UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 11. Status of soil pollution in North America

Main constraints on addressing soil pollution in North America

11.8.1. Lack of awareness and engagement

Awareness of pollution depends on the understanding and engagement of the general population regarding environmental pollution and its impact. Both countries show high awareness and support for environmental protection. Awareness of the need to protect soils is not as prevalent as the wide range of ecological services it provides is not realized. In a 2019 Canadian poll, the environment was the issue of greatest importance followed by the economy and was one of the main topics in the following federal elections (Bozinoff, 2019). At a global scale, the Canadians consider climate change and pollution as a major world topic at an equal level with war and conflict (Environics Institute for Survey Research, 2018). An internal debate in the country was on the impact of plastic waste. Nine out of ten Canadians expressed their concern about the problem, with 82 percent requesting more actions by the government on the issue (Denne, 2019).

A 2016 survey conducted in the United States, showed that 74 percent of respondents supported protecting the environment compared to the 23 percent who felt that the country has done enough, but only one out of five Americans say that they make daily efforts that help protect the environment (Anderson, 2017). A 2019 survey, revealed that overall most Americans consider the quality of the environment more negatively than positively, especially in the Northeast and West regions (McCarthy, 2019).

11.8.2. Lack of political will and leadership

Internationally, Canada proves itself very committed to undertake international agreements, although internally the population, since the last 2019 federal elections, has asked the government for stronger actions on environmental issues (Aljazeera, 2019). One area where a lack of political will on soil and water pollution has been documented is the controls and enforcement activities of mining industries (Auditor General British Columbia, 2016). An audit performed to investigate the reasons for a mine tailing dam failure in British Columbia in 2014, found an overall negligence from the provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of the Environment in the compliance and enforcement activities for industrial mining sites. The deficiencies in the activities of the Ministries were considered responsible for putting at risk the protection of the environment. Recommendations were made and accepted by the Ministries to improve the government’ policies and enforcement tools when industries do not comply to the governments requirement.

However, while helping find solutions to global environmental issues, Canada currently ranks sixth place for oil production globally, and is expected to have a 60 percent increase from 2017 until 2040 due to oil sands expansion (IEA, 2019; National Energy Board, 2018). Although the government is planning to address the increase in emissions by issuing a carbon tax, the growth of the oil production sector will have implications also on soil pollution.

The lack of political will and leadership on environmental and health protection issues has negatively characterized the choices made by the United States of America. Johnson and Schwadel found that, “Public support for environmental protection has evinced declines in recent years that are widely attributed to growing antipathy among self-identified Republicans. Fractures in what was long considered broad and enduring support for the environment in the United States have called attention to the broader socio-political context in which individual opinion on the environment is formed, and especially the role of political parties and their leaders in shaping opinion. Americans of all political stripes demonstrate decreases in support for environmental spending during Democratic presidential administrations and during difficult economic times. Declines during Democratic presidencies are especially pronounced among Republicans. Analyses also highlight parallels between the high levels of political polarization in environmental support found at the end of the Obama Presidency and the end of the Carter era” (Johnson and Schwadel, 2019).

An additional example is the lack of implementation of the international agreements, such as the Stockholm Conventions, despite the scientific knowledge on the risk for human health and the environment from persistent organic pollutants (Cabrera-Rodríguez et al., 2019; Rose, 2018).

From a site clean-up perspective, the number of unfunded Superfund sites increased between 2015 and 2020, reaching it highest ever number of 34 unfunded sites at the start of 2020 from three in 2015 (US EPA, 2019p). Despite the increase in unfunded Superfund sites, the United States of America environmental federal funding request in 2020 was 32 percent (D 6.22 billion) less than the total approved for the EPA in the year 2019 (USD 9.26 billion) by Congress (Esworthy and Bearden, 2019).

In 2020, the United States of America Senate declined to vote on the proposed PFAS Action Plan of 2019 to enact more stringent PFAS regulations (United States Senate, 2019). The provisions dropped were on increasing restrictions on the discharges from manufactures into drinking water supplies and the labelling of PFAS as “hazardous substances”, which would have required a clean-up of most polluted sites under the federal superfund law (EWG, 2019c).

11.8.3. Infrastructure and capacity gap

The availability of sufficient funding is the primary limiting factor for addressing soil pollution in this region. The Canadian and United States of America brownfields remediation programs still struggle with insufficient funding despite the fact that brownfield redevelopment can yield a 14-fold return on investment (De Sousa et al., 2018; Kashian and Evans, 2015). Both the United States and Canada have highly developed environmental remediation industries, research initiatives and training programs. Both produces cutting edge remediation and analytical technologies.