Environment

It’s enough to make you sick—or dead

Judy Dobbie October 2 1978
Environment

It’s enough to make you sick—or dead

Judy Dobbie October 2 1978

It’s enough to make you sick—or dead

Environment

For the residents of St. Pierre Jolys, a community of 1,000 located 40 kilometres south of Winnipeg, the tornado which ripped through southern Manitoba last June was the last straw, memorable not for what it hit, but for what it narrowly missed. Smack in the middle of their smartly kept town

stands an old, rundown warehouse with a perilously sagging roof in which 300 tons of rat poison, in the form of lethal arsenic trioxide, has been stored since the early ’50s. The chemical was purchased by Poulin’s, a Winnipeg pest control company which planned to set up a worldwide distribution business before the original owner’s death prompted his heirs to abandon the idea.

Since the federal government banned the substance as a pesticide in 1972, the town council has waged a continuous battle with present owner, Don Poulin, to have the poison removed. Poulin admits he’d gladly give the stuff away, but claims he can’t afford the removal costs, variously estimated from $70,000 to $150,000. After St. Pierre Jolys passed a special bylaw commanding Poulin to evacuate the volatile chemical or face a bill from the town for its disposal, the Manitoba government last week offered to subsidize the job up to $75,000—providing the stuff was moved clear out of the province. Even that didn’t help too much; when Don Poulin inquired about storing the arsenic in an abandoned mine in Idaho the authorities there responded,“It’s a bad time to ask because there’s an election in November.” With no early solution in sight, town councillor Denis Grégoire says the residents have lived long enough with the fear of fire, vandalism and contamination of local water supplies. Intense heat would release poisonous fumes from the arsenic, and soaking it with water from fire hoses or a storm could carry it into town wells. “Just across the road there’s a senior citizens’ home,” says Grégoire. “I don’t like to think what would happen if a fire broke out.”

The townsfolk of St. Pierre Jolys see the mountain of rat poison in their midst as a catastrophe waiting to happen. It’s not the only one. In Ontario alone, more than 220 tons of deadly polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs are currently being stored as liquid waste under varying conditions at sites throughout the province—many of them in urban areas—because there is no incinerator anywhere in Canada capable of destroying them. According to Ed Carey, chief of Environment Canada’s hazardous wastes management division, a disposal method will eventually have to be found for the 20,000 tons of PCBs now in use nationwide, mainly in electrical transformers. At two sites owned by a waste-disposal firm called Tri-Chem Refineries in Delta, B.C., south of Vancouver, hundreds of battered, rusted 45-gallon drums containing 140,000 gallons of highly volatile and toxic industrial wastes such as paint solvents, toluene, sodium cyanide, hydrochloric acid and mercury have been left unguarded since the closing down of Tri-Chem in July. Last month, Delta authorities confirmed several of the drums were leaking. “If those types of chemicals are manhandled, we could be sitting on a bomb over there,” warned local Environmental Control Officer El Adams.

Chilling as that may sound, the Delta situation, like that of St. Pierre Jolys, is actually cause for ironic relief—at least these are known locations of potential environmental or public health calamities. What worries B.C. environmentalists far more is this: since Tri-Chem was the only facility in the province which would accept hazardous chemicals for disposal, where are the waste-haulers depositing their morbid loads now? The same question goes begging in Ontario where waste-removal operators have also been left with almost nowhere to dispose of most of the estimated 50 million gallons of chemical effluent now being churned out annually by industries. In April, Metro Toronto finally put the lid on the one landfill site in the city equipped to handle liquid industrial

wastes. Now companies providing 35 per cent of the five million gallons of liquids deposited there each year have nowhere else to send the stuff. Says senior Ontario environment ministry official Edward Turner: “Unless something is done in the very immediate future to treat these wastes, we will literally be up to our necks in them.”

Figuratively, we already are. In May, the province turned thumbs down on a private-industry proposal for a major treatment and disposal plant at Nanticoke, on Lake Erie. Two months later, Tried Waste Management Ltd., which was burning six million gallons of toxic wastes yearly, shut down its Mississauga incinerator in the face of government orders to install additional pollution-control equipment. At the same time, Tried boosted rates for long-distance haulage of waste materials to its Sarnia incinerator or to disposal sites in Montreal and the U.S. by 80 to 100 per cent. A month later the firm reported a dramatic decline in the volume of toxic wastes being received for disposal. So where is it going?

Where, indeed? Clearly many companies are simply stockpiling their wastes until treatment or disposal facilities materialize—a situation which can in time dot the land with abandoned stores of hazardous waste. Government officials and industry people share the conviction that toxic wastes are being sloughed off into fields, ditches, streams, swamps, unapproved landfill sites, and even municipal sewer sys-

terns. “What other possible conclusion can you come to?” asks one environmental researcher. “Someone is helping to keep things afloat, and we suspect it’s the midnight hauler.” Some tank-truck operator, that is, who will ditch dangerous waste with no questions asked.

Provincial environment officials were concerned enough by last year to implement a compulsory waybill system which, when it is fully automated this fall, should identify any major discrepancies in the disposition of liquid industrial wastes. Meanwhile, lacking enough inspectors to police the problem, they’ve resorted to asking the public to report any suspicious dumping. “The problem,” claims a Vancouver environmentalist, who cites the Fraser River as a preferred illicit dumping ground, “is that everyone knows it’s going on, but you can’t get anyone in either government or industry to put the finger on the people doing it.”

“Governments may eventually have to be much more dictatorial in getting sites,” warns Joseph Castrilli of the Canadian Environmental Law Research Foundation. The public’s rejection of almost every proposal for the construction of new toxic-waste treatment and disposal facilities is one of the primary reasons for the present crisis. While consumer demand produces the manufactured goods whose byproduct is hazardous wastes, nobody wants these buried in their backyard. “The public wants a 100-per-cent guarantee that they will be safe forever from any possible ill effects,” says Edward Turner. “But we have to accept some risks. The best we can do is try to minimize them.”

Presumably, that’s what the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp. did more than 30 years ago when it buried tons of toxic chemicals in metal drums at a landfill site in an area of Niagara Falls, N.Y., known as Love Canal. Two years ago, the contents of the drums began oozing from the ground, killing plant life and burning dogs and children playing in the residential community erected earlier on the former dump. By the time Love Canal was declared a national emergency area this summer, scientists had identified 82 chemicals on the site, 11 of them suspected carcinogens. An unusually high incidence of miscarriages, blood abnormalities and nervous disorders among the evacuated residents is now thought to be related to the leached chemicals. “We just don’t know how many potential Love Canals there are,” puzzles Steffen Plehn of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In Quebec, environment officials are currently attempting to trace radioactive landfill quarried from a closeddown columbium mine at Oka, west of Montreal, and sold to contractors all over the province as fill.

Pollution Probe, an environmental research and lobby group, blames the present situation on the lack of comprehensive government policies on hazardous waste disposal. The Canadian Environmental Law Association is seriously concerned that while the quantity of dangerous wastes is increasing by five to 10 per cent every year, the waste generators have little incentive to reduce their disposal requirements through reclamation or recycling. Tricil’s Jacques Bry sees the key question as, “Is society prepared to pay the price for maintaining the ecological balance?”

Judy Dobbie