September 21, 2003

The Gazette

Watchdog watching St. Lawrence River PCBs
by Ann Carrol

Canada-U.S.-Mexico environmental panel asks Ottawa to answer charges

Groups protesting high levels of PCBs in the St. Lawrence River have caught the ear of the Canada-U.S.-Mexico environmental watchdog agency.

The Commission on Environmental Cooperation has asked Ottawa to answer charges it failed to enforce regulations governing the discharge of PCBs and other toxic wastes into the river near the Technoparc in downtown Montreal.

“Canada has 60 days to respond,” said Geoffrey Garver of the CEC, an agency set up under the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Free Trade Agreement. Depending on the response, the CEC council could authorize an in-depth investigation and report.

Such reports carry no legal weight. They simply lay out “a factual record” for environmental groups, government officials and other interested parties to act on, Garver said.

Environment Canada last year had looked at the possibility of charging polluters, under the Fisheries Act, for allowing toxic substances to leech into the river near the Technoparc alongside the Bonaventure Expressway.

Officials dropped the investigation in April, saying they could not “determine the precise source of the deleterious substances.”

That isn’t good enough for some environmental activists.

“If you don’t know where it comes from, go look some more,” said Mark Mattson of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, one of the organizations that submitted a brief to the CEC. “It’s really serious and needs a serious response.”

Other partners in the lobby effort included Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s group, Waterkeeper Alliance, and the Montreal-based Société pour vaincre la pollution.

The Montreal Technoparc, a former waste dump and landfill site in the early 1900s – turned parking lot for Expo 67, was acquired by the city of Montreal in 1988.

A para-municipal development corporation was created to market the site – and its former sister campus in western Ville St. Laurent – to high-tech firms interested in research and development. The downtown campus never took off and is now home to only three companies: Teleglobe, Bell Mobility and Mel’s Cité du Cinéma. The St. Laurent park ended affiliation with the Montreal Technoparc in the mid-90s.

More disappointing to the city, the former dump has become an environmental headache as decades of waste buildup and oil residue onsite and from neighbouring properties seep into the river.

A contractor has set up booms and sponges to catch some of the PCB-laden oil, but it’s not a perfect solution, says councillor Alan DeSousa, executive committee member responsible for environmental issues.

The city was ready last year to build a retaining wall partially underground to prevent pollutants from oozing into the river, DeSousa said, but the project was postponed after Environment Canada raised questions about the groundwater quality.

A new plan to handle both oil and contaminated runoff water might have to be developed, DeSousa said, though it is not clear who will pay for it. “We want to find an enduring solution as opposed to a Band-Aid solution.”