Hamilton ignored ’89 cleanup caution; Ammonia a greater threat than PCB-tainted soil

The Hamilton Spectator  November 13/1999
by Wylie Rogers

A consultant’s recommendation made 10 years ago to remove all waste from the Rennie Street landfill site likely would have stopped highly toxic and dangerous leachate from seeping into Red Hill Creek. Golder Associates concluded in 1989 after doing environmental sampling that all waste should be removed before the proposed Red Hill Creek Expressway was built. The waste is still there.

“The problem is always the same one,” said Dr. George Sorger, a biology professor at McMaster University. “Not enough people know about it, therefore, we quite democratically ignore it.”

Privately laid charges against the City of Hamilton were filed this week by the Environmental Bureau of Investigation (EBI). The organization studied seepage from the landfill and found unusual levels of PCBs and concentrations of ammonia. Laboratory tests have shown PCBs caused cancer in mice. PCBs have also been linked to embryo mortality and deformities in wildlife. Sustained, high-level exposure can cause health problems, but the federal health department says short-term, low-level exposure is unlikely to have significant health effects.

EBI investigator Mark Mattson said ammonia levels detected during his group’s testing were the highest he has ever seen. “Certainly, these levels would be unjustifiable,” he said yesterday. “I have no reason to believe it hasn’t been going on for years.”

Sorger said PCB-contaminated soil may pale in comparison to the threat posed by ammonia running into the creek. It’s a product of accumulated garbage, sewage or fertilizer. He said fish dying immediately when exposed to contaminated water is a powerful indicator of a problem that needs to be fixed. “If you get a direct toxic effect like that on fish, that says what is coming out of there is very toxic.” Ammonia easily dissolves in water and irritates the mouth, throat and nose. Sorger said the highly toxic levels found in leachate seeping into Red Hill Creek would likely affect the respiratory system. Although he isn’t a health specialist, Sorger said, “It would be something that probably affects you through your
lungs.” According to a 1998 regional report, the Rennie Street property has been used by the City of Hamilton as a Works Yard since at least 1962. It was used for the storage of construction waste, debris collected from city roperties, and compost materials. The northwest corner houses a small chemical storage area.

The report estimates 197,000 cubic metres of waste are on site. Around 1,200 cubic metres of hazardous PCB waste were found. To dispose of only the PCBs would cost an estimated $700,000. The overall cleanup had a projected price tag of $4.2 million. Within the 1998 report, the findings of several other environmental investigations were noted. A 1989 report recommended: “…the removal of all the waste prior to the construction of the roadway (Red Hill Creek Expressway) and relocation of the creek, and installation of a leachate collection system for the remaining waste.

** Outspoken environmentalist Patricia Pennzari said councillors such as Dave Wilson have known about the problem since the early ’90s.She says she has correspondence to support her claim. Wilson said Thursday he was not aware of a toxic material problem.

Sorger says many studies were done on the neighbouring Brampton Street Landfill which was experiencing similar problems. Despite public outcry, he says council did nothing.

Ministry of the Environment spokesperson John Steele says an investigation started in 1997 to determine the cause of high PCB and ammonia levels in Red Hill Creek. Hard results came in May 1998.
A report was sent to city officials in August 1998 recommending a stoppage of leachate flow and a local investigation. The city hired a consultant in March of this year.

As a result, the city says $10,000 was spent to dig out some PCB-contaminated soil at the site. It was taken to Quebec for treatment. “I would say for sure that’s just a band-aid solution to a long-time problem,” said Sorger. Steele said the slow remediation process is part of their investigation. He stops short of warning people to stay away from the creek. He does say the allegations from EBI are cause for concern. “Do we have people swimming in Red Hill Creek?” he asked. “No. (But), (high levels of ammonia) could pose a threat to aquatic creatures.”