Agostino demands probe of toxic Rennie St. runoff

The Hamilton Spectator  November 12/1999
by Jon Wells

Hamilton East MPP Dominic Agostino wants a provincial investigation into why the elimination of toxic runoff from a works yard and former dump on Rennie Street wasn’t pursued more aggressively by the city or Ministry of the Environment.The controversy has resulted in privately laid charges against the City of Hamilton by an environmental watchdog, backed by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund.

“We need an independent investigation to assess who knew about the problem, what action was taken, and who screwed up for this to carry on this long,” said Agostino. His riding includes Rennie Street in the city’s northeast.

About 18 months ago, the provincial ministry detected PCBs and toxic levels of ammonia seeping into Red Hill Creek, originating from land along Rennie Street — property which has been used as a public works yard since a landfill on the site was closed in the mid-1950s.

The ministry sent a letter to the city in May 1998, expressing concern about polychlorinated-biphenyl contamination on the site. Former commissioner of public works Doug Lobo responded with a letter in August 1998, saying evaluation and remediation would address the issue.

No work was done until last May, one year after the ministry’s letter, when the city says $10,000 was spent to dig out some PCB-contaminated soil at the site and take it to Quebec for treatment.

At issue is whether the city and ministry acted promptly, and why elected city officials were allegedly never told about the problem. The upshot could be as much as $2 million in fines against the city, which is the maximum penalty that can result from the charges.

There is also the issue of health impacts related to the toxic runoff. These impacts are unknown, particularly given the largely inconclusive research on limited human exposure to PCBs, but of no less concern to local residents.

“These are serious allegations,” said Agostino. “Kids play in that area. To allow toxic material to flow there without anyone taking concrete action is gross negligence on someone’s part.”

Ward 4 Alderman Dave Wilson, whose ward includes Rennie Street, said of the PCBs: “I don’t see them as the massive problem others do.

“But they are clearly a problem and should be dispersed properly in the environment.”

Wilson and Chad Collins, who is head of the transport and environment committee, claim they never knew about the toxic material, not even as staffers were corresponding with the ministry.

But clearly aldermen and staff knew for some time that Rennie Street contained contaminated material.

A consultant’s report related to construction of the Red Hill Creek Expressway released in July 1998, pointed to the need to remove 2,000 cubic metres of hazardous waste from the Rennie Street site. It said nothing about specific pollutants.

While the city removed some of the PCB-ammonia contaminated soil in May, environmentalists say this was symbolic remediation at best.

Lynda Lukasik, Hamilton’s 1999 environmentalist of the year, is working with the volunteer Environmental Bureau of Investigation (EBI) to file the charges. She says EBI testing between last June 18 and Aug. 20, well after the city’s digging, showed toxic contamination was still prominent.

“The city dug out some soil with a backhoe and then plugged it up — it was just patch work,” she said. “My sense is, they need to do a complete remediation.”

City officials claim the remediation is a work in progress, and consultants continue to monitor the site to gear up for further action. Yet aldermen were never told of this continued concern until the announcement of the charges this week.

Moreover, it appears that funding necessary to conduct further remediation has not been included in the city’s 2000 capital budget.

A proposal to allocate $100,000 annually to clean up old city-owned dumps — like the one at Rennie Street — was nixed from early budget drafts by staffers before it ever got to aldermen on the budget steering committee.

Wilson, for one, plans to make a move to reintroduce that funding when the capital budget is debated at council.

He is upset staff never told him about the PCBs and ammonia. But, apart from this, he believes the city and ministry handled the remediation issue properly.

He said he discovered yesterday that the two bureaucracies exchanged several letters between January and May, before the ministry gave approval to remove some PCB-contaminated soil.

As for the 12-month delay from the first letter to the soil removal, he said: “It’s as quick as anything (the city and ministry bureaucracy) ever do. A turnaround of a year or less is considered pretty good. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

“It takes time, with all the reports, reviewing paperwork, exchanging comments.”

But Agostino believes “somebody dropped the ball” by not releasing information on the toxic runoff, and for not ensuring an immediate, thorough cleanup.

The outspoken Liberal MPP is a spirited critic of the provincial government, often attacking its budget cutbacks to ministries.

He said cuts to MOE staff hurts its response time to situations like those at Rennie Street.

“The ministry is ultimately responsible. But if the city didn’t do what they were supposed to, they should have been charged. And if there was no follow-up, then the MOE is negligent in their duty.”

PCB PRIMER

* Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals (known as congeners). PCBs are either oily liquids or solids and are colourless to light yellow in colour. They have no known smell or taste. There are no known natural sources of PCBs.

* PCBs don’t burn easily and are good insulating material. They have been used widely as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment. They went into use 70 years ago, became suspect as a health hazard 30 years ago, and their manufacture was stopped more than 20 years ago when it was determined the substance is carcinogenic. Products containing PCBs are old fluorescent lighting fixtures, electrical appliances containing PCB capacitors, old microscope oil, and hydraulic fluids.

* You can be exposed to PCBs by: using old fluorescent lighting fixtures and old appliances such as television sets and refrigerators that may leak small amounts of PCBs into the air when they get hot during operation; eating food, including fish, meat and dairy products containing PCBs; breathing air near hazardous waste sites that contain PCBs; drinking PCB-contaminated well water; repairing or maintaining PCB transformers.

* Health impacts of PCBs have always been a controversial area. PCBs were synonymous with cancer in the 1980s. Protesters in Quebec fought riot police and threw themselves in front of trucks carrying PCBs to prevent their transfer through their town. But it is not known whether PCBs cause cancer in humans. In a long-term (365 days or longer) study, PCBs caused cancer of the liver in rats that ate certain PCB mixtures.

People exposed to PCBs in the air for a long time have experienced irritation of the nose and lungs, and skin irritations such as acne and rashes. The most recent PCB health debate is whether PCBs cause birth defects or reproductive problems in people, but this is so far inconclusive.

Animals that breathed very high levels of PCBs had liver and kidney damage while animals that ate food with large amounts of PCBs had mild liver damage. Animals that ate food with smaller amounts of PCBs had liver, stomach and thyroid gland injuries, as well as anemia, acne and problems with their reproductive systems. Skin exposure to PCBs in animals resulted in liver, kidney and skin damage.