The anatomy of Kenora’s PCB spill

Andrew Nikiforuk April 29 1985

The anatomy of Kenora’s PCB spill

Andrew Nikiforuk April 29 1985

The anatomy of Kenora’s PCB spill

Andrew Nikiforuk


Patrick Winter, a 33-year-old Kenora building contractor, became alarmed the moment that he saw a white flatbed truck spilling fluid when it turned off the Trans-Canada Highway, outside of Kenora, Ont. Recognizing the cargo as electrical transformers, Winter said that he immediately thought the substance splashing from the vehicle might be toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), often used to insulate transformers, like those the truck was carrying. Three hours later, as he drove past the service station again on his way to a party, his suspicions were confirmed when he found the area cordoned off and ablaze with flashing lights. Declared Winter: “As soon as I saw that, I knew there was something serious about that stuff.”

Winter and most of the 9,600 other residents of the northwestern Ontario community 55 km east of the Manitoba border swiftly learned that the liquid was indeed a highly concentrated form of potentially deadly PCBs. At least six

people, including a pregnant woman, were directly exposed to the substance, which can cause skin and kidney disorders, birth defects and possibly cancer. In the days that followed, people in Kenora reacted with shock, alarm, confusion and—finally—anger as they witnessed an official response that was at best uncertain.

A day-by-day chronology of the disturbing events:

Saturday, April 13. Two drivers of a truck operated by the Alberta-based Kinetic Ecological Resource Group pull into the Husky station at 4:30 p.m. for coffee. Motorist Lloyd Eyjolfson, travelling from Red Lake, Ont., to Winnipeg, stops to tell the two drivers that part of their cargo of four aging electrical transformers is leaking. After a quick inspection, the truckers discover that one of the transformers is spilling a stream of PCBs. One of the drivers immediately telephones Kinetic’s head office in Nisku, Alta., which in turn alerts the Thunder Bay office of Ontario’s environment ministry that a major toxic spill has occurred. Within 30 minutes,

Kenora and Ontario Provincial Police officers, firemen and municipal officals arrive at the station and seal off the immediate area. Municipal workers —who are told that the substance is oil—spread sawdust and sand on pools of PCBs while police officers search the Trans-Canada Highway for other spills. Provincial police report areas of discoloration on the Trans-Canada as far west as Vermilion Bay, 70 km east of Kenora.

Sunday, April 14. An officer of Ontario’s environment ministry surveying the highway between Vermilion Bay and Kenora discovers three major spill areas—the largest a 1,000-metre-long trail of PCBs varying from one to three metres in width near Dogtooth Lake, about 20 km east of Kenora. Local and provincal officials now realize that the leaking transformer has dumped a significant volume of PCBs onto the road, and they decide to involve a higher level of authority by notifying senior Ontario government officials. As Rick Belair, coordinator for the Kenora District Emergency Measures Organization, explained later: “We looked after things

until it got bigger than we could handle.”

Meanwhile, a sample of the spilled substance has arrived at a Manitoba government laboratory for tests. Those confirm that the spilled liquid contains a solvent and 42-per-cent pure PCBs. During an afternoon conference telephone call, provincial representatives of three different ministries decide to close the highway between Kenora and Vermilion Bay. By now, 22 hours have passed since the spill’s discovery and nearly 4,000 motorists have driven on or past stretches of PCB-splashed highway.

Later in the afternoon William Lees, deputy minister of the federal department of northern affairs, and Gordon Van Fleet, deputy regional director of

the Ontario environment ministry, arrive in Kenora from Thunder Bay to co-ordinate the cleanup. They have never handled a PCB spill larger than a small discharge in a parking lot.

In Kenora an emergency hotline is established at the town hall, and a press release informs Kenorans that a “brief single exposure to PCBs produces no harmful effects” but that the spill threatens the environment.

Monday, April 15. Environment officals cannot yet accurately estimate the volume of PCBs spilled on the highway. Later in the day officials learn that the spill is at least 150 km longer than they had originally believed. More PCB spills are located in Dryden and Ignace.

When Patrick Winter asks what do about the splotches of PCBs around his truck’s wheels, a government official tells him to put on rubber gloves and wipe off the contaminant with Varsol

and a dry rag. “I can’t believe you are saying that,” Winter replies. “There is no bloody way I’m touching it.”

At an afternoon press conference, Mervin Nobel, the national sales manager for the Kinetic Ecological Resource Group, says that he thought of killing himself when he first heard about the spill. He adds that the decision to ship a transformer containing PCBs was a “judgment call. It turned out to be a bad call, I guess.”

Tuesday, April 16. Kenora Mayor Kalvin Winkler denies that the people of Kenora are “seriously concerned” about the spill, accusing the media of exaggeration. But Charlene Schabler, a clerk at a local pharmacy, says, “If this were downtown Toronto things would have

been acted on a lot quicker.”

Dr. Peter Friesen, regional medical health officer, tries to dispel fears that PCBs pose an immediate health hazard. Declares Friesen: “It would be safer to walk along a highway with PCBs than sitting in a room with a smoker.” Wednesday, April 17. Health officials announce that a “handful” of people have suffered acute exposure to PCBs. They include Eyjolfson, his pregnant wife and two young children, who drove behind the leaky transformer for 25 km, and an unidentified man who got PCBs on his arms and hands while cleaning off his windshield. Says Pamela Kellaway, a child care worker who is worried about the long-term effects of the spills on local drinking water supplies: “We don’t have the experts or the outcry you would have in an urban centre. But that doesn’t change the effects. We have a disaster on our hands.”

Without explanation, Winnipeg RCMP agents prevent samples of PCBs from being loaded on commercial airlines for testing at a Toronto lab. Federal transport officials say that the samples are not labelled and packaged according to regulations governing the transport of hazardous wastes. In response, the coordinating team hires a private carrier and eventually receives a waiver from Transport Canada to ship the testing samples to Toronto. Federal transport officials order five commercial airlines that carried the samples earlier in the week to be decontaminated.

Thursday, April 18. At 10 a.m. the Trans-Canada Highway reopens. In Kenora a half inch of pavement has been ground off all of the PCB spill sites including patches outside a nursing home and on Main Street. Lees, the deputy northern affairs minister, concludes that the PCBs have been satisfactorily contained in the short term.

In the afternoon Randy Perchuk rushes into the Town Hall angry and upset. “What the hell is going on here?” he wants to know. He and his wife had been trapped in the Husky gas station last Saturday for an hour while police decided what to do about the spill. They had both become dizzy and nauseated from the PCB fumes and the scare, but had been later reassured by Friesen that they had nothing to worry about. Now the local health unit wants all individuals who believe they have been directly exposed to the spills to come forward. Kinetic employees finally set up a compound to decontaminate vehicles, including Winter’s.

Friday, April 19. A field epidemiologist arrives in Kenora to interview 50 residents who may have been exposed to the PCBs. For the first time, health officials distribute 2,000 leaflets on the spill. The co-ordinating committee effectively disbands but the hotlines remain open for the weekend. Negotiations begin between Ontario and Alberta on where 130 45-gallon drums of PCB-contaminated gravel and asphalt will eventually be stored. Transport department officials discover that the truck carrying the generator is still leaking and cannot be moved.

Saturday, April 20. A new flatbed truck is ordered from Edmonton. It is to be equipped with a drip pan beneath the transformer and covered with a rubberized tarpaulin. Meànwhile, the notorious transformer remained immovable and its journey to Alberta was not exto begin until midweek.

Although provincial authorities now pronounce Kenora clean, questions about the spill’s aftereffects promise to haunt the community almost as detminedly as the enduring PCBs now bound to 220 km of pavement along the TransCanada Highway.