Cleaning up mysterious ‘organic’ pollution spill costs town $650,000 so far

·6 min read

The first few days of a two-week cleanup of a mysterious “organic pollutant” spill in rural Niagara-on-the-Lake has cost the town more than $653,000 and the bill keeps climbing.

While a town official said the liquid is not a hazardous material, the municipality is not saying exactly what was found.

But from the testing done so far, officials know what it isn’t, Marnie Cluckie, the town’s chief administrator, said in an interview Wednesday.

It isn’t leachate seeping from a nearby regional dump, nor a herbicide nor pesticide.

The cost figure unveiled to councillors on Monday evening was for the first six days of the cleanup, acting director of operations Kevin Turcotte told council Monday night.

Now, 15 days after the spill was discovered, it’s unclear how much the cleanup bill has grown – or how high it might go.

So far, more than 1 million litres of the pollutant have been removed.

About $600,000 of the initial cost was for pumping out the pollutant and the remainder was for an environmental consultant.

Town treasurer Kyle Freeborn said even if the incident is covered by insurance, there is still a $50,000 deductible.

If insurance doesn’t kick in, the town will have to cut into its reserves to pay for the cleanup, he said.

The town is planning a virtual meeting on Sept. 1 for residents living near the spill. Town staff will be able to take questions and address concerns from neighbours.

As of Wednesday, no more vacuum trucks will be sent to remove any more of the pollutant.

Instead, the next 10 days will be spent dismantling the berms and monitoring the site for any changes, Cluckie said.

“Just to ensure that they’re correct, that it’s no longer continuing, and there’s no longer any elevated organic material that is cause for concern,” she said.

The spill was found more than two weeks ago and this week the lord mayor and councillors all said they were still in the dark about exactly what happened – and what material was spilled, leaked or possibly dumped.

The town was notified Aug. 17 about the problem in a ditch not far from a regional landfill along Line 5 Road.

However, the region has said it has determined the spill didn’t come from the old landfill, said Lord Mayor Betty Disero.

By the time town staff arrived, the spill, near Concession 5 and Line 5, was filling an installation called the Cole municipal drain.

The Ontario environment ministry’s Spills Action Centre was notified the same day and ordered the town to contain the spill. Ministry officials arrived on the scene at around 10:30 p.m.

“That effort had to go 24 hours a day,” Turcotte said.

Staff reacted quickly and built a soil berm at Line 5 and Concession 5, he said. The town has since built three more berms to try to contain the spill.

So far, several vacuum trucks and 10 large containment tanks have been filled with more than 1 million litres of the pollutant.

The town brought in a private contractor, Accuworx, to use vacuum trucks to remove the contaminated water.

According to an information report presented to council, Accuworx placed six 80,000-litre fluid containment tanks along Concession 5 between Line 6 and Line 7 roads. This gave the vacuum trucks a close location to be able to transfer the polluted water.

The next day, the contractor added another four containment tanks on a property on Line 4 across from the Cole drain. Two tanker trucks disposed of 40,000 litres at an offsite location.

Samples of the pollutant were taken to E3 Laboratories on York Road for testing. Turcotte told council the substance was an “organic pollutant material” but didn’t offer any details.

He said this was positive news, since it wasn’t a hazardous material.

Since there was such an unusually high amount of organic material on top of the surface water, more than what would normally be seen in a drain, it means the system itself couldn’t break down those organic materials, Cluckie said.

“In that large quantity, it could be detrimental, so that’s why it had to be removed,” she added.

However, an “organic pollutant” isn’t always a good thing, Coun. Sandra O’Connor noted.

“When you’re talking molecules, chemistry breaks them up into two categories, organic and inorganic,” O’Connor said in an interview.

“So it has nothing to do with being good or being bad. It’s just a classification model (of) molecules based on chemistry,” she said.

When Coun. Wendy Cheropita asked for the breakdown of the organic pollutant, Turcotte said, “A lot of the times the details of the laboratory results are very detailed, and if you’re not familiar with that information, it would be inconsequential to you.”

Cluckie agreed that town officials need to be open and transparent about what happened.

“We want to bring that back through the environmental consultant, so he can interpret it in a way that we can all understand it clearly, at the same time as we identify the source,” she said.

A sediment analysis is still being done to try to determine the source.

Speculation on the nature of the substance continues to grow.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” Disero said when asked if the substance could be sewage.

The lack of answers has left some councillors dismayed and in the dark.

“We’re 13 days into a spill that’s going to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, (and) we don’t know the source, or what it is,” Coun. Erwin Wiens told council Monday night, speculating the cost could hit $1 million or more.

“We’re being told it’s being contained, but how can you contain something you don’t know what the source is?” he added.

Turcotte said the town is investigating the source of the contamination.

“There are a few theories. We have an approximate start point where the spill started,” he said.

Cheropita said she’s pleased with how the town has responded,but thinks the communication and details could have been clearer.

Some residents are frustrated and concerned. Longtime NOTL resident Nellie Keeler, who served on council for 17 years, lives right down the street from where the cleanup is happening on Line 6.

Keeler has lived in NOTL since 1947 and she’s never seen anything like this, she said.

“This could be classified as Niagara’s biggest hoopla I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Another resident, Nancy Broerse, is also concerned.

“Were it actually something dangerous, what effect would that have on the environment, the wildlife and pets?” she wrote in a Facebook exchange with The Lake Report.

Despite the amount that’s being spent, there are still few answers.

There’s still final cleanup of the berms and more testing to do, but no estimated cost.

“This is, arguably, going to be the most expensive thing we do this year on our budget,” said Wiens.

He said people have been calling him non-stop about the spill, but he has no answers to give them.

Disero said it’s important that people contact the town if they have questions, because council members have to really watch what they say.

“Because we’re trying to stay eligible for, you know, insurance, and all of that,” she said.

Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report