Experts?

The following was originally written as a delegation for the EFW-WMAC meeting on Feb 13, 2013. However the bureaucracy intercepted my request and advised the committee not to hear this delegation. As the meeting proceeded their were numerous mentions of 'experts' for which my delegation might have provided some illumination.

At the November 21, 2012 meeting of the EFW-WMAC Wendy Bracken made a very detailed presentation on some of the weaknesses in the incinerator air emissions monitoring plans. It was clear that some people at the meeting didn't want to hear what she was saying and questioned her expertise. The chair closed off the discussion with a comment to the effect that perhaps the committee should get an expert to answer/challenge her presentation. I saw red.

What constitutes expertise? The obvious answer is knowledge - but in this day and age, knowledge is very easy to come by - the internet has more than a lifetime's worth, and it is eminently searchable so that anybody can become quite expert if they are prepared to take the time and effort.

What people generally mean by 'expert' is someone with a impressive bunch of letters after their names and probably a confident swagger to go with them. However, that, in itself, does not guarantee that their opinion is worth anymore than anybody else's.

When someone like the Region of Durham hires 'experts' (usually meaning a consulting company), they're looking at that bunch of letters plus the track record - who they've worked for and the reports they've written.

Consultants come in every stripe of the rainbow. In terms of waste there are those who will write glowing reports on landfill, ones that will support recycling, and some that will support incineration.

So around 2004 when the Region was looking for consultants to advance their plans for 'heat treatment' of waste, they hired Jacques Whitford, a company with a strong track record in incineration. It needs to be noted that the Region had already had a citizen's committee which the Region had 'educated' with presentations from staff and 'experts' and leading narrow discussions which inevitably led the committee to recommend that some form of incineration was the best way to get rid of our garbage. The same process of education is currently underway with the WMAC.

It is with processes like this that led Durham to approve an incinerator - by presenting the public and politicians with selective information leading to particular conclusions. What better way to do that than hiring 'experts' to lead the process.

The big problem with experts is that virtually all of them have a built in bias stemming from their employment, and it is that bias that keeps these companies in business. There are plenty of consultants out there that would have advised against incineration, but the Region didn't hire them, it hired Jacques Whitford which as a company was a member of the Canadian Energy from Waste Coalition.

All of these consultants are bound to toe the line of their employers, which is ultimately determined by the proponents of the projects they are working on. I assume that most of you work for somebody and you know that you are meant to 'support' your employer. Even Mirka, in one of her comments last night, confirmed that she was not free to express her own opinions - that she always spoke for the 'corporation'. Many of us have often wondered just who drove the incinerator decision - was it Cliff Curtis, Roger Anderson or ??. The people at the top ultimately control the voices of everyone that works for them. And as businesses and government get bigger, the range of voices diminishes. That's why whistle blowers are important - they are frequently the only voice of truth.

Theoretically, the process of an Environmental Assessment is wide open and is designed to find the best solutions. An EA requires an assessment of alternatives. This part of Durham's incinerator EA was done early before many people were paying attention. It is fairly obvious from reading it that the consultants didn't spend much time on it. The portion on zero waste was only a few pages long and consisted of information cherry-picked from the internet and designed to discredit recycling as a solution.

And so inevitably, Durham dug itself in deeper and deeper.

EAs are intended to have a number of checks and balances but they don't always work. One of those checks is peer-reviews - that's when a second consultant is hired to independently review and comment on the work done by the first. In addition the data is sent to a number of public agencies who can comment. And of course there are public comments. All of this then comes back to the proponent and are assembled in voluminous comment tables along with the proponent's consultants rebuttals. They are tedioush reading but worth the effort as a window on the true processes of an EA.

One of agencies that commented was Health Canada. In reference to PM 2.5 they wrote “Given that airborne levels of PM2.5 are already elevated in the vicinity of the project and that this contaminant is considered to be a non-threshold contaminant (i.e. adverse health effects may be observed at any level of exposure), (CCME, 2000) Health Canada suggests that the AQTSR discuss best available technologies and procedures that may be applied to mitigate PM2.5 emissions from the proposed facility. (Technical Reviewers Comment Summary Tracking Table, December 4, 2009)

Health Canada also recommended "mitigation measures that may be applied to minimize project-related emissions" of nitrous oxide.

The Region's consultants responded to both with “...no additional mitigation measures are recommended or required.”

Personnally I choose to believe Health Canada whose role is to protect the health of Canadians, over Jacques Whitford whose role was to keep the incinerator EA on track.

There were also concerns expressed by some reviewers that the consultants were using the wrong standards which led to wrong conclusions.

We also have all the doctors in Clarington and many more throughout Durham Region who expressed concern through a petition - firstly to the Region and then to the Ministry of Health - are they not experts in their field? - human health?

And so we have different 'experts' with quite divergent positions. And the trouble with the EA process is that the decision as what would be submitted to the Ministry was all in the hands of the Region's consultants. They could accept input - or more commonly, reject it.

We all know of courtroom trials in which the defence and prosecution will present 'expert' witnesses with opposite opinions. In the courtroom situation, the two sides have the opportunity to cross-examine each other and ultimately a third party, the judge and/or a jury, determines the 'truth'.

No such opportunity here. There is no cross-examination, no real engagement, no opportunities to debate the merits of various positions. There was a certain arrogance to the consultant's position,

"We're right, you're wrong, Live with it."

And the matter that Wendy was talking about at your last meeting is a case in point. Between the approval of the EA and the Certificate of Approval, the definition of PM 2.5 changed which allowed a 2.5x increase which will put it well beyond acceptable limits - and everybody - the Region, the Ministry - is just playing along. When regional Council asked for answers on this, the Medical Officer of Health brought in another 'expert' to look into it and he reported to Council that his calculations indicated 'no harmful effects'. However Wendy reviewed his numbers and found a substantial calculation error. The 'facts' are irrevocable. PM 2.5 is a real concern and it will likely lead to premature deaths.

And so we come back to the question of experts. The main conclusion to draw from all this is that "he who pays the piper calls the tune." You have to ask who's paying the bills and 9 times out ten you can predict the conclusions they will draw - regardless of the raw data. In the case of the EA there are numerous places where the conclusions in the Executive Summaries do not match the data included in the numerous appendices.

The reality is it is very hard to find an 'expert' who will give you a truly unbiased answer. Even academics are frequently tainted, as we know from climate denier scientists being paid by the oil industry, or you may recall the case a few years ago when a physician at Sick Kids Hospital decided to end a drug trial early and the drug company whose drug was being tested hauled her through the wringer as an example for other academics that might think of straying from the script.

In this corporate world where everything has a price, the general public are the only truly unbiased. I said earlier that with the help of the internet, almost anybody can become an expert if they're prepared to take the time and effort, and Wendy did that. She found things that that the Region and the Ministry would prefer to leave buried. They continue to stonewall and refuse to engage.

I would take Wendy's expertise over any of the region's consultants any day of the week simply because she is independent - her opinion is not influenced by any monetary motivation.

My advice to the EFW-WMAC:

  • Listen carefully
  • Ask the tough questions and don't settle for brush-offs
  • Seek diverse outside opinions
  • Do your own research
  • If it sounds fishy, it probably is