Toxic leak at ‘astronomical levels’
by Catherine Solyom
Montreal could face millions of dollars in fines as a result of a federal investigation launched this week into continuing contamination of the St. Lawrence River from municipal land under the Victoria Bridge.
Environment Canada decided to take action following a report by the non-profit Environmental Investigation Bureau released two weeks ago.
The report showed levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the river near the Technoparc site at “hundreds of thousands of times” the legal concentration.
“The Technoparc situation is under investigation under the (federal) Fisheries Act,” said Raymond Vezeau, head of inspections for Environment Canada.
Vezeau said he couldn’t discuss the case specifically, but under the Fisheries Act, if Environment Canada can prove criminal intent, a polluter could be fined $1 million for a first offence.
If tried under the Environmental Protection Act, however, the polluter could face fines of $1 million per day, Vezeau added.
Mark Mattson, head of the EIB who has been monitoring the situation for 18 months, said the city has known about the toxic leak – and its effects on aquatic life – for at least two years.
“Given the evidence we’ve accumulated and that the city knew about it, the court could agree it has been a continuous offence over 500 to 600 days and fine them half a billion dollars,” Mattson said. “These are serious, toxic contaminants at astronomical levels. It’s like having a ship with hazardous waste in your harbour that’s leaking every day and has been for two years.”
The samples collected at the Technoparc site – a major city dump for about 100 years before it was paved for a parking lot for Expo 67 – also show PAHs, or polyaromatic hydrocarbons, known to cause cancerous tumours in fish.
“I’ve worked on so many cases and never come across anything so serious as this,” said Mattson, an environmental lawyer for 11 years, comparing the situation here with an oil spill two weeks ago in Detroit.
“In the U.S., they had about 130 people working on it, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Environmental Protection Agency, and it wasn’t even hazardous. Here, we have PCBs and PAHs and we’ve had a difficult time even getting Environment Canada to acknowledge it.”
The investigation is news to the municipal government, one official said.
“Whether they are investigating or not, our books are open and we are in constant contact with them to find the best solutions,” said André Campeau of the city’s environment department.
Campeau admitted the city has known about the leak since 1991, but it has taken time to find solutions, he said. The city has had special booms in place along the river to trap the pollutants – but they have to be removed every winter.
“EIB says there’s pollution flowing into the river,” Campeau said. “It’s true. When the booms are in the ice, we can’t contain it. But outside of those few months, we recover as much of the contaminants as possible and someone is there up to five times a week to inspect the site and look for new sources of pollution.
“For now, these are temporary measures, but it takes years and years to solve these problems. And we will spend between $10 million and $15 million just to recover a few cups of PCBs. Even if we have to pay millions of dollars in fines, that won’t stop the pollution. We need a permanent solution.”
Vezeau said the investigation could take anywhere from three months to 10 years to complete.
“The city should be held accountable, not only to follow laws here, but to show everyone else that if they break laws they will be held accountable,” said Mattson. “The city of Montreal agrees to initiatives like the Kyoto accord that doesn’t cost them money, but they are ignoring what’s in their own back yard.”
In the meantime, the city has awarded a $183,000 contract to put the booms back in place and pump out the toxins, and a $470,000 contract to SNC-Lavalin to develop plans to build a 1.6-kilometre underground wall around the site, an idea that has been studied by city council, off and on, since 1999.