Officials should know within a couple of weeks what, if any, harmful chemicals the fire last month at American Iron and Metal's scrapyard in Saint John left behind.
The fire, which started around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 14 and burned for roughly 40 hours, prompted a city-wide shelter in place order due to the hazardous smoke.
Dr. Kimberley Barker, the regional medical officer of health, said soil testing results from 12 locations are expected by mid-November.
"Of course this is the million-dollar question — what are we looking for?" she said during a presentation to the city's public safety committee earlier this week on the community garden impacts from the smoke.
The cause of the AIM fire hasn't been determined yet, she said.
'Large list' includes carcinogens
"So what we decided to do, together with the consultants [CBCL Engineering and Environmental Services], is assume that it was an entire car that caught on fire — full of gas, still tires on, and exponentially decide what chemicals would have been exuded from such a car fire.
"And then the [fire] chief kindly pointed out to us … that it was probably the equivalent of 10,000 car fires," she said.
"So that just stressed the importance of our decision in terms of the chemicals that were chosen."
They came up with a "large list," which includes some carcinogens, she said. Among the "chemicals of potential concern," are "available metals," mercury and cyanide, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and furans, volatile organic compounds and petroleum hydrocarbons.
The 12 sites sampled
"The burning question that we get on a daily basis from our community partners is, where are we sampling?" said Barker.
Of the 12 sites, nine fell within the plume, she said, sharing Environment Canada atmospheric dispersion modelling maps that illustrate how the plume shifted over time, due to the wind. There was no wind for the first few hours, she said, then it blew north into the neighbourhoods, headed northeast and ultimately pushed the smoke back over the harbour.
The nine sites include:
Rainbow Park Community Garden.
Broncos Blooming Community Garden.
Carleton Community Garden.
Shamrock Park Community Garden.
Crescent Valley Community Gardens.
The Growing Place Community Garden and Greenhouse.
Greater Saint John Community Garden.
Courtney Bay Community Garden.
Saint John Regional Correctional Facility.
The plume from the AIM fire shifted during the 40-some hours because of the winds, Dr. Kimberley Barker, regional medical officer of health, told the city's public safety committee. (City of Saint John/YouTube)
The other three sites — Centre scholaire Samuel-de-Champlain field, Dannell Drive and Harbour View High School — are within the same distance from the metal recycling plant, "however, based on the direction of the wind and atmospheric pressure, they were not impacted by the plume," said Barker.
These are being used as control sites to determine what chemicals might have already been in the soil before the fire and identify what can be attributed directly to the fire, she said.
If test results show the nine plume areas are contaminated, Barker said soil in the community garden beds will probably need to be replaced. "Please don't ask me to comment on who's going to pay for that because that is … not within my purview."
Additional sampling might also be required, said Barker. That could include the city's compost since collection from homes within the plume area has continued as usual.
If chemicals are detected at the control sites, "then that's a larger discussion for the city and those at senior levels of government to decide on the steps going forward."
The three control sites being tested will help determine if chemicals were in the soil before the AIM fire, Barker said. (City of Saint John/YouTube)
In the meantime, officials have advised people to either wash and freeze their garden harvest, or throw it out.
Port Saint John and AIM have also hired consultants to conduct testing, noted Barker. She doesn't know where they're sampling or what chemicals they're testing for, but she hopes they're the same so they'll be able to compare notes, she said.
'Quite a blip' in air quality results
Public Health is also looking into air quality impacts from the fire, analyzing data from monitoring stations, Barker told the committee.
The uptown location, based on it being essentially an industrial park area, has never really had a decent air quality so to speak. So the levels that are fairly normal in this area are probably elevated compared to what we would want people to be experiencing on a daily basis. - Kimberley Barker, regional medical officer of health
"It's important to recognize that the uptown location, based on it being essentially an industrial park area, has never really had a decent air quality so to speak.
"So the levels that are fairly normal in this area are probably elevated compared to what we would want people to be experiencing on a daily basis.
"But of course that specific event did prompt, you know, fine particulate matter to be measured on a scale that we haven't typically seen."
In particular, there was "quite a blip" at the Castle Street location, she said. It "subsided pretty quickly," but there was another "small blip" a couple of days later.
Officials are working with the Saint John Regional Hospital to map visits for respiratory distress, cardiac events and skin or eye irritation during the period in question, Barker said.
So far, there doesn't appear to be any noticeable increase, she said, but added it's possible people did suffer ill effects and just didn't bother to go to the hospital.
She expects to have a report on air quality impacts ready in December.
While Public Health is looking into possible impacts on water, Barker said she's less concerned about that. Given the two tides a day in the Bay of Fundy, she expects any chemicals of concern would have been "dramatically diluted," she said.
Review of fire response due Dec. 6
The Saint John John Fire Department is conducting a review of its response to the AIM fire, Chief Kevin Clifford told the committee.
Such reviews are standard, he said, but "given the extended period and comprehensive nature of the operations involved in the AIM incident," it's one of the most "complicated review processes of recent time."
A total of 91 Saint John firefighters battled the blaze for more than 40 hours, along with responders from Irving Oil, Atlantic Towing, the Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department, and personnel from both Port Saint John and AIM.
"I think this operation will be highlighted for years to come with respect to the collaborations of multiple entities in providing response to an industrial event," he said.
Barker and Chief Kevin Clifford gave an update on their AIM fire reviews to the city's public safety committee, which includes Coun. David Hickey as chair, and Mayor Donna Reardon. (City of Saint John/YouTube)
The review will also look at the roles of the numerous stakeholders, establish a chronology of decisions and actions, and examine communications, including four hours of non-stop radio communications between the public safety communications centre, the incident commander on site and crews.
"Expected takeaways from the review include what went right, of course, what went wrong, steps for improvement, lessons learned and any change in procedures," said Clifford.
He is scheduled to present the findings at the committee's next meeting on Dec. 6.
Meanwhile, the province issued an update on the joint AIM task force last Friday. It said the fire investigation and environmental site assessment are ongoing.
AIM's approval to operate remains suspended pending the outcome.