$3.9 billion.

That’s the cost to clean up a fraction of Canada’s 22,000 contaminated sites — many of them laced with heavy toxins in the soil and water. When the bill arrives, it’s people like you who will pay. But why do you have to pay this cost?

Because the government isn’t enforcing the polluter pays principle like it should. If it did, the parties responsible for pollution would cover the cleanup costs.

How did the cleanup costs get so high?
The $3.9 billion figure appears in an April 10 report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). Before, the federal government said the cost to clean up a part of the 22,000 sites was $1.8 billion. What the PBO report revealed was that the government lowballed the costs by $2.1 billion.

So the cost to you and I balloons to at least $3.9 billion. And the final cleanup bill for all Canada’s contaminated sites could reach $7 billion.

How did these sites get contaminated?
In a previous life, many contaminated sites were yesterday’s mines and resource projects. What this shows us is that short-term economic and environmental thinking comes at cost.

Meet the cost and the consequences
For a sobering example of dangerous short-term economic and environmental thinking, look at the Giant Mine in Yellowknife (Read a story about the cleanup at Giant Mine). It closed a decade ago, but left taxpayers on the hook for a massive cleanup. After decades of use, the gold mining company left behind a quarter of a million tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust. There are four tailings ponds, 11 million cubic feet of contaminated soil and dozens of buildings laced with arsenic and asbestos on a site that spans 2,300 acres.

The taxpayer-funded remediation plan for Giant Mine may cost more than $400 million.

How can you prevent this from happening?
It’s too late to prevent catastrophes like the Giant Mine. But you need to know that many polluted sites will never be “clean.” What the government must do is ensure that our list of contaminated sites doesn’t grow.

The government must adopt the polluter pays principle. Companies must be on the hook for decommissioning their site before the first shovel even touches the ground. (And if polluters are going to pay, then we must have an accurate accounting of the costs of contaminated sites.)

We need strong environmental legislation and a government that only approves sustainable resource projects.

Imagine a better future …
We want a future where Canada’s environment is thriving and protected by well-enforced laws. We want a Canada where polluters, not taxpayers, foot the bill for massive cleanup costs. We want our tax dollars to address climate change and ensure that every Canadian has a right to a healthy environment.

Imagine there were fewer contaminated sites because the government forced companies to treat the land, air and water with respect.

But to achieve that goal, governments must consider the long-term effects when approving projects that may harm the environment. Until they do, Ecojustice will use the law to protect and restore Canada’s environment.