Toxic Clean-up: Fear versus Facts

The complainant, Rafal Byczko, thought a story about moving toxic soil from Love Canal to a facility in Canada was fear mongering and unbalanced. It could have provided more context, but it did have the company’s position.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned a news story on The National (December 11, 2014) lacked accuracy, balance and fairness. The story dealt with the removal of toxic soil from a site near Love Canal in New York State for treatment in a facility near Sarnia, Ontario. You thought that:

It presented the legitimate regulated and safe business practice of processing toxic waste in a negative light. The segment did not contain any scientific content which is essential to understanding how toxic compounds are rendered inert. It focused on fear not science or fact.

You thought the reporter spent too much time focusing on the Love Canal disaster as background to this piece. You pointed out that the only people heard from voiced concerns about the transportation of the material to Canada, and concern about its incineration here. You added that there was only one perspective presented, and that created a false impression of the safety of the process by which toxic materials can be rendered harmless. This was an indication of an ongoing “anti-industry agenda.” You explained:

Instead of celebrating Canada’s innovations and technical expertise in cleaning up contaminated soils, the CBC focuses on fear. We should be supporting Canadian companies that neutralize toxic waste and transforming it into harmless compounds, not vilifying their operations. Environmental toxins being cleaned up is a good news story, one which all Canadians should be proud of.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, replied to your concerns. He told you that the report was accurate and fair. He said that while there were comments from people who were concerned about the shipments, the reporter, Havard Gould, also provided another view of the waste. He provided an assurance from Clean Harbors, the company contracted for the clean-up:

It's no different, the company says, from other shipments it processes, emphasizing that what will be buried in Canada after incineration will be inert.

He stated that it was appropriate to provide background on the Love Canal disaster in the 70s because that is where the contaminated soil originated, and “that incident might well be one of the most significant environmental scandals of the last century.” He added it is the connection to Love Canal that was fuelling some of the concern about the shipments to Canada.

He responded to your criticism that The National has ignored technological innovation by telling you that the program has done stories in the past about Canada’s expertise in cleaning up toxic soils.

He ended by noting that shortly after this story ran, the decision to treat the contaminated soil in Canada was reversed. Since the company in question is American, the loads that had already arrived were returned and the rest of the shipments were dealt with in a Clean Harbors facility in the United States.

REVIEW

The focus of the news story on The National appears to be the concern in the local community of Corunna, Ontario, where the waste disposal facility is located. The reason for the concern is the origin of the toxic material – it was soil dug from Love Canal and buried in a site nearby. It is acceptable to provide background about Love Canal so that viewers might have a context to understand the concerns and evaluate whether they are a reasonable response to the disposal in their community. The local resident interviewed provides his point of view – that he is concerned: “I can smell that stuff, see it coming out of the chimney. I don’t think that’s good for you.”

There are other people interviewed at the original site of the waste who reinforce the danger of the substances being removed. The only other voice heard from was the Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, who did not speak to the issue of the safety of the process, but raised the issue that toxic material should be destroyed in the country of origin.

CBC Journalistic policy dictates that on matters of public controversy a variety of perspectives be presented over a reasonable period of time:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

In a piece such as this, when all the voices are expressing concern, it would be important to have another perspective within the same broadcast. As Mr. Harrison pointed out, that is represented by a statement from the company that there is no hazard associated with the burning and burying of the material.

There is always a challenge with brief television pieces to provide a reasonable amount of context. One would not expect this piece, as you suggested, to get into a lengthy examination of the methodology of toxic waste disposal. But I do agree with you a little more information to “contribute to informed debate” would have rounded out the piece. When all the voices in a piece lean one way, it is important for the reporter to assure other perspectives are reflected.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman