June 24, 2008

Globe and Mail

PCBs, fuel leaking into St. Lawrence River, pollution watchdog says
by Martin Mittelstaedt

North America’s environmental watchdog says up to eight million litres of diesel fuel and up to two tonnes of dangerous PCBs contaminate Montreal’s Technoparc and are leaking into the nearby St. Lawrence River.

The watchdog, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, released its five-year investigation into the site yesterday. The area, now an industrial park owned by the city between the Champlain and Victoria Bridges at Pointe-Saint-Charles, was used as a parking lot during Expo 67, but before that had been a dump for industrial waste.

The waste fuel would fill about three Olympic-size swimming pools, and contaminants from the site can be detected several kilometres downstream from a city waste water treatment plant, according to the CEC.

The CEC has been investigating the site after five Canadian [including the Environmental Bureau of Investigation]and U.S. conservation groups alleged in 2003 that Environment Canada was failing to enforce provisions of the Fisheries Act that make it illegal to discharge harmful pollutants into fish habitat.

Testing by the groups found that PCB concentrations at Technoparc were up to 8.5 million times above Canada’s water quality guidelines. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are transformer fluids now banned because they cause deformities in animals, particularly those exposed during early life.

After a preliminary review, the CEC, which was set up under the North American free-trade agreement to monitor pollution in Canada, the United States and Mexico, said the allegations merited an in-depth investigation known as a factual record.

The CEC isn’t allowed to issue conclusions on the conduct of governments and can issue only facts about cases. Yet its investigation did conclude that groundwater at the site “is toxic to fish” and that “by the late 1980s, government authorities knew that the lands … were contaminated.”

Environment Canada studied the site in 2003, but didn’t launch Fisheries Act charges because it said it was “impossible to determine the source and pathway of the contaminants,” according to the CEC.

Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, one of the groups that complained to the CEC, said, “This is an incredible story about Canada doing everything in its ability to escape accountability and enforcement of a continuing environmental travesty on the St. Lawrence River.”

In its defence, Environment Canada told the CEC that pollutants from the site could have come from the dumping of snow and waste of unknown origin.

Because Environment Canada worried that it wouldn’t have a successful prosecution under the Fisheries Act, it decided to drop its investigation and continue “its efforts with the different parties potentially responsible for the contamination in order to find a lasting solution to this environmental problem,” the CEC said.