamers abuts a proposed landfill in Dresden. Photo taken on Tuesday March 12, 2024. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press

More than anything, though, Lamers frets about the safety of area water.

“My first concern is for the water wells,” he said, noting methane gas was detected in one well near the landfill after test drilling at the site.

A newcomer to civic activism, Lamers said the fight already has taken a personal toll. A “It’s very stressful, because you don’t imagine yourself in this position in life to have to fight . . . something you’re against.”

The riding that takes in Dresden has no voice in the legislature, as it awaits a byelection to replace former cabinet minister Monte McNaughton, who left politics last fall. But some fellow Tories from the region say they’ve taken up the cause at Queen’s Park. And the local Tory nominee also is against the project.

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Steve Pinsonneault
Steve Pinsonneault (Handout)

“We need to make sure that our voice is heard by the Ministry of Environment so this unfair landfill expansion does not proceed,” said Steve Pinsonneault, a Chatham councillor who will run for the PCs in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex.

Late last week, amid the mounting controversy, Environment Minister Andrea Khanjin served notice there will be no shortcut to approval for the proposal, even though the site dates back 40 years. Like any landfill proposed today, “a comprehensive environmental assessment” will be required, including addressing community concerns, Khanjin said on social media.

York1 had argued for a lesser review process, since it’s applying to amend existing permits for the site. It had no comment when asked about the minister’s statement.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada


Mississauga-based York1 Environmental Waste Solutions wants to recycle up to 6,000 tonnes a day of non-hazardous construction and demolition waste, including contaminated soil, on a 35-hectare (86-acre) site it owns near Dresden. It also wants to reopen a dormant landfill there, to accept up to 1,000 tonnes a day of such waste.

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York1, also in the demolition business, says Ontario’s construction industry generates 14.2 million tonnes of waste yearly, only a fraction of which is diverted from landfills. It aims to recover 80 per cent of the waste for reuse.

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Signs of opposition
Signs of opposition to a plan to open a recycling centre and landfill for construction material debris are plentiful in Dresden. Photo taken on March 12, 2024. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)


On a scorecard, Southwestern Ontario would be 1-1 in its latest fights against unwanted Toronto-area trash.

Out of landfill space of its own, and after years of trucking its waste to Michigan through Southwestern Ontario in convoys that created a stink on both sides of the border, Toronto bought the Green Lane Landfill in Southwold Township, near London, for $220 million in 2007.

Mega-city garbage never wound up in rural Lambton County, where the first fights to keep it out flared, but the wider region still became a dumping ground for Canada’s largest city, which had operated one of North America’s largest landfills.

No sooner was that fight over, than another erupted – this time, in Oxford County, over a pitch to turn an old limestone quarry near Ingersoll into a pit for 850,000 tonnes a year of commercial and industrial waste from across Ontario, mainly the Greater Toronto Area.

Citizen activists mobilized against it, but in the end the company itself, Walker Environmental, put things “on hold” in 2021, after nearly a decade of legwork and the release of its environmental assessment.

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The sudden stand-down came in the fallout of the Ford government’s sweeping 2020 pandemic recovery law, requiring a council resolution supporting any new landfill from any municipalities within 3.5 kilometres. Neither Zorra Township, where the site is located, nor South-West Oxford or Ingersoll, whose approval also were needed, signed off on the mega-dump.

In the lead-up to that change by Queen’s Park, then-Ingersoll mayor Ted Comiskey led a successful push for the province to give municipalities more say over new landfills. His successor, Brian Petrie, said such legislation helps, but the rules aren’t always rock-solid. Bill 197, for example, doesn’t apply to existing landfills, he noted, leaving the potential for operators to try “to find some loopholes.”


“I’ve heard this said a lot of times: ‘Why don’t they build (landfills) way up north, where it doesn’t bother anybody?’ Because they don’t have a need for garbage disposal way up there.” Landfills need to be close to the waste to make economic sense, and it’s tough to keep Southwestern Ontario – a “waste generator” itself – out of that. — Oxford PC MPP Ernie Hardeman, a 29-year Queen’s Park veteran

“Private companies are looking for a cheap place to dump (waste), and cheap places are . . . where you think there’s no barrier and no population going to fight with you on it . . . They made a mistake on that one in Oxford County.” — Bryan Smith, who led a citizens’ group that fought the Oxford mega-dump

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Twin Creeks Landfill
Workers move garbage at the Twin Creeks landfill site near Watford on June 13, 2023. (Tyler Kula/Sarnia Observer)


Half of Ontario’s 16 major active landfills are west of Toronto, mainly in the southwest.

The two largest are the Twin Creeks Landfill in Lambton County and the Ridge Landfill in Chatham-Kent.

The region also is home to Ontario’s only hazardous waste landfill, southeast of Sarnia.

One nuclear waste storage proposal in the region, to bury low-level and intermediate nuclear waste in an underground bunker as deep as the CN Tower is tall, was withdrawn by Ontario Power Generation in 2020. Environmentalists and Great Lakes cities opposed the proposed project near the giant Bruce Power nuclear station.

South Bruce, on the Bruce Peninsula, is one of two communities, along with Ignace in northwestern Ontario, identified as possible sites for a $24-billion proposal to bury Canada’s most radioactive nuclear waste, its spent nuclear fuel. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization is expected to choose a preferred site this year.

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