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Tiny Elgin, QC sets legal precedent in blocking use of municipal sludge on its territory

Dateline: Monday, October 12, 2009

by Holly Dressel

In November of 2006, the tiny municipality of Elgin, Quebec, comprised of only a few hundred people, passed a by-law prohibiting the spreading, storage or transport of municipal or de-inking sludge on its territory.

The people living in Elgin, about 60 km southwest of Montreal, understood that Canada's water treatment systems are not able to remove many toxic elements intrinsic to sludge, such as:

* pathogens like H1N1 or E. coli;
* dangerous chemicals like flame retardants;
* medications;
* hormones; or,
* the heavy metals that get into sewage systems from small industries and the de-inking process of paper recycling mills.

Farmers in the area were particularly worried about the heavy metals in de-inking sludges, which can sterilize soils, rendering the soil useless and in fact dangerous for crop production in a relatively short period of time. Such material can be trucked in from distant, large cities and cannot be traced.

Elgin's by-law was passed in order to "protect public health and the environment."

"... Lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation."

The local farm wishing to spread the sludge took the village to court, on the grounds that the process is not only legal in Quebec and across Canada but encouraged by provincial regulations. They were backed by a huge multinational waste management company, GSI, which makes its money by taking human and de-inking sludge off the hands of overwhelmed municipalities, calling it a crop fertilizer, and selling it to farmers at much cheaper rates than regular chemical fertilizers.

On October 1, 2009, to the surprise of many, Quebec's Superior court upheld the town's bylaw. Judge Steve J. Reimnitz invoked the well-known Supreme Court ruling in the case of Hudson, Quebec's similar ban on cosmetic pesticides.

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