River in toxic trouble, activist says by Sue Yanagisawa
Kingston environmentalist Janet Fletcher and the Environmental Bureau of Investigation want to see a warning issued to everyone living or vacationing on the Moira River or Moira Lake, north of Belleville, advising them not to drink the water.
The bureau, a grassroots environmental group co-founded by Fletcher, claims to have found dangerous concentrations of arsenic, cobalt and nickel in water samples drawn from the Moira River and its tributary, Young’s Creek, earlier this month.
They were subsequently able to obtain the Ministry of Environment’s sampling results for July and August and confirmed that arsenic levels in the Moira River regularly and significantly exceeded guidelines between July 26 and Aug. 16.
The arsenic is migrating from the orphaned Deloro mining and smelting site, a large, badly contaminated property north of Highway 7 abutting the river.
The Ministry of the Environment inherited the property and its problems about 30 years ago when the company that owned it filed for bankruptcy in the face of ministry cleanup orders.
Charged with rehabilitating the site, which has been leaking arsenic and other contaminants for years, the ministry issued itself a Certificate of Approval that permits discharges large enough to raise the level of arsenic in the river as high as 0.2 milligrams per litre, twice the concentration recommended by Provincial Water Quality Objectives.
However, this summer’s drought reduced water flow in the river, resulting in arsenic loadings that exceeded even the Certificate of Approval’s guidelines by 25 to 75 per cent.
“Dilution was the MOE’s solution – until it stopped raining,” Fletcher says in an bureau press release. “Now it must be held accountable.”
She doesn’t believe the ministry’s rehabilitation efforts have been aggressive enough and said she’s discussed the possibility of an investigation with Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner.
Fletcher told The Whig-Standardshe’d like to see an investigation into the ministry’s Certificate of Approval and “the whole toxic mess up there.”
Jim Ritter, who’s in charge of the Deloro Mine site cleanup project for the ministry, said there hasn’t been any violation of the Certificate of Approval. The arsenic concentrations cited in the certificate are only objectives, he said.
“In low-flow years they can’t be met and in low-flow years they won’t be met until another $18 million is spent and the remediation is completed,” he said.
Ritter is the Ministry of Environment’s regional project manager at Deloro, where he said $16 million has already been spent on the first phase of cleanup.
$18-million expected in 2002
The $18-million second phase is expected to be implemented between 2002 and 2005. It will involve burying the contaminants on site, contouring the land and diverting the ground and surface waters around contaminated wastes.
Ritter said the ministry is also looking at river bank reconstruction as a further barrier to arsenic and other toxic contaminants.
Right now, he said “the objective says, ‘try not to exceed 0.2 mg/L’ and generally we meet that. But you can’t meet it when you have low flow in the river.”
Eventually, he said, the target objective for arsenic will be 0.005 mg/L of river water. He calculates that arsenic entering the Moira has already been reduced by 80 per cent since the ministry took over and he emphasized that “the ministry is in there trying to clean up a problem that the private sector created.”
But Fletcher and the Environmental Bureau of Investigation aren’t convinced the government is doing everything it can to safeguard public health.
“It’s outrageous they haven’t told people how toxic the river is with the drought,” Fletcher said.
The ministry’s own research found people who admitted drinking the water downstream from Deloro, according to Fletcher.
In 1999, the ministry issued notices to property owners advising them not to drink “untreated” water from the Moira River between Deloro and the outlet of Moira Lake.
Reminders were sent in August 2000 and May 2001, according to Ritter. He said the plan is to continue to send them out annually.
Fletcher questioned whether seasonal visitors to the area and families renting in the area over the summer are being made aware of the problem.
She also thinks the warnings understate the health hazard by failing to warn people that conventional home water treatments won’t work on arsenic.
Energy Probe’s Tom Adams, who acts as an adviser to the bureau, observed that arsenic can’t be removed by boiling or using conventional water filters.
He said it requires distillation and sophisticated chemical treatments, followed by verification by assay.
In a letter written to the ministry last week, Adams expressed the opinion that water in Young’s Creek is so badly contaminated with arsenic, a few litres would contain enough to kill a child.
When questioned about the assertion, Ritter said he didn’t know what constitutes a lethal dose of arsenic.
“You’re asking me a health-related question that I can’t answer.”
Fletcher and the bureau initiated a private prosecution four years ago against the Ministry of Environment, charging it with allowing Deloro to pollute the Moira River and Young’s Creek.
Acquittal in June
Prosecution of the case, which was brought under the Fisheries Act, was taken over by the Attorney General and plodded through the courts for more than three years, ending in an acquittal in June from an Ottawa court.
The judge found the ministry had allowed arsenic and other contaminants to migrate into the river. But she also found the ministry was taking steps to clean up the problem and she accepted a defence of due diligence.
Lawyers representing the ministry and the Attorney General are scheduled to meet in Ottawa on Thursday to decide whether the bureau’s other charges against the ministry over Deloro will proceed to trial.
The remaining charges, under the Environmental Protection Act, claim the ministry has permitted the site to leak radioactive contamination.