In a grainy photo, time-stamped April 7, 2021 at 13:17, trucks and loaders in the distance compact garbage in a landfill. It's a sunny day with some cloud cover, and there's a forest behind the landfill.
Cell 7A at Otter Lake — the one currently in use — is seen in a photo in a slide deck included in a recent staff report to council. — Photo: HRM Credit: HRM

Halifax’s auditor general says the municipality should be conducting its own monitoring of the Otter Lake landfill.

Evangeline Colman-Sadd presented her office’s audit of HRM’s solid waste operations to council’s Audit and Finance Standing Committee during a virtual meeting on Thursday.

The audit found the municipality “effectively manages certain aspects of its solid waste operations to help ensure it achieves value-for-money and protects the public interest.” HRM “effectively manages its waste diversion program activities,” Colman-Sadd concluded, and its contracting process is “fair and consistent with HRM’s procurement policy; vendor contracts include terms that provide value-for-money and protect the public interest.”

“Management reasonably monitors many key aspects of solid waste contracts, but we found improvements are needed in Otter Lake contract management and in reviewing environmental reports provided by facility operators,” the audit said.

The Otter Lake landfill, located just off Highway 103 near Lakeside, is where HRM dumps all garbage from single-family homes and smaller multi-unit residential properties. Mirror Nova Scotia, part of the Municipal Group of Companies, has the contract to run the facility until 2036 (pending any hiccups in HRM’s plan to change front-end processing at the facility).

Under that contract, Mirror is responsible for making sure the dump is operating in line with Nova Scotia Environment regulations. HRM told the auditors it doesn’t conduct site visits or operational meetings at Otter Lake like it does at its recycling and composting facilities.

“Management told us they meet with the landfill operator to deal with specific issues identified by Nova Scotia Environment or the Otter Lake Community Monitoring Committee. HRM’s contract with the landfill operator states that the operator must meet Nova Scotia Environment’s operating permit requirements,” the auditors wrote.

“However, both HRM and the operator are joint operating permit holders. This means both parties are responsible to meet permit requirements. We expected management to monitor all significant aspects of the Otter Lake facility contract, which may include site visits and additional monitoring of operations.”

One of only two recommendations attached to the report is that “Transportation and Public Works should perform additional monitoring of the Otter Lake facility contract, including assessing the operator’s compliance with key contract terms and operating permit obligations; and carrying out regular site visits. Monitoring results should be documented.”

Management accepted that recommendation, but with some retort:

Staff conducts comprehensive contract administration associated with Otter Lake. Additionally, HRM funds the Community Monitoring Committee $90k/year to independently oversee the operation in accordance with HRM’s agreement with Halifax Waste Resource Society.

While the contract provides that HRM and Operator (Mirror NS) are joint holders of the operating permit, the Operator alone is contractually responsible for ensuring the facility is operated in accordance with the permit and other applicable laws. Accordingly, staff were not formally conducting operational oversight (e.g., inspections of components of the operations).

Staff agrees with the Auditor’s recommendation. Staff intends to initiate quarterly meetings and semi-annual inspections with the Operator to review facility operations with reference to contract terms. All operational oversight activities will be documented.

The report’s other recommendation calls on the municipality to “review all consultant reports assessing the environmental impact of composting and landfill facilities. Results of this review should be documented, along with any action taken to address significant issues.”

HRM said it was already doing so, but the auditors couldn’t find documentation.

“Staff acknowledge that improvements can be made to document the reviews of the reports,” management responded. “Staff will ensure future reviews are documented including identifying any action items.”

The committee voted in favour of a motion from Coun. Cathy Deagle-Gammon to forward the report to regional council with a recommendation to request a staff report for an action plan to address the recommendations within a year. Colman-Sadd’s office also follows up on its recommendations after 18 months.

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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