Threats, fines and fear: A dump on Mohawk land overflows with industrial waste

The ‘recycling centre’ is packed with nearly 15 times more waste than its permit allows, and nearby residents complain of headaches, nausea and nosebleeds
Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door
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We are trespassers.

That fact dawns on us as we crouch in the bushes, waiting to sneak onto a landfill in Mohawk territory. When we hear the last car leave the property, “Dave” motions to us and we set out for the dump at the edge of the woods.

SUPPORT THE ROVER Christopher Curtis announced this week that he has left his job with Postmedia to launch a new reporting initiative with Ricochet called The Rover. If you’d like to see more journalism like this, please support the project. This article was produced through a collaboration between Ricochet Media and The Eastern Door, a Mohawk newspaper serving Kahnawake and Kanesatake.

Dave has lived in Kanesatake and defended the territory for years. It’s a life that’s put him face to face with police officers, land developers and men willing to threaten his family to force him to stand down. He doesn’t scare easily.

But as we draw closer to the dump and the air grows thick with sulphur, Dave’s face bears the unmistakable look of fear.

“Stay low and keep out of sight,” says Dave. “These guys don’t fuck around.”

Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door

Afraid to speak out

People in the Mohawk settlement are afraid.

They’re afraid the trucks that come to Kanesatake from surrounding cities will keep dumping industrial waste in the community. They’re afraid the band council, provincial and federal governments won’t take action until the land, water and air have been poisoned.

And they’re afraid of speaking out openly against Gary and Robert Gabriel — the Mohawk brothers who own and operate G & R Recycling with their non-Indigenous partner, Stephen John Borbely.

Kanesatake is a Mohawk community on a 12-square-kilometre stretch of land tucked between the green hills of Oka and the shores of the Ottawa River about an hour’s drive northwest of Montreal.

While reporting on this story, we spoke with people on the territory about their fight against the dump and the brothers who run it. They met with us in secret, in garages far from the main road, in a pasture outside Kanesatake, anywhere they wouldn’t be seen talking to outsiders.

Within minutes of entering the dump, the three of us had a throbbing headache.

Five of the sources we interviewed say they’ve been threatened by Gary Gabriel, and two claim he tried to intimidate them for asking questions about his dump. Gary, 54, is an imposing figure; he stands well over six feet tall and has the shoulders of a man who spent a lifetime in construction.

According to court records accessed by Ricochet, Gary was first convicted of armed assault in 1988 and again in 1997. His rap sheet includes convictions for aggravated assault and uttering threats. He was also sentenced to 15 months in prison for his participation in a riot outside the Kanesatake Peacekeeper station in 2004.

The settlement is now patrolled by a detachment of Sûreté du Québec cars stationed far away in Oka. They’re rarely seen on Mohawk land.

This might explain why just one of the dozen people who spoke to us about Gary was willing to go on the record.

“He’s above the law, he does what he wants without repercussions,” said Tracy Cross, Kanesatake’s former chief of police.

But this story is about a lot more than a couple of rogue dump operators.

It’s a story about a people whose fear of losing what little is left of their land is eclipsing their fear of the Gabriel brothers. It’s a story about people looking for justice from multiple levels of government but finding it nowhere. It’s a story about a system that has allowed construction companies across Quebec to use Mohawk land as a cheap place to dump their garbage.

It is, above all else, a story about people fighting to reclaim their community.

Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door

An environmental disaster

Dave sneaks us in through a narrow pass in the hills.

He has hunted these woods for years, but the deer that were once plentiful don’t come around anymore. Swaths of land once thick with trees and bush have been mowed down and replaced by mounds of rubble piled 40 feet high. What little vegetation is left has withered and died. At the entrance of the dump, a pond has been drained to help dilute the muddy wastewater a few hundred metres below. The smell of raw sewage is overwhelming.

An estimated 400,000 cubic metres of waste is piled onto this land, according to inspection reports provided by Quebec’s ministry of the environment. When it granted G & R a permit to open a recycling centre in 2015, it capped the amount of waste that could be stored at 27,800 cubic metres.

In other words, the site contains nearly 15 times more waste than it was designed to hold. There are the equivalent of 160 Olympic-size swimming pools filled with industrial refuse on G & R’s property.

“It’s an environmental disaster,” Cross told us. “It’s threatening the health and safety of this community and surrounding municipalities.”

At least 10 wells are located within one kilometre of the site, providing drinking water and irrigation to the surrounding farms and ranches. The landfill sits just three kilometres from the Lake of Two Mountains, a body of water that extends to Montreal’s North Shore suburbs and the westen edge of Laval.

Why would a truck from the South Shore drive through heavy traffic in Montreal and Laval to dump its load 80 kilometres north in Mohawk territory?

A March 23 report commissioned by the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake details the “presence of a strong smell … likely hydrogen sulfide gas” throughout the site. Hydrogen sulfide is poisonous, corrosive and flammable. It’s not uncommon for the gas to waft from a landfill — as long as the landfill abides by environmental norms, it doesn’t pose a strong risk to surrounding communities.

But G & R surpassed those norms years ago, and community members say things are only getting worse.

“When the smell comes in, it wakes you from your sleep,” said Theresa, a neighbour of the dump who did not want her real name published. “It doesn’t matter if the window is shut, it seeps into the house.”

“The smell is noxious. It burns your eyes and hurts your throat. And then the headaches come.”

Dozens of people — in and outside the territory — spoke to us of headaches, nausea and nosebleeds, which seem to be worse for those who live closest to the dump.

And while the site has permission to operate from Monday to Friday during the daytime, the foul smell lingers and sometimes intensifies at night.

“I’m more or less two kilometres away from it,” said Colette Brouillé, a resident of the nearby town of St-Placide, “and every night, from Wednesday to Sunday, I’m troubled by the smells.”

“We’ve had horrible summers because of it.”

Only when we set foot on the landfill did it became clear how bad the fumes were. Within minutes, the three of us had a throbbing headache, and Dave had to double back toward the forest to avoid vomiting.

The situation reached a breaking point last month, when a stream of black ooze seeped from the dump into a creek on the Mohawk territory. Farmers and other volunteers piled sand bags and hay bales, working into the night to plug the leak.

“When I got there, my wife puked,” said Cross, who’s part of a group organizing political pressure against the dump. “It was disgusting, but what’s worse is we’ve been warning the band council about this for years. We’ve been warning the government about this for years.”

Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door

Problems from the outset

The problems started in December 2016, less than 18 months after Quebec’s minister of the environment awarded G & R a licence to operate an industrial recycling centre. In an evaluation of the site, a ministerial inspector found two glaring problems. The dump wasn’t equipped with a water treatment system and it had stored thousands of tonnes of garbage beyond the licensed area.

Things only got worse in 2017, when an inspection revealed that G & R’s dump housed roughly 80,000 cubic metres of waste — three times the limit imposed by the province. By 2018 that number had grown to 110,000 cubic metres, and the year after that it reached mammoth proportions, totalling over 400,000 cubic metres, according to government estimates.

Where did all this waste come from?

To understand the problem, it’s important to get a sense of how concrete is recycled.

When a construction company demolishes a structure, they load the rubble into a dump truck and send it to a recycling centre. Once there, the centre weighs the load, charges the company accordingly and stores the concrete until it’s crushed into a finer material so it can be reused on future projects.

Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door

Kanesatake Council Chief Gary Carbonnell says G & R isn’t equipped with the concrete thresher it would need to break the waste down and recycle it. Carbonnell visited the site last week with inspectors from the band council as well as the Quebec and Canadian governments.

“I think we’re well on our way to solving this problem,” said Carbonnell, who was not yet a member of council when it awarded G & R a 30-year permit to operate in 2014.

“I think the problem here is that people are taking advantage of the Gabriels. I think the companies that dump here, companies that come from way outside the territory, know what they’re doing is wrong but they do it anyway.”

Carbonnell says he’s seen trucks from Montreal and the North Shore, and even some bearing the 819 area code common in Gatineau — some 150 kilometres west of Kanesatake.

We followed one dump truck as it left the recycling centre last week and drove from Kanesatake to a garage in Dorval. The phone number on the truck is linked to a rental company in the South Shore suburb of Boucherville. Why would a truck from the South Shore drive through heavy traffic in Montreal and Laval to dump its load 80 kilometres north in Mohawk territory? We asked around.

Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door

Half the price if you pay in cash

In east-end Montreal, Recybéton charges about $21 a tonne for truckers to dispose of their concrete rubble on site. On a typical dump truck, that’s about $300 to $350 a load.

We called G & R last week to ask what they charge per tonne.

“We don’t charge per tonne,” said the man who picked up the phone. “It’s $150 a load. Cash.”

The company’s environmental track record speaks for itself: $17,800 in fines, a series of failed inspection reports and, after the Aug. 1 spill, a criminal investigation, according to a spokesperson for Quebec’s minister of the environment.

Given that the ministry has known, for three years, that G & R is operating way beyond provincially imposed limits, why is it still allowed to operate?

“The ministry has intervened in this file … since the site’s beginnings,” said Frédéric Fournier, a spokesperson for the minister of the environment. He cited the inspections, fines and court orders obtained against G & R.

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon says his band council lacks the enforcement capacity to shut the site down. “For me to revoke the permit, I need to see what the contaminations are and the cleaning-up plan,” Simon said. “Because revoking the (band council) resolution but the pile stays there for another hundred years? No!” “Somebody’s gotta pay for this and it’s not gonna be (the band council).”

This is the physical legacy of settler society: scraps of houses, apartments and commuter vehicles hauled from cities that only seem to keep feeding the cycle of waste.

A representative from the office of Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the federal government is awaiting test results collected from the site last week before commenting on the matter.

Another government source says Ottawa is reluctant to speak to the specifics of land management as it is currently in negotiations with Kanesatake over the creation of a local police force and the purchase of new Crown land to expand the Mohawk settlement.

Cross is part of a growing movement in Kanesatake that says the time for negotiations is coming to an end. His group sent a 17-page document to Simon last June, requesting the results of tests conducted on G & R’s site and asking for further documentation on the landfill.

When his request went unanswered, Cross and 100 other locals held a July 22 meeting in the Ratihén:te High School’s backyard, drafting a motion of non-confidence in Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon and his vice-chief, Patricia Meilleur.

Robert Gabriel also attended the meeting, where he apologized for some of the damage and invited anyone who had questions about the landfill to come by for a visit. He claimed the site was “99 per cent cleaned up” and insisted he bore no ill will towards his neighbours.

“You know me,” he said. “We grew up together.”

Two weeks later, black sludge leaked from the dump into neighbouring farmland.

We wrote six Facebook messages to Robert dating back to July 6, asking for information about the recycling centre.

His only reply came on July 8, when he said he was aware of the concerns his neighbours had and that he’d be willing to do an interview.

The interview never happened.

We did not try to reach Gary. In March he threatened one of this article’s authors — who was reporting on a separate story — screaming “reporters are lying cocksuckers” as he stormed off.

Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door

As Cross works the political angle, gathering support from neighbouring farmers’ unions and mayors and writing letters to the federal government, another faction is preaching more direct action. Tuesday night, a community member leaked drone footage of G & R’s site on a YouTube channel called Kanesatake Whistle Blower. In it, the extent and size of the dump provides a stark contrast to the rolling pastures, forests and river that surround the community.

There are rumblings in the community about a potential blockade or protest to draw attention to the environmental crisis.

Back at the dump site, we make our way down to a tailings pond collecting wastewater outside the forest. The fumes are overwhelming.

“We should head back soon,” says Dave. “I told some people where we are and I told them to expect us back by a certain time. If we don’t head back soon, they’ll worry.”

He leads us up the mountain of debris, hiking past burnt garbage, the twisted remains of a truck’s muffler and piles of rotten produce. This is the physical legacy of settler society: scraps of houses, apartments and commuter vehicles hauled from cities that only seem to keep feeding the cycle of waste.

It sits here in a pile on Mohawk territory, growing with every passing day.

Dave fires up his dune buggy and we rumble back through the forest. The dump fades from his rearview mirror but the smell of sulphur and sludge stays with us for the ride back to our car.

We hang our heads and quietly drive back to the city.

It’s best not to linger. We are trespassers.

Click here to learn more about The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s new journalism project with Ricochet.
Virginie Ann, The Eastern Door
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