Questions persist over cleanup of pollutant

·6 min read

It’s been almost three weeks since an apparent pollution “spill” was discovered in rural Niagara-on-the-Lake and many people have more questions than answers at this point.

Here are some of the things we know – and don’t know – about the situation:

By Aug. 22, five days after the pollutant was reported, the town had been billed more than $650,000 to remove the substance, which the town said was an “organic pollutant.”

About $53,000 went to an environmental consultant from GHD Engineering, while the rest was spent on pumping out and disposing of the pollutant.

The expensive removal process started before test results came back to determine if it was dangerous to people or the environment.

The test results were received Aug. 26, nine days into the situation, chief administrator Marnie Cluckie said Wednesday.

An environment ministry official visited the scene on Aug. 17, hours after the pollutant was discovered, and “directed” the town to begin cleaning it up, she said.

Under provincial law, the town must comply, she said.

A NOTL resident who has a PhD in water and environmental management, questioned the rush to dispose of the pollutant.

“How did anybody get to commit this amount of money without somebody saying, ‘Is this what you need to do?’ ” said Keith Kennedy.

He wondered why the town committed to spending so much money on cleaning it up, before even knowing what it was. He also asked why the town needed to hire an environmental consultant.

With this magnitude of a problem, the ministry requires the town to have a qualified expert, said Lord Mayor Betty Disero.

“And also that you follow their direction. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing,” she said.

Kennedy also argued that sampling analyses usually have a quick turnaround and the amount of the contaminants and its characteristics should be known within 12 hours in this type of situation.

“Whether it’s biological oxygen demand or chemical oxygen demand analysis, those are done in the field now,” he added.

If the substance was thought to be an imminent threat to human health and the environment, there should have been a 24-hour turnaround at the most, said Kennedy.

While awaiting results, the town brought in Accuworx, which was paid about $100,000 a day to vacuum out the substance.

As of Sept. 1 that work was done and earth berms were removed and the ditch, known as the Cole municipal drain, is being monitored, Cluckie said.

More than 1 million litres of the pollutant were removed.

The question of whether it’s even a spill have been raised by some people.

NOTL resident Ron Simkus is a retired engineer who worked in the mining industry for 45 years, with large-scale water management his area of expertise.

He said he is baffled by the town’s response and doesn’t believe it was a spill.

“Did anybody consider this might be a natural-occuring stream of subterranean swamp water coming to the surface?” he wrote in an email last week.

Cluckie said Wednesday that “sediment testing is underway and anticipated the week of Sept. 12. Further information related to this testing will be provided to council once complete.”

Those tests could help determine the source of the pollutant, she said.

However, she added, “Lab results, without an accompanying professional analysis and report, qualify under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act legislation and are not documents available to the public.”

It’s not known if a professional analysis of the results is being done.

Originally, the waste was being trucked to Mor’s Refining Systems Inc. in Beamsville but as of last week, it was going to the Port Weller wastewater treatment plant, Cluckie said.

Coun. Erwin Wiens, a grape farmer, said he is frustrated him that he can’t provide answers to the public.

The questions are simple, he said. What is it? Where did it come from?

At the last council meeting on Aug. 29, acting director of operations Kevin Turcotte said releasing the results would be inconsequential.

Cluckie compared the test data to receiving blood test results.

“When you get your blood tests, you get all of these items. So it’s not named as anything other than blood,” Cluckie said in an interview with The Lake Report last week.

“In this case, it’s not named as anything other than surface water with high content of organic material,” she added.

While that may be the case, Wiens argued the public is still entitled to the details.

“Well, that’s why they give it to a doctor and the doctor tells you you’ve got high cholesterol, or you’ve got low blood pressure,” he said.

Wiens argued that the same can be done in this situation. The results can be taken to an expert to fully break them down for people to understand.

“So, the more they don’t answer any questions, or the more they refuse to answer questions” leads to more questions and “people start thinking there’s something wrong,” said Wiens.

“How is this transparent and open dialogue?” he added.

With the cost no doubt escalated since the $650,000 figure was released, a big concern is whether insurance will cover it or if NOTL taxpayers will foot the bill.

With no word from the insurance company yet, it’s important for members of council to be accurate in their comments and not say anything that could lead the insurance company to refuse a claim, said Disero.

When asked if the environment ministry would compensate the town for the cleanup, spokesperson Lindsay Davidson said, “The Environmental Protection Act allows the town to recover costs from the party identified as the source of the material, if a source is identified.”

Simkus speculates some wrong decisions were made. “This was a $1 million mistake made by senior operations staff and we’re too small a town to absorb a financial hit like this,” he said.

Cluckie said an update on the costs will be provided to town council at the next committee of the whole meeting.

Wiens said, like everyone else, he is waiting for more information and has been told to direct all inquiries to Cluckie.

“You have no idea how frustrating it is,” he said.

While no mistakes should have been made by town staff, Wiens said he can understand if some wrong decisions occurred.

“Where it gets frustrating, (is that) we’re three weeks into this thing and nobody knows what’s going on,” he said.

Wiens said a command centre should have been established to oversee the situation. It’s not known if that occurred.

Kennedy, meanwhile, said, “It doesn’t sound like anybody really understood what they needed to do.”

Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report