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Wetlands or waste park?

Six Nations, Southgate residents work to save headwaters of Grand River from becoming “Toronto’s trashbin”

by Kathryn WettlauferGrand River Media Collective

Wetlands or waste park?

Before the blockade started, few had heard of Dundalk.

But now that Six Nations land defenders and residents of Southgate Township have been camped out for nearly three months, barring access to the construction site of a new sludge-to-fertilizer treatment plant, this small farming town is on the map and in the news. It is being hailed by some as the next possible Site 41.

These communities have united to fight against the “freight train of approval processes” by Southgate’s secretive municipal council on behalf of Lystek International Inc. The Kitchener-based waste treatment company bought a 12.5-acre lot in the township’s industrial “eco park” where it plans to build a facility to pasteurize 150,000 tonnes of Toronto’s sewage, turning it into a “biosolids” fertilizer product they claim will be safe to spread on surrounding farmland.

But despite the assurances from the company itself, there is no way of knowing exactly what the resultant fertilizer will contain. The sludge in question would come from Toronto’s municipal wastewater treatment plants, which process raw sewage from residential as well as industrial and commercial sources. This includes the city’s hospitals, factories, and slaughterhouses, whose often-toxic wastes are flushed down the drain. So although the treatment process would heat this sludge to temperatures high enough to kill any pathogens—micro-organisms which cause disease—it would have no effect on any other hazardous medical and chemical contaminants that may be present. In other words, pharmaceuticals, cancer-causing dioxins, and heavy metals like arsenic and lead could end up fertilizing Ontario’s food.

In addition to the treatment facility, where the sewage will be trucked in for processing, Lystek has already dug several lagoons to hold the liquid fertilizer until farmers can pick it up. However, at 15ft deep into a floodplain and with only a proposed half-inch rubber lining to prevent its contents from leaking, the risks of contamination to pristine and ecologically vital wetlands appear frighteningly high. Dundalk sits atop the highest geographical elevation in Ontario, so with the sludge plant being constructed at the very headwaters of the Grand and Saugeen Rivers, any run-off from Lystek’s lagoons will flow quickly downstream.

“What they’re doing basically is poisoning the land,” laments James Cooke, spokesperson for the Southgate Public Interest Research Group (SPIRG) which has been active in building the case against Lystek and Southgate council

In many communities further south along the Grand River, the quality of its waters is already considered questionable. Yet it remains one of the region’s most precious sources of fresh water, shared with precarious local ecosystems, and we must protect it accordingly.

However, both Lystek and their backers on the Southgate council are refusing to do so, flouting environmental best practices with brazen contempt for all who will be affected. Meetings in which the project was proposed and discussed before the deal was signed were closed to township residents. They also failed to respectfully consult the Indigenous nations on whose land they have already begun construction.

The city of Dundalk sits on the Haldimand Tract, those six miles of land along either side of the Grand River from start to finish which were legally recognized by the British Crown (in its 1784 Haldimand Proclamation) as the rightful territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, now more commonly known as the Six Nations of the Grand River. It entitles the people of Six Nations to fair and open consultation for any projects taking place on or affecting this land, so their prior and informed consent must be obtained before development deals like this one can proceed—a process ignored by Southgate council when they pushed the project forward behind closed doors. Though this fact is no longer a secret, with Mayor Brian Milne quoted as saying, “We were, of course, asked by the developer to keep this confidential as long as possible.”

In fact, it wasn’t until members of the Southgate Public Interest Research Group (SPIRG) learned of the project and approached Six Nations with their concerns that dialogue about the project finally began between these communities. From then on, and with the help of Mohawk elders Floyd and Ruby Montour in particular, a storm of resistance has been steadily brewing. Mayor Milne’s ongoing refusal to heed the concerns of his constituents has become Southgate residents, who have appealed the project at subsequent council meetings and even presented a petition of over 1000 opposing signatures—all to no avail. Indeed, though informed by Mayor Milne that their concerns were “duly noted”, a press release published by Council the very next day which restated its support for the Lystek project would indicate otherwise

So after exhausting the official channels—and any remaining faith in the integrity of Southgate’s council—concerned residents were joined by allies from Six Nations in blockading the access road to Lystek’s construction site. Going strong for nearly 3 months now, the small crew occupying this dirt road on a rotating basis has drawn honks of encouragement from vehicles driving past site. And with visitors from neighbouring towns stopping by to learn about the case and lend additional support, morale is running high.

SPIRG reps have also been touring surrounding cities in an effort to raise awareness of these issues in the other communities who will be affected. On Tuesday night SPIRG will speak to audiences in  Toronto, the city most desperately needing to come on board. It is 150,000 tonnes of their sewage that Lystek wants to process annually in the Dundalk treatment plant, and local residents suspect that support from Torontonians would go a long way in their own case against the project.

 “We don’t feel like we should be the recipients of Toronto’s waste,” Cooke objects, offering instead the logical argument that “they should take care of it themselves.”

With the David Suzuki Foundation and Council of Canadians having already spoken out against the project, Southgate residents are taking their campaign to the next level. Members of the Six Nations and Southgate communities will be hosting an EcoWalk on July 7th through downtown Dundalk to protest Lystek and council and to call for the protection of the wetlands and local rivers. Organizers are framing the march as the “Two-Row Wampum in Action,” as both Six Nations and non-native allies have united to stop the development.

In the words of Ruby Montour, “Let’s do something to help Dundalk, because the end you’ll be helping yourselves.”



So what can you do?

Buses will be leaving from Six Nations, Kitchener, and Toronto to take folks to and from the EcoWalk event. Please sign up so we know how many are needed!

You can also help with much-needed legal fund donations by completing a pledge form for the walk. These donations will help pay for the legal costs appealing the land’s zoning issues at the July 19th court date in Owen Sound.

In the meantime, visit Stop the Waste Park for recent news coverage and to learn more about the case. Also give a listen to the Grand River Media Collective’s (@GRiverMC) interview with Ruby Montour and James Cooke, recorded during the collective’s May visit to the blockade.

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