Barrels of toxic waste at the dump

A hazardous data gap in B.C. means it costs $125,910 for the right to know

In our latest newsletter, we interrogate why the B.C. government continues to use physical papers to track the movement of hazardous waste across the province

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Three hundred thousand pages of records, stuffed into 50 cardboard boxes each year with no filing method. It’s a system so broken and antiquated you’d be forgiven if you assumed this was a thing of the distant past. But you’d be wrong.

In the year 2020, when online retailers can trace millions of packages simultaneously and ride-hailing services can tell you when your driver is around the corner, British Columbia continues to use physical papers to track the movement of hazardous waste across the province.

Did biomedical waste from hospitals get from Point A to Point B safely? What about dangerous contaminated sludges from pipeline operators? Ever since B.C. stopped producing a digital database of waste shipments in 2014, we have no easy way to know. Trust us, we tried: after requesting a complete paper record of a year’s worth of shipments, the government told us we would have to pay $125,910 for a copy of those 300,000 pages. 

A lack of access to those documents would be concerning even if we assumed that the industry was upholding stringent standards. But we know that’s not the case. Toxic waste handlers were found to have broken the rules in 70 per cent of the roughly 530 inspections conducted by regulators since 2014. That’s without factoring in the tens of thousands of yearly shipments that aren’t being inspected.

With no easy way for compliance and enforcement staff to review files on specific companies, the “benefit to the public is entirely undermined,” says Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law.

Ontario, which still tasks public servants with digitizing the documents, has committed to moving to an online filing system by 2022. In fact, that change has been driven by those inside the industry who say the burdensome paper system encourages rule-breaking.

But even though B.C. first raised the possibility of electronic filing in 2005, the government still has “no set timelines” for making the switch.

Imagine, as Gage does, a system where B.C. regulators can monitor the movements of hazardous waste in real time. Imagine, as Green MLA Sonia Furstenau does, regulators taking advantage of those comprehensive logs to levy more stringent penalties against bad actors.

Learn more in Ben Parfitt’s outstanding new investigation.

Take care and digitize your documents,

Arik Ligeti
Audience Engagement Editor

Note from a Narwhal

“All at The Narwhal, I wanted to thank you first and foremost for your incredible publication,” writes Emma, a brand new monthly member.

“The integrity of your investigative journalism comes through in every article and I cannot think of another publication that rises to this standard when it comes to accurately and comprehensively telling complex stories about the environment in the Pacific Northwest.”

“Your articles have generated some tough conversations in our household, but conversations that absolutely need to be had.”

Thanks, Emma. We’re blushing!

This week in The Narwhal

B.C. rarely inspects hazardous waste handlers despite companies frequently breaking rules

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By Ben Parfitt

Provincial investigators found companies weren’t fully compliant with regulations 70 per cent of the time in the five years since a digital database of shipments was replaced with paper files shoved in cardboard boxes. Read more.

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More open water means bigger waves — which spells trouble for communities like Tuktoyaktuk, already faced with an eroding coastline due to permafrost thaw and the battering Beaufort Sea, new research shows. Read more.  

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The northwest B.C. mine has been leaching contaminated water into a salmon-producing river on the Alaska border for more than six decades. Read more.    

Yukon flooded with mushroom pickers ignoring COVID-19 restrictions

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By Julien Gignac

Despite limits on entry, harvesters from outside the territory are congregating on the First Nation of Na-cho Nyäk Dun’s lands — without permission from the nation — after last year’s wildfires produced a bumper crop of morels. Read more.  

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