For many people, living in the city comes with some mild annoyances such as loud traffic, bright lights, and pricey real estate. But one community in Ottawa has an entirely different problem: decades of living with contaminated soil, groundwater and air, from previous improper disposal of industrial chemicals and garbage.
The Mechanicsville neighbourhood, located near the Bayview O-train station, has seven high-priority contaminated sites, all of which are the responsibility of the National Capital Commission (NCC).
Mechanicsville Community Association Chair Lorrie Marlow said her community is frustrated that there hasn’t been any action, despite nearly two decades of the federal government promising to clean up.
“It’s just a horrible, tangled web,” she sighed. “We just can’t do anything that we’ve planned to do, because every year, we’re told that it’s going to be cleaned up, so we don’t apply for grants or anything.”
There are 139 active federal contaminated sites in Ottawa, 17 of which are classified as high-priority. The majority of these sites are nestled in the city’s industrial area in between LaRoche Park, Tom Brown arena, and LeBreton Flats.
Map of the 17 high-priority active federal contaminated sites in Ottawa
Federal contaminated sites are areas of land that the government owns and leases that have a concentration or high level of substances that do or could cause harm to humans and the environment. Most of these sites are contaminated as a result of previous occupational practices that were based on more limited understanding of environmental impacts. In a lot of industrial areas, contamination was the result of the improper disposal of industrial chemicals. Some provinces are affected more than others: Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec report the highest number of contaminated sites. The leading contaminant in industrial hubs like Halifax, are petroleum hydrocarbons and other waste from mining activities.
The sites are cleaned up with help from the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan (FCSAP), a 15-year project started in 2005 to help clean up all federal contaminated sites in Canada. The action plan identifies, classifies, tests and develops risk-management strategies for federal contaminated sites. High-priority sites, as their name suggests, are the first to be considered for funding through the Action Plan.
The government organizes and classifies these sites on the Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory, based on a high, medium or low priority level. They also organize them based on whether sites are active, which means that they are confirmed contaminated sites where action is required, or if they are closed, which means that no further action is required.
Marlow explained that lack of cleanup progress has derailed many of the community’s plans, which include a community garden, a hockey rink, and a new community centre. She said that they have been unable to get funding for their projects until the highly-contaminated facility at 80 Bayview Rd., with 4 high-priority issues corresponding to each of the building’s 4 structures, is cleaned up. The industrial building is currently being used as a workshop for the NCC and is near LaRoche Park, one of the bigger parks in the area. Due to the high contamination of its neighbour, clean-up efforts for the park have stalled.
“Can you really clean up a park that’s adjacent to one of the worst federally contaminated sites without cleaning the site up first?” Marlow asked. “The biggest issue that we have is that our community centre is due for a replacement. It’s an asset that the city owns, and it’s due to be replaced in 2020. They’ve been talking about replacing it early, but there’s no use building a new community centre on top of contaminated lands.”
At 80 Bayview, the main contaminants are hydrocarbons, which are usually found in oil and natural gases, as well as industrial solvents and chemicals like formaldehyde.
Peter Hodson is professor emeritus in biology and environmental studies at Queen’s University. He said that most hydrocarbons are unstable, and can be dangerous for people. “Hydrocarbons are highly volatile and pose a significant danger because of their flammability and possibility for explosions, as well as asphyxiation and acute toxicity. Some of them can even be carcinogens.”
According an the annual NCC environment report, it planned to have “all contaminated sites on NCC lands secured by 2017.” But the same report cited “available financial resources” as one of the reasons why this objective could not be met. But remediation costs for all federal contaminated sites increased from 2015 to 2017, jumping from $5.8 billion to $6.3 billion.
Nationally, there was an increase in expenditure for remediation and assessment towards the FCSAP program in-between 2012-2014. These increases could be attributed to higher levels of various contaminants. For instance, in 2012-2013 a Phase III environmental assessment identified areas of hydrocarbon contamination in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, and found that levels of metals in various properties exceeded CCME Soil Quality Guidelines. (Click here for the full Case Study.)
Hodson said that the high cost could be related to how difficult it is to clean up hydrocarbons, especially if they have been there for years. “Some types of chlorinated hydrocarbons are much more persistent and toxic than their non-chlorinated equivalents,” Peter explained. “If the hydrocarbons are spread widely before clean-up begins and there is not much that can be done to protect the environment.”
According to the Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory, 80 Bayview, “an action plan is under development.” But for Lorrie and the Mechanicsville residents, it’s taken long enough. “Apparently, every time they look at cleaning up LaRoche, the bill gets higher and higher,” Marlow explained. “We just want it to be over and just keep hoping that it’ll be cleaned up soon.”
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