January 22, 2002

Montreal Gazette

Probe oil slick on river: groups

Environmental groups are calling on the federal government to launch a criminal investigation of the city of Montreal after spotting a 400-metre-long toxic oil slick flowing into the St. Lawrence River on Sunday.

The contamination – normally contained by floating boons which have been removed for the winter – emanated from the city-owned Technoparc below the Victoria Bridge and included PCBs at concentrations “hundreds of thousands of times” greater than government guidelines, said Daniel Green of the SociÈtÈ pour Vaincre la Pollution.

Green says it’s time to hold the city accountable.

“The city has known about if for years and has done nothing. That’s an indictable offence under the Canadian Fisheries Act. We’re not talking about cotton candy, but about PCBs.”

Polychlorinated biphenyls and hydrocarbons from the site – a major city dump for about 100 years before it was filled and paved for a visitor’s parking lot for Expo ’67 – can contaminate fish caught by sports fishermen, or poison Beluga whales and other protected species in the river.

Environment Canada has been on the case since 1998, said Daniel Bidal, head of inspections for Environment Canada, Quebec Division.

“We have been following the situation and have sent warnings to the city of Montreal asking them to provide us with a plan to correct the situation,” Bidal said. “We have the option of prosecuting but that’s a last resort.”

In May 2000 the city announced it would build a kilometre-long underground wall to stop the contaminants and pump them out. But the project was apparently shelved for feasibility reasons, said both Bidal and Green.

Not so, said an engineer at the city’s new environment department. Serge Barbeau told The Gazette it would build the wall, estimated to cost about $31/2 million, and called for submissions to draw up plans – yesterday.

“We have had every intention of doing it,” Barbeau said. “But our consultants needed more information.”

That was the first Bidal had heard of the plan. “The city rejected it so if it’s reactivating it that’s fine. But we’re waiting for details.”

Barbeau said the city would chose a firm by the summer and could begin constructing the wall in the fall, so that by spring 2003 it would be operational.

An environmental lawyer working with Green to try and prosecute the city said it was good news.

“If they are looking at a long term solution that’s great, but it doesn’t excuse discharges at the site for the 365 days since I have been involved,” said Mark Mattson with the Environmental Investigation Bureau in Toronto.

“We will be looking at whether they could have acted earlier to prevent the damage caused to the river.”

Catherine Solyom’s E-mail address is csolyom@thegazette.southam.ca.