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The extent and nature of contaminated land in Canada — the toxic legacy of our collective history of poor environmental stewardship, including through weak environmental regulation — continues to invade the headlines.

A few weeks ago, a CBC/Radio-Canada report revealed that dozens of former dumps on the island of Montreal have been covered over without ever having been decontaminated. Numerous municipal parks and residential developments now sit atop these contaminated sites.

The City has claimed not to know about the existence of these former dumping sites, though a document obtained by CBC/Radio Canada through an access-to-information request reveals that the City had compiled a list of these sites as recently as in 1994.

Earlier this month, we blogged about a recent auditor general report outlining the extent of contaminated land under Ontario’s ownership. That report suggested that Ontario owned 800 contaminated sites, of which 288 have recorded liabilities totaling an estimated $1.792 billion. The province has acquired these properties (generally formerly host to industrial or resource extraction activities) in large part after they have been abandoned and left in an unremediated state by former owners.

The situation is as grim at the federal level. A recent report issued by the  Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer indicated that the federal liability for remediating contaminated sites is an estimated $4.9 billion. Of this total, the “Big Five” sites (Faro mine, Colomac mine, Giant mine, Cape Dyer-DEW line, Goose Bay Air Base) account for $1.8 billion in estimated clean-up costs.

The low-level radiation sites around Port Hope, Ontario alone will cost the federal government $1 billion to remediate. Radium and uranium (some of which was reportedly shipped to the US for use in the Manhattan Project) was mined in Port Hope for decades. The toxic waste produced from this process was poorly managed and has spread across the town mostly through the use of contaminated fill, which decades ago was not known to pose any danger.

This legacy serves as a lingering reminder that when it comes to the environment, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — the sentiment embodied in the precautionary principle. It is not always clear what long-term impacts will result from current activities that impact the environment. And the costs — often incurred by future generations — for irreverent, irresponsible, or simply inadquate regulation are often dear indeed.

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