This is a story about how British Columbia’s system for tracking hazardous wastes is badly broken.
About how, in the space of a few short years, our government has seemingly lost its ability to account for one of the most prevalent toxic substances in our midst.
About how, by turning a chemical soup into a commodity and promoting competition for it between companies, we’ve ensured that gobs of it go untreated, with all the attendant environmental, health, and economic ills that that implies.
To begin the story, let’s start with a statistic from the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. In 2000, there were 2.56 million vehicles on the city streets and highways of Canada’s westernmost province. By 2004, that number had swelled by 7.5 percent, adding another 210,000 cars, trucks, buses, and the like to our already clogged road network.
The engines in all those vehicles, plus those in a formidable fleet of boats and an array of machines ranging from drilling rigs to cranes hoisting steel beams to the top of Yaletown high-rises, would rapidly break down were it not for regular oil changes. That is why used oil is among the most significant hazardous wastes by volume in modern society.
And used oil is hazardous, a threat to our health and environment. It may be riddled with carcinogens like benzene, cadmium, and chromium. It is contaminated with trace metals and acids that are highly toxic to fish. And it often contains minute amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, among the most persistent man-made chemicals known. PCBs are linked to reproductive failure in orcas and human health risks, including skin rashes and liver failure. And this is only a partial list.
It is understandable, then, why British Columbia has long deemed used oil to be a “special” waste and regulated its transport and disposal. But just how rigorous is our government in tracking this waste and safeguarding the public interest? As a Georgia Straight investigation of B.C.’s infrequently used waste-tracking system suggests, the answer appears to be at best not very and at worst not at all. And unless there is a turnaround, we can expect spectacular abuses. Abuses like the one at an Abbotsford warehouse in 2005, when the province declared an environmental emergency and spent untold taxpayer dollars cleaning up the mess left behind when Canada Petroleum Corporation—a company that had illegally stockpiled toxic wastes for years—folded. More likely, however, the abuses will be less conspicuous but numerous, slowly and collectively adding to our environmental and health woes.
You can’t regulate what you don’t know, which is, ostensibly, why B.C.’s Ministry of Environment requires toxic-waste handlers to submit special forms known as manifests. The forms provide details on what wastes are picked up where, and, in theory, allow public servants to track the movement of everything from old pipes insulated with asbestos to PCB-contaminated transformers to blood-soaked biomedical wastes from hospitals. In a given year, more than 70,000 such forms are mailed to the ministry’s offices in Victoria. The ministry charges companies $14 for each form. When the completed forms are returned, public servants input dozens of pieces of information per manifest into computer spreadsheets.
But once the information is electronically stored, it is rare for it ever to be looked at again and rarer still for it to be analyzed. For example, the Straight published previous stories revealing how millions of litres of contaminated oil offloaded from cruise ships was unaccounted for. We later reported that more than ?10 million litres of hazardous wastes handled by Canada Petroleum Corporation had not been manifested. In both cases, the government’s data verified what was missing. But in neither case did materials supplied by the province to the Straight through freedom-of-information or verbal requests reveal that the ministry had ever once used its own data as a tool to investigate rogue companies.
Which brings us to the next point. In the five years ending in 2004, the same five-year period during which 210,000 vehicles were added to B.C.’s road network and industrial activities picked up in many sectors of the provincial economy, the amount of waste oil reported as moving through the province’s hazardous-waste tracking system declined. Despite a steady increase in oil use, the amount of waste oil reported as being moved hither and yon went down. According to government data analyzed by the Straight, the amount of waste oil listed for the year 2000 was ?90.8 million litres. Five years later, it had dropped five percent to ?86.3 million litres. In addition, many waste-oil shipment reports filed with the government were listed by weight, not volume. Here the drop is even more pronounced. In 2000, the waste-oil shipments reported by weight were 1.75 million kilograms. By 2004, that number had declined 19 percent to 1.41 million kilograms.
How could it be that more oil is used but the amount of waste oil that companies report handling and disposing has declined?
One strong possibility is that some waste handlers are doing what Canada Petroleum Corporation and Aqua Clean Ships, a cruise-ship service company, did before them. They are breaking the law and not filing the forms that they are legally required to because they believe they won’t get caught. They would be justified in thinking so. Between 1996 and 2003, the provincial government cut much of its staff responsible for monitoring waste handlers and enforcing environmental laws, explains Ron Dreidger, a former senior civil servant in the Environment Ministry who now works as executive ?director of the B.C. Used Oil Management Association (BCUOMA).
“There’s very few staff out there to do the checking. That’s no surprise. They don’t have the resources anymore to do the testing,” Dreidger told the Straight.
And that reality is not going unnoticed in the waste-management industry, according to Glenn Lundrigan, a senior employee with Safety-?Kleen, one of North America’s largest waste handlers. Lundrigan is branch manager at Safety-Kleen’s Langley office. The company collects large amounts of waste oil in B.C., then loads it onto railcars bound for an oil re-refinery it owns in Breslau in southern Ontario. The facility takes dirty used oil, cleans it, and then sells it back into the market as a product that competes with virgin lubricating oil. It is one of only two re-refineries in Canada. The other is owned and operated by Newalta Corp. and is located on the north shore of Burrard Inlet, just east of the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing bridge and not far from downtown Vancouver.
Lundrigan says that over the past few years he has witnessed a disturbing shift in attitude on the part of some waste generators and handlers. Companies used to want details on where their waste went and how it was treated. Some even insisted on audits to ensure that they were not exposed to legal risks. But that attitude “has diminished in the last three to four years”. Lundrigan would not comment on whether budget and staff cuts at the Ministry of Environment—cuts that eliminated 320 full-time positions in the ministry during the first three years of the provincial Liberal government’s mandate—explained the change in attitude. He did say, however, that with oil prices climbing in recent years and with the advent of recent regulatory changes “it has become more competitive for things like waste oil. And it seems to be more and more of an attitude of: ”˜You’ve got my waste; it’s your problem.’?”
To understand how the attitude that Lundrigan decries set in, you have to go back more than a decade. Prior to 1992, sellers of oil were not required to take back the used product. Then in 1992, the province passed a new regulation. Dreidger had a direct hand in the initiative. The new regulation required the company selling the oil, or a proxy within a four-kilometre radius of the retailer, to take the used oil back at no cost to the consumer. Dreidger says the regulation was an improvement but had its problems. First, millions of oil containers and filters—hazards themselves—were not covered under the regulation. Second, companies that did a good job of complying with the regulation were saddled with big bills. The more used oil they took back, the more they paid someone to pick it up. Third, there were an awful lot of companies to track.
“From the ministry’s perspective, we had 4,000 retailers of oil,” Dreidger says. “It was a huge compliance-and-enforcement issue.”
These problems led the province in 2003 to change the regulation a second time.
The new regulation absolved retailers of responsibility for accepting used oil and arranging for its disposal and put the onus on the first seller, or “brand owner”, of the oil. The regulation also included oil containers and filters and required the companies that made the products and brought them into B.C.—Imperial Oil, Chevron, and others—to assume that responsibility. The companies could either file their own stewardship plans with the province or, as happened, band together and produce one plan. The regulation was silent on whether or not brand owners could charge an ecological fee or environmental handling charge to assist with pickup and disposal charges.
The brand owners ultimately formed BCUOMA in 2003, with Dreidger moving from government to the new entity as its executive director. Its board consists of members from Chevron Canada, Mr. Lube, Husky Oil, Canadian Tire, and the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, which represents major oil and gas retailers in B.C. and elsewhere in Canada. To underwrite the costs of oil pickup, the brand owners agreed to pay fees on the oil, containers, and filters they sold. Consumers may or may not be aware that these fees are now embedded in the purchase price of these products. The fees work out to five cents per litre of oil, five cents per litre of container—the bigger the container, the bigger the fee—and 50 cents to a dollar for filters. In 2005, Dreidger says, some $10.8 million in such fees went to BCUOMA. BCUOMA then paid out more than $9 million in “return incentives” to companies approved by the province to pick up those materials.
Dreidger says that, overall, the program provides motivation to companies to bring used oil in rather than disposing of it illegally.
It also provides an incentive for the brand owners. Usman Valiante of the Corporate Policy Group, an Ontario company that analyzes government policies on hazardous wastes for various clients, including Safety-Kleen, notes that the brand owners are profiting under the new system.
How do brand owners benefit? Well, Valiante answers, consider what happens when a used-oil collector turns up at an Esso station. The collector actually pays Esso for its “waste” because in a world of rising oil prices, used oil has economic value. So much value, in fact, that in some cases collectors pay an Esso or Canadian Tire outlet more money than the brand owner initially paid in environmental handling fees to BCUOMA. On top of that, many brand owners charge additional fees to customers to cover the environmental “costs” of disposing of used oil and filters, even though the costs have already been covered in the environmental handling charges. To verify this, the Straight made two calls: one to an Esso outlet, the other to Mr. Lube. In the first case, a ?$4 “recycle levy” was charged for an oil and filter change. In the latter, a $2.99 “shop supply fee” was levied.
Meanwhile, companies like Safety-Kleen and Newalta operate in a system where there are built-in economic incentives to turn in as much waste oil as possible. And, both companies allege, that sometimes results in waste-oil collectors taking advantage of that situation to “bulk up” their used-oil shipments in order to cash in on the return incentives offered ?by BCUOMA and to increase their sales volumes to the ultimate end users. This is a problem because unscrupulous companies can do this and undercut their competitors on cost. Worse yet, waste oil is contaminated to begin with. Add more wastes to it and it becomes exceedingly difficult to treat and may actually damage ?expensive equipment in facilities such as re-refineries. Which is why both Safety-Kleen and Newalta pay added costs to screen the waste oil that they receive.
Lundrigan says that his company has rejected waste oil from some suppliers after samples revealed that mixing had occurred. Products mixed with waste oil may include waste gasoline, dirty diesel fuel, and other flammable products such as solvents. More often, however, the fact that mixing or bulking has occurred is inferred. “We’ll get word back from a customer and they’ll tell us that our quote is not competitive. And when we dig deeper the customer will tell us off the record that it’s because someone else has offered them a quote to take care of all of their burnable waste stream for one price.”
“It’s your problem” also seems an appropriate way to sum up Ottawa’s take on who bears regulatory responsibility for waste oil. Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the federal government can place hazardous wastes onto a “priority substances list”. Once on it, such substances are subject to stringent controls. Many constituents in waste oil, such as PCBs, are on that list. But waste oil itself is not, even though the federal government reported in December 2002 that used waste oils “are entering the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment”.
Gary Webster, director of environment and technology for Newalta, also concurs that bulking up waste oil with other hazardous wastes is a problem. In a letter that Webster wrote to his counterpart at mining giant Noranda, and that Valiante cites in one of his reports, he complains that under used-oil management association incentive programs (associations exist in other Canadian provinces) there is “opportunity” to blend liquid wastes.
Hazardous “no value” wastes—wastes that it costs companies money to dispose of—are used to bulk up the waste oil whose collection is subsidized.
Making matters worse, Webster said, the associations that pay the incentives don’t, as a rule, have any “analytical protocols”. In other words, they do not perform tests on the waste oil to determine what is in it. Dreidger subsequently confirmed this, saying that it is the Ministry of Environment’s responsibility to do such testing. The Straight has asked and is still awaiting answers from the ministry about whether or not it conducts regular testing, and, if so, what that testing reveals.
By modern standards, Newalta’s North Vancouver oil re-refinery is a relatively small operation. But it remains a prime example of what can be achieved in environmental performance, because much of what comes into the facility exits as a product that is reused. Of the 36 million litres or so of used oil that ?arrive in North Vancouver annually, 24 million go back out as a base lubricating oil, much of it destined by rail for Federated Co-op in Regina. Another five million litres go out as blended and packaged premium engine lubricants, sold under private brands by companies such as Mohawk, 7-Eleven, Western Family, London Drugs, and Lordco. And three million litres or so leave the plant as a thick liquid, known as asphalt flux, that is one of the ingredients in roof shingles.
On a tour of the facility on a rain-splattered winter morning, the Straight saw how used oil brought onto the site is first stored in seven large white “day tanks”. The used oil in the tanks is then analyzed to ensure that it is not overly contaminated. Roy White, general manager of Newalta’s industrial division, said that about 10 percent of incoming used oil is rejected at this stage. Once the oil passes from the day tanks, water mixed in the oil is first removed. Then traces of gasoline and diesel fuel that have contaminated the oil as a result of engine parts degrading are removed through a process called vacuum distillation. The final stage in turning the used oil back to a new, reusable product involves “hydro-treating”. Here, the mixture passes through catalyst beds where hydrogen and high temperatures are introduced. This allows for the removal of such things as sulphur, benzene, and other contaminants that have been “grabbed” in the oil by additives. Without the additives, the oil could not properly protect the engine. Once the “dirt” that the additives catch and the additives themselves are removed, the final product is a clear, honey-coloured liquid—a far cry from the black, contaminant-laden product that arrived by tanker truck.
The facility, which Newalta purchased from Mohawk, opened in 1983 and was the first of its kind in North America. And at the time, White says, it was built to handle the equivalent of just about all of the waste oil then being generated in the province. Since then, the economy has grown. But North America’s four re-refineries have not kept pace. Over the ensuing two-plus decades, oil prices have also increased dramatically, to the point where used oil is more and more attractive as a heat source. And although companies like Newalta may be tempted to trot out “self-serving” arguments about how they take used oil to its “highest and best end use”, White says, the reality is that even they are taking some used oil and burning it.
“We’re not squeaky-clean,” White says, “because we use some of this [used oil] as a fuel. Some used oils simply can’t be re-refined because they are too contaminated.”
That doesn’t mean that more re-?refining could not occur, White added. But, he said, it becomes a public-policy issue. Does government want more of one of the most prevalent hazardous wastes out there to be reused rather than burned? If so, what is it prepared to do to make that happen?
what about BURNING used oil? How big an activity is it and how much of a potential environmental problem does it pose? Valiante claims that burning used oil is on the increase and that in the absence of rigorous oversight, the risk is high that other toxic products get added to the oil and then burned. The resultant emissions, he says, “are far worse” on a per-unit basis than burning coal.
It is very difficult to say, moreover, just how much used oil or bulked-up used oil is making its way into burners across B.C. The manifest system clearly shows a suspicious decline in the amount of contaminated oil that companies report transporting. That may mean that large amounts of it are being burned. And because it is unreported, it is difficult, if not impossible, for Ministry of Environment staff to monitor. BCUOMA recently commissioned a study to try to understand where a massive amount of “unaccounted-for” used oil was going. The April 2006 report pegged the amount of missing used oil at just under 19 million litres. About half of that—8.1 million litres—was estimated to be going to the “burner fuel” market.
The report estimated that there were at least 1,000 such burners in the province and stated that a “conservative” estimate put at least 100 of them in Greater Vancouver and Victoria. The burners, the report added, are used as heaters and are found in “small repair shops, car and truck dealerships, auto departments of retailers like Canadian Tire, and a wide variety of commercial and industrial operations like mills, mines and construction companies in their maintenance facilities and warehouses”.
Just what harmful contaminants in that burned oil make their way into the air we breathe is unknown. The Straight made requests of the ministry concerning the monitoring of burners but received no replies. However, organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identify the improper burning of waste oil as a potential source of airborne particles that may be contaminated with known human carcinogens including lead, PCBs, and a host of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. “Breathing contaminated air” is among the more common ways for PAHs and other oil-borne contaminants to enter the body, the EPA warns, adding that “prolonged exposure”¦may cause cancer in humans.”
It stands to reason that the risks only increase in a laxly regulated regime in which some companies mix other toxic, burnable liquids with “waste oil” destined for the burner market. Or, worse yet, pump it into the sewer system or allow it to seep into the ground, a problem documented by Environment Ministry officials at the CPC site.
Shane Simpson, Vancouver-Hastings MLA and provincial environment critic, says he is concerned that the present system of reporting and tracking waste movements is badly flawed. And unless things change, he says, we may never know to what extent mixing and unregulated burning are occurring and just where a large volume of contaminated and burnable waste is going.
Forcing companies to pay for manifests is one problem, Simpson says. “It’s created a whole new tax, if you will. And the end result is some companies are loading as much stuff onto one manifest as they can.” Such manifests are known in the business as “multiple” manifests. The provincial database records them as such. But ask an Environment Ministry official what is actually on those manifests, and the only way they can tell you is to go back into the files and pull the paper copies. And there are literally tens of thousands of them.
A year and a half ago, when the Straight reported on the massive ?underreporting of hazardous wastes at the Canada Petroleum Corporation site, a senior Ministry of Environment official said that the ministry was considering moving to an electronic filing system. Such a system would allow for speedy filing by companies of manifest data and even speedier analysis of that data by public servants.
The change has yet to happen, and without it, Simpson says, “our ability to access records and track hazardous wastes is hopelessly compromised. In effect, we have no ability to audit or oversee the industry’s activities.”
More than a month ago, the Straight asked Environment Minister Barry Penner’s office a number of questions. How much was the cleanup bill at the Canada Petroleum Corporation site? Is the present system for reporting the movement of toxic wastes working? What happened to the idea of electronic filing? What does the ministry know about the mixing of toxic wastes? What does it know about where such wastes are burned?
In the intervening weeks, neither Penner nor his staff has called back or offered any written information.
No answers were forthcoming.
It seems, for now, that it is anybody’s guess.