Toxic leak shocks expert

The Hamilton Spectator  November 16/1999
by Carolynne Wheeler

Ammonia leaking from a former landfill site on Rennie Street into the Red Hill Creek is 30 to 70 times stronger than that discharged regularly by the region’s wastewater treatment plant. “I’ve never seen levels that high myself, in environmental work, anyway,” said Murray Charlton, a research scientist with the National Water Research Institute in Burlington.

The ammonia leaking into Red Hill Creek is in concentrations of 430 to 500 parts per million — astronomically higher than the six to 16 parts per million discharged regularly by Hamilton’s Woodward Avenue water treatment plant.

Last week, local environmentalist Lynda Lukasik and the watchdog group Environmental Bureau of Investigation laid private charges against the City of Hamilton under the provincial Environmental Protection Act and the federal Fisheries Act. They said city officials knew for at least 18 months that PCBs and toxic levels of ammonia were seeping into the creek without taking action. City politicians expressed concern that they had never been alerted to problems caused by the site, which is now a public works yard. And area residents who have fought for the creek’s survival said they now worry about their children’s health.

Ammonia seeping into water is a problem across the continent. It kills fish and can permanently change the type of plant life able to thrive. In moderate amounts, ammonia is a good thing. The chemical exists naturally in animal manure and human waste and is a valued fertilizer for farmers’ fields. But in large amounts, ammonia in air or water is a toxin that kills aquatic life and makes people sick. It isn’t clear what ammonia in a stream will do to people. But even at lower concentrations, warns Carleton University chemistry professor Bryan Hollebone, there is likely to be discomfort. Other scientists warn babies and very small children are more vulnerable, since exposure to nitrates — a breakdown of ammonia — can limit their blood’s ability to carry oxygen.

A more visible problem may be the effect ammonia contamination has on aquatic life. In high enough concentrations, it can kill fish outright; in the case of the Rennie Street site, environmentalists said fish introduced to the leachate in a lab died within minutes. Almost as serious, it can create “dead zones” where aquatic plants and algae feed on the liquid fertilizer and begin to grow at an astronomical pace, taking up all the oxygen and essentially suffocating fish.

The Red Hill Creek finding is also much higher than guidelines used for water discharge from fertilizer plants, ranging from 10 parts per million in Ontario to 35 in Alberta.

However, one thing isn’t clear — how the Environmental Bureau of Investigation measurements compare to provincial guidelines on what is an unacceptable level of ammonia in water. The provincial guideline of 0.02 parts per million measures only the portion of ammonia molecules that are actually toxic, also known as un-ionized, which changes with the water’s temperature and acidity. It also takes into account how much the ammonia has been diluted by the water it’s leaking into. “The bottom line is they’re not supposed to have any ammonia in the water,” said John Steele, media officer for Ontario’s Ministry of Environment.