Citizens Guide to Environmental Investigation and Private Prosecution


2.0 WHERE TO FIND POLLUTION IN YOUR COMMUNITY,

AND WHAT POLLUTANTS TO LOOK FOR

Pollution. It’s in our rivers and lakes, in the soil we walk on, and in the air we breathe, but where does it come from? Some of the sources may be closer than you think. Pollution may be no farther than your neighbouring farm or sewage treatment plant. Pollution may be leaching from a nearby closed dump site that you didn’t even know was there. Pollution may be released by a pulp and paper mill, chemical, mining, or petroleum company upstream or upwind, or by the nuclear plant providing some of your electricity.

The list of pollution sources presented in this section, while not exhaustive, suggests the many different kinds of environmental problems you may encounter in your community. Every case is slightly different, but the techniques for investigating remain the same: Be thorough, look beyond the obvious and the spiel spun by public relations departments, document every step of your investigation, and enlist the help of concerned and knowledgeable people.


2.1 Sewage treatment plants and septic systems

Environment Canada calls municipal wastewater effluents “one of the largest threats to the quality of Canadian waters.” Canadians connected to sewer systems cannot count on their sewage receiving adequate treatment. In 1999, three percent of the connected population dishcarged their sewage, untreated, into the nearest lake, river, or ocean. Another 19 percent had access to only primary treatment.3

A conventional primary plant removes between only 40 and 60 percent of suspended solids and only half of the total coliforms and reduces biological oxygen demand (BOD) by only 25 to 40 percent.4  Industrial wastewaters often add heavy metals and organic contaminants to sewage treatment plant effluents. These toxic pollutants are more difficult to treat or remove than conventional sewage pollutants (such as total suspended solids, fecal coliforms, aberrant pH, oil, and grease) and excessive biological oxygen demand.5 Some sewer systems collect road and other runoff in the same pipes, adding other toxic pollutants such as fuel-derived substances, pesticides, and materials poured into street drains.

Sampling of sewage discharges can be tricky since most plants discharge far offshore through long outlet pipes. You may obtain permission to sample at the plant itself, but make sure that the managers allow you to sample the final effluent that goes into the effluent pipe.

Almost all municipalities in Ontario and other Canadian provinces have sewer overflows, which combine sanitary sewage and storm water. When the system becomes overloaded, the excess volume flows directly into the receiving waters (lakes, streams, and rivers). To identify where the combined sewer overflow outlets discharge, obtain sewage system maps from your municipality’s engineering department. Almost all Ontario municipalities have unsatisfactory and underdesigned sewage systems. Reports on Ontario’s more problematic systems are available at the Ministry of the Environment’s headquarters in Toronto. The studies and reports contain information about the systems’ specific problems and include maps.

As society looks towards less environmentally costly ways of dealing with sewage, constructed wetlands are being used to filter wastewater and runoff. Although these wetlands are generally boons to environmental protection and conservation, if they are improperly constructed or not properly maintained they can pose hazards to the surrounding environment. For example, some plants in constructed wetlands filter out certain metals, trapping and storing them in their roots. Should the plants become saturated by the pollutants, they may develop into sources of pollution, rather than the sink for metals they were designed to be.

Septic systems can also be problematic if not properly maintained. Material may leach into nearby surface waters or groundwaters.

Bacteria, viruses, and protozoans make water contaminated by sewage unfit for drinking, swimming, or raising shellfish. Nutrients from leaching septic systems, inadequately treated sewage, and untreated sewage may cause the proliferation of algae and the eutrophication of water bodies. Scientists have repeatedly found raw sewage to be toxic to aquatic life.

What to look for on-site

The most common signs of sewage discharge are discoloured water and “floatables,” such as condoms and tampon applicators. Look for effluent pipes or leaching from combined sewer overflow tanks, which are usually buried near watercourses and form large grass-covered mounds.

Contaminants to test for

Liquid discharges: You should have the laboratory measure ammonia, biological oxygen demand, chlorine, E. coli, nitrates, nitrites, oil and grease, pH, phosphorus, total coliforms, total nitrogen, and total suspended solids. Chlorinated aromatics (chlorophenols, dioxins, PCBs), detergents, heavy metals, low molecular weight halogenated and chlorinated hydrocarbons (carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, trihalomethane), and phthalate esters are also typically in sewage effluent.

Sediments may also be contaminated because suspended solids in effluents often adsorb toxins and rapidly settle to the bottom.

Acts and regulations that may apply

Fisheries Act

Canada Water Act

Ontario Water Resources Act


2.2 Landfill sites and contaminated lands

Ontario has over 4,000 landfill sites, all of which are listed in the Ministry of the Environment Publication, Waste Disposal Site Inventory. This 200-page book categorizes these sites according to whether they are open or closed and to the risk they pose to the human and natural environment. Its maps identify the waste sites according to topographical maps published by Canadian Energy Mines and Resources (available at any good map store). Equipped with the inventory and the maps, you can easily find the sites’ exact locations, even if the landfills have been closed for many years and the land has been developed.

A handy tool to help locate waste sites and to keep good notes on where you find pollution is a Geographic Positioning System (GPS). The inventory, topographical maps, and GPS coordinates all refer to the easily understood universal transverse mercator grid.

What to look for on-site

Landfill leachate is often rust coloured, but not always. It may even appear clear. Some of these discharges may be toxic, while others may be less harmful. In the case of old, improperly covered landfills, some solid wastes may poke through.

Landfill gases are more insidious. Their odour can cause discomfort and health problems, but you may have difficulty pinpointing their sources.

Contaminants to test for

Depending on the type of waste present at the site, the contaminants will vary greatly. But by looking at the waste disposal site inventory, you may be able to better define the analysis required. It is often useful to first do a wide-ranging reconnaissance scan for organics such as PCBs, dioxins, furans, and benzene-derived products, as well as heavy metals and ammonia. The analysis on the next series of samples need not be as extensive, depending on the results you obtain in your first scan. It may be appropriate to sample surface water, groundwater, and sediments.

Landfill gases consist mainly of methane and carbon dioxide but may also carry toxic chemicals (paints, solvents, pesticides) and toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The following VOCs may be present: benzene, chlorinated solvents, chloroform, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene (PERC), toluene, trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride, and xylene.6

Acts and regulations that may apply

Fisheries Act

Ontario Water Resources Act

PCB regulations

Ontario Environmental Protection Act


2.3 Mining activities 

Ontario has over 6,500 abandoned mines with some 16,000 identified features that pose environmental, safety, and public health threats. Operating mines also present a number of serious environmental concerns, including acidic mine drainage, tailings, the metals extracted, and some of the products used for extracting and processing the metals. Mining for radioactive materials presents particular problems (see section 2.7).

What to look for on-site

Vividly coloured orange, red, or black seeps or staining, areas devoid of vegetation, and the absence of species sensitive to low pH are definite signs of problems. Contact a biologist for information about low PH-sensitive species.

Contaminants to test for 

Liquid discharges: Definitely include the metal mined at the particular site in your analysis. Also include a wider heavy metal scan including: antimony, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, manganese, mercury, selenium, and silver. Other pollutants that may also be present: ammonia, cyanide, ethylene glycol, hydrogen fluoride, and sulphuric acid. The pH of the effluent can also be very important.

Groundwater, soil, and sediments may also be contaminated.

Mining guidelines apply to arsenic, copper, lead, nickel, radium 226, total suspended solids, and zinc. You may want to include these contaminants in your request for analysis.

Metal finishing plants have separate guidelines that apply to cadmium, chromium, copper, cyanides, lead, nickel, total suspended metals (TSM), and zinc.

Acts and regulations that may apply 

Fisheries Act (see the Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations and Guidelines and other sections)

Canadian Environmental Protection Act

Ontario Water Resources Act

Ontario Environmental Protection Act (MISA Regulation 560/94)


2.4 Pulp and paper mills 

Pulp and paper mills, including more than 25 in Ontario, discharge large amounts of effluent into Canadian waterways. The pulp and paper industry’s bleaching process is one of the largest sources of dioxins in water environments.7 The industry uses strong acids and caustic chemicals, and mill effluents may contain carcinogenic acids and organic contaminants. Air releases from pulp and paper mills can also cause environmental damage.

What to look for on-site 

Look for effluent pipes and smokestacks.

Contaminants to test for

Liquid discharges: You should have the laboratory measure ammonia, biological oxygen demand, nitrates, nitrites, oil and grease, pH, phosphorus, and total suspended solids. Toxic contaminants of concern include: acetone, absorbable organic halides (AOX), benzene, various chlorinated and non-chlorinated phenolic compounds, chloroform, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methanol, resins and fatty acids, sodium hydroxide, and toluene. Many different dioxins and furans could be present and a total toxic equivalent (TEQ) test may be appropriate. Heavy metals have also been detected in mill effluents, particularly: aluminium, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, mercury, and zinc. In addition, the laboratory should test for acids (sulphuric, hydrochloric, and so on). On-site, you should check the effluent’s temperature; a large difference between it and the receiving waters may adversely impact the environment.

Sediments at the points of discharge and downstream may also be contaminated with the chemicals present in the effluent.

The laboratory should test air releases for acetaldehyde, acetone, benzene, chlorine, chlorine dioxide, chloroform, diethanolamine, isopropyl alcohol, ketones, and toluene.

Acts and regulations that may apply

Fisheries Act (Pulp and Paper Mill Effluents Regulations)

Ontario Water Resources Act

Canadian Environmental Protection Act (Pulp and Paper Mill Defoamer and Wood Chip Regulations and the Pulp and Paper Mill Effluent Chlorinated Dioxins and Furans Regulations)

Ontario Environmental Protection Act (MISA Regulation 760/93)


2.5 Chemical companies 

A large number of chemical companies operate in all Canadian provinces, producing a wide array of products for industrial and consumer use. Some information on the contaminants chemical companies release into the environment (waste generator registrations, PCB storage orders, and so on) may be available from various governmental agencies.

What to look for on-site

Look for effluent pipes, smokestacks, leaks from storage tanks, and contaminated soils from historic spills.

Contaminants to test for 

Pollutants released by chemical companies are varied, ranging from ammonia to zinc through different acids (check the pH), alcohols, benzene-derived compounds, heavy metals, and phenolic compounds. You may at first be tempted to have the samples analyzed for the products produced, but don’t limit the analysis to those; a wide range of byproducts and other substances may be present in these companies’ discharges. Depending on the type of chemicals processed at the site and its location, contamination may be well circumscribed (for example, due to leaky drums) or widespread.

More than one medium (air, surface water and groundwater, soil, and/or sediments) may be affected.

Acts and regulations that may apply

Fisheries Act

Clean Air Act

Ontario Water Resources Act

Ontario Environmental Protection Act (MISA Regulations, organic and inorganic chemical sectors, 63/95 and 64/95)

Canadian Environmental Protection Act

Environmental Bill of Rights


2.6 Petroleum companies

Petroleum companies in Canada are concentrated in the Prairies but some are in other regions as well. Acids, caustics, hydrogen sulphide, and tetraethyl lead are all hazardous substances you may encounter on a petroleum company’s site. Petroleum-based products such as oils and benzene-derived products (phenols) are also present.

What to look for on-site 

Look for effluent pipes, smokestacks, leaky storage tanks, soil contaminated from historic spills, and sulphur piles.

Contaminants to test for 

Liquid discharges: conventional pollutants such as ammonia, nitrates, nitrites, total phosphorus, total suspended solids, and volatile suspended solids (VSS). Also, test for toxic pollutants such as heavy metals (chromium, lead, manganese, nickel, and zinc), organic and inorganic compounds (benzene compounds, cyanides, cyclohexane, diethanolamine, dioxins and furans [total toxic equivalent, TEQ], dissolved organic carbon [DOC], ethylene glycol, oil and grease, phenolic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [PAHs], sulphides, toluene, and xylene).

Sediments: When companies release large concentrations of contaminants into waterways, a portion will almost inevitably contaminate the sediments, particularly in the case of organic contaminants that are not very water soluble. In those cases, sediment analysis is recommended.

Air releases: Test for organic pollutants such as benzene compounds, butadiene, cyclohexane, ethylene, ketones, methanol, naphtalene, phenolic compounds, and propylene. Some acids (sulphuric, hydrochloric) may be present, as well as other toxicants such as acetone, chlorine, isopropyl alcohol, nickel, and vanadium.

Acts and regulations that may apply

Fisheries Act (Petroleum Refinery Liquid Effluent Regulations and Guidelines)

Clean Air Act

Ontario Environmental Protection Act (MISA Regulation 537/93)

Ontario Water Resources Act


2.7 Radioactive sites

The extraction of radioactive minerals is the first step of an industry that is environmentally unsafe at every step. Abandoned and active mines, processing plants, nuclear plants, tritium light plants, and radioactive waste dumps (licensed or not) are all sites where radioactive materials may cause environmental damage and pose a threat to human health.

To minimize your exposure to the dangers of radiation, you should get help from people skilled in this field prior to visiting the site.

What to look for on-site

One of the difficulties with radioactive substances is their undetectability by human senses. You will need a Geiger counter to detect gamma radiation and other specialized equipment to detect alpha and beta radiation and radon gas.

Contaminants to test for 

Liquid discharges: cesium, carbon 14, iodine, krypton 85, lead 210, plutonium, radium, radon and radon daughters, strontium 90, thorium, and uranium can be analyzed by specialized laboratories. Not all of these contaminants will be present at each site.

These pollutants can also be present in sediments.

Air releases: radon gas.

Call the laboratory for special handling procedures before bringing in samples that you suspect may contain radioactive substances.

Acts and regulations that may apply 

AECB (Atomic Energy Control Board) regulations

Ontario Environmental Protection Act


2.8 Agricultural activities 

Many farming activities cause damage. Large livestock operations produce vast amounts of manure which, if not stored and spread properly, can pose significant threats to human health and the surrounding environment. Pathogens from manure can contaminate groundwater and surface water. More than one-third of rural wells tested in several provinces in recent decades have exceeded guidelines for coliform bacteria. One potentially lethal contaminant is E. coli, a baterium found in the intestines of animals; certain strains of E. coli can, in humans, cause severe health problems, such as diarrhea, kidney damage, and even death.

Nutrients from manure can also contaminate both ground and surface water. Nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff can cause algae growth and fish kills.

Manure also pollutes the air, not only with offensive odours but also with poisonous gases such as ammonia and hydrogren sulphide, toxins, fungi that can cause respiratory problems, and potent greenhouse gases.

What to look for on-site 

Look for signs of erosion, cloudy discharges along a shoreline, and manure discharges. Rows plowed perpendicular to the water’s edge may allow contaminated water to run directly into a watercourse. In some cases, odour and air contaminants may be an issue.

Contaminants to test for 

Liquid discharges: You should have the laboratory measure ammonia, biological oxygen demand, nitrates, nitrites, phosphorus, and total suspended solids. Some heavy metals may be present (arsenic, chromium, iron). In many cases, pesticides and fertilizers may be of concern. Because of the wide variety of pesticides and fertilizers available on the market, you should have the laboratory test for a wide range of organic contaminants, including (but not limited to) carbamates, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and organophosphates.

In the case of animal farming, heavy metals may be present (particularly copper and zinc), as well as fecal coliforms, E. coli, and associated pathogens.

Sediments may be affected by large quantities of contaminated leachate.

Airborne ammonia and nitrogen could be present in livestock-raising areas.

Acts and regulations that may apply 

Fisheries Act

Clean Air Act

Ontario Environmental Protection Act

Ontario Water Resources Act

Canadian Environmental Protection Act

Pesticides Act

Be aware that some activities may be protected as “normal farming practices” under right-to-farm laws, such as Ontario’s Farming and Food Production Protection Act.

Further reading

Putting Factory Farms to the Test: A Guide to Community-based Water Monitoring (2004), produced by Environmental Defence Canada, provides information on identifying pollution from farms, sampling and testing for phosphates, nitrates, and E. coli, as well as advice on how to interpret results, find assistance, and take action.

3. Environment Canada, “Urban Water: Municipal Water Use and Wastewater Treatment,” State of the Environment Bulletin, No. 984, 1998
4. Martin Nantel, Sewage Treatment and Disposal in Quebec: Environmental Effects, (Toronto: Environment Probe, 1995), 2.
5. People for Puget Sound, Puget Sound: Georgia Basin Sewage Report, (Seattle: People for Puget Sound, 1995).
6. State of New York Department of Health, “Investigation of Cancer Incidence and Residence near 38 Landfills with Soil Gas Migration Conditions,” (Atlanta: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, June 1998).
7. Lois Gibbs and the Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, Dying From Dioxin: A Citizen’s Guide to Reclaiming Our Health, (Boston: South End Press, 1995), 56.

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