ENVIRONMENT/SPECIAL REPORT

IN DEADLY PLACES

JOHN BARBER May 26 1986
ENVIRONMENT/SPECIAL REPORT

IN DEADLY PLACES

JOHN BARBER May 26 1986

IN DEADLY PLACES

ENVIRONMENT/SPECIAL REPORT

Scientist Douglas Hallett, 37, has devoted his career to publicizing the threat of toxic chemicals in the environment. Late in 1980 he disclosed that herring gull eggs in the Great Lakes were contaminated with 2,3,7,8-TCDD, a form of dioxin and the most potent manmade poison in existence. Last fall Hallett tried to go public with an even more troubling report—that almost all the food eaten in southern Ontario is contaminated with toxic chemicals. But then his superiors at Environment Canada’s Ontario office banned him from talking to the press without permission and ordered all his calls to be screened. Hallett, who was already upset by the government’s policies, resigned. Said Hallett: “It seems acceptable to warn about fish and gulls, but when it comes to humans—well, governments have difficulty admitting to these problems.” However, the International Joint Commission (iJC) and Toronto’s Board of Health planned to release Hallett’s controversial report on food contamination this week. It is likely to become another landmark in Canadians’ slowly evolving understanding of the toxic threat.

Alarms: Hallett argues that the government, initially at least, was reluctant to publicize the report’s message: that living far from pollution sources and drinking bottled water are no longer a sufficient defence against the insidious spread of toxic chemicals. For his part, Environment Minister Thomas McMillan has criticized Hallett sharply since his resignation. But in recent weeks McMillan has sounded alarms of his own about toxic waste. Last week McMillan released a document called The State of the Environment Report for Canada that gave the country a grading of F for its handling of toxic waste and that added that toxics were “emerging as Canada’s number 1 environmental problem.” In a news conference, McMillan declared: “Our handling of toxic chemicals is absolutely appalling. Each of us must bear the burden of cleaning it all up.”

Unlike the sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions responsible for acid rain, the sources of the estimated 3.3 million tons of hazardous waste that pour untreated into the Canadian environment are incredibly diverse. Not all of the material comes from easily pin-

pointed industrial discharges. Much of it leaks undetected from abandoned landfills. As well, many methods of disposal currently in use return as many toxics to the environment as they remove. Such stored poisons as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chlorinated benzene evaporate rapidly from industrial lagoons. And dozens of lowtemperature incinerators burning sewage sludge shoot the toxic chemicals it contains high into the air. Said Donald Chant, a senior Canadian environmentalist and chairman of the provincially owned Ontario Waste Management Corp.: “The solutions to acid rain are rather more simple than the job of removing the tens of thousands of haz-

ardous wastes from the environment.” Cancer: Hallett’s report, commissioned by the IJC and coauthored by Dr. Kate Davies of the Toronto health department, shows how the 55,000 manmade chemicals in the environment travel through the air far from their sources and how, by landing on cropland, they pollute food supplies. The document drew on data collected over 16 years and examined contaminants in food collected randomly at supermarkets around Toronto. According to a 1983 report by the environmental group Pollution Probe, traces of 53 chemicals

have been detected in the city’s treated drinking water. Of those, 16 are known to cause cancer in animals or humans. City officials are considering building expensive new treatment plants to deal with the problem, but the report stresses that contaminated drinking water is only part of the problem. Restoring it to purity, it says, will eliminate less than one per cent of all the major contaminants. The vast majority of the city’s three million residents ingest dangerous chemicals in food. Said Hallett: “This is definitely more serious than acid rain, a far more serious problem for wildlife, fish and humans. Everyone is contaminated, no one escapes.”

So far, government responses to such intractable and potentially explosive problems have been fragmented and sporadic. For one thing, regulating toxic waste is largely a provincial responsibility, and the laws vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Federal involvement is restricted to regulating wastes crossing provincial or international borders—although environmentalists have long urged successive federal governments to take a more active role. As a result, says federal Environment Minister McMillan, the law is “either so draconian that it is

seldom applied or so vague that it can’t be applied.”

Only Alberta and Ontario have plans for modern treatment and disposal plants for toxic wastes. Similar initiatives stalled recently in British Columbia, and Quebec has only completed preliminary research on a plant that will serve the province and Atlantic Canada. But even under Ontario’s tough new regulatory regime, 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste pass into the environment without treatment each year. Said James Kaufman, assistant director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hazardous waste division: “Canada is 10 years behind the United States in this field. As

our laws get stronger—and they are getting stronger fast—Canada is being left in the dust.”

Leaking: The most serious toxic threats are located in Ontario and Quebec, the country’s industrial heartland. Ontario’s “chemical valley” on the five miles of the St. Clair River south of Sarnia became a hot spot last summer when Dow Chemical Canada Inc. spilled 2,500 gallons of perchlorethlyene, a dry-cleaning solvent, into the river. Subsequent research showed that both before and after the spill toxic chemicals were constantly leaking into

the river, and scientists were unable to rule out the possibility that the dioxinlaced sludge found on the river bottom was coming from a deep cavern that Dow had used to store wastes for more than 40 years. There are eight billion litres of toxic waste stored in 16 such wells in the area, and last fall Environment Canada scientist Daryl Cowell said that if they were leaking, they could create one of “the biggest hazard-

ous waste problems in North America.” Cleanup: The Niagara River, which flows into Lake Ontario—the source of drinking water for four million Canadians and one million Americans—already holds that dubious distinction. There are 164 U.S. waste sites—and five Canadian—within five kilometres of the Niagara River, 28 of which are known to be leaking toxins. In 1984 the Niagara River Toxics Committee said that 2,650 lb. of so-called “priority pollutants” entered the river every day. The eight-member committee, which included both U.S. and Canadian experts, traced 90 per cent of the pollution to sources on the U.S. side of the border and noted that one leaking U.S. dump alone contains 3,000 lb. of dioxin. And last week the Ontario government discovered the highest levels of dioxins and chemically related substances ever recorded in water draining into the river from a sewer leading from an Occidental Chemical Corp. plant near Buffalo, N.Y.

But despite almost weekly revelations of new toxic waste problems, the political obstacles to an effective cleanup remain formidable. After six months of negotiations, McMillan acknowledged last week that he had been unable to conclude a satisfactory agreement with U.S. authorities on a Niagara cleanup. For his part, Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley bluntly criticized the agreement, which

so far includes no definite deadlines and has no provision for the excavation and destruction of the stored wastes. Although he once spoke strongly in favor of such measures, McMillan angrily denounced the Ontario government last week for refusing to endorse his compromise deal with EPA director Lee Thomas. Said McMillan:

“I can’t go down to Washington and browbeat President Reagan.”

Sewage: The St. Lawrence River near Montreal is a purely Canadian toxic hot spot. There, more than 1,000 industries pollute a river that McMillan says is “in some places little more than an open sewer.” Almost 200 firms discharge untreated wastes directly into the river, with

five large plants responsible for 90 per cent of the toxic effluent in the river. As well, the city of Montreal does not treat its human sewage at all. McMillan said that successful prosecutions of industrial polluters in Quebec “could be counted on the fingers of one hand.” He added that the resulting fines—ranging from $1 up to only $60,000—have been “so weak as to constitute a licence to pollute.”

Despite their limited industrial base, the Atlantic provinces have even fewer controls. Almost a century of unregulated discharge from the Sydney Steel works in Cape Breton has polluted Sydney harbor with sludge containing chemicals known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, several of which are known to cause cancer in animals.

Dangers: In the West, Alberta next year will become the first province in Canada with a comprehensive waste disposal system when it opens a $40-million plant in Swan Hills, a town of 2,500, 150 km northwest of Edmonton. Its pur9 pose: to handle 20,000 1 tons of hazardous wastes I each year, including z PCBs, from plants and i storage sites in the prov-

ince. There are no similar facilities planned for British Columbia. There, the worst pollution is concentrated along the Fraser River, where sawmills use the dangerous chemical chlorophenol to preserve wood products. In several old plants, spills of the chemical into the river and the use of outdoor tanks from which it evaporates into the air have polluted the Fraser estuary near Vancouver. Said Environment Canada contaminants officer Kenneth Wile: “We have noticed an increase of chlorophenols in the Fraser River ecosystem, and that includes sediments, fish and water. It is a serious problem, and we are quite concerned about it.” The persistence of such pollution belies the fact that currently available methods of removing contaminants from the environment are as advanced as the techniques for detecting them. As a result, such large companies as the Steel Co. of Canada already treat and recycle much of their own waste on their premises. In Alberta, industries already dispose of half the hazardous wastes produced—with the Swan Hills plant scheduled to destroy the remainder. For one thing, such inorganic wastes as mercury, arsenic and chromium can be enveloped in concrete, then safely stored in landfills. Said Thomas Finnbogasson of Envirochem Services in Burnaby, B.C., a waste-treatment firm: “There is no magic to treating waste. The United States has been doing it for years, as has Europe.”

Failure: The fact remains that Canada has not adopted the latest technology to combat its growing toxic problems, and that failure is most apparent in the handling of PCBs. Compounds of hydrogen, chlorine and carbon, PCBs were the wonder chemicals of the 1930s and 1940s and have been used in the production of dozens of products, including ink, plastic and carbon paper. But although European and U.S. researchers first identified PCBs as a threat to human life in the 1960s, Ottawa did not restrict their use in Canada until 1977. Even then, the law did not call for the removal of existing PCBs, and more than 60 per cent are still in use—largely in a molasses-like liquid used to cool electric transformers and capacitors. Of the approximately 25,000 tons still in existence in Canada, only 6,510 are now in storage, awaiting disposal in incinerators capable of attaining the necessary temperatures of 1,200°C—but so far no such facilities have been built in Canada.

One of the most serious incidents in Canada involving PCBs occurred last spring when a transformer anchored to a flatbed truck spilled PCBs over a 70km stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway near Kenora, Ont. As a result, an Ontario provincial court judge levied a

$50,000 fine against Edmonton-based Kinetic Ecological Resources Group, although none of the waste disposal company’s executives attended the trial. Indeed, Kinetic president Gerald Gerke sold the company to the Alberta government shortly after the accident for $2.4 million.

Regulations: Still, even effective

technology is inadequate without strong political support. That is most evident in the treatment program offered by Stablex Canada Inc., 25 km north of Montreal in Blainville, Que. The company’s three-year-old plant uses a patented British technology called “Sealosafe” to immobilize inorganic wastes in chemical jackets of synthetic rock. Then, workers bury the neutralized waste in a 325-acre landfill

near the plant. The technology represents the most effective way of disposing of such persistent toxins as cyanide, chromium, lead and arsenic. But Stablex vice-president Pierre Grenier says that the plant has not met its production target of treating 100,000 tons of waste per year. The reason, according to Grenier: “There is a certain slowness on the part of the Quebec government to enforce its regulations governing toxic waste disposal.” Grenier added that few companies would pay as much as $200 per ton that Stablex charges to dispose of waste when they could simply dump byproducts into local sewer systems.

Indeed, Grenier told Maclean’s that much of the company’s business comes from the United States. There, strin-

gent new federal laws make industries indefinitely liable for leaks from their landfills. Said Grenier: “Canada is five to 10 years behind the United States in terms of environmental laws and their application.”

Even in Ontario, where Environment Minister Bradley has proposed the country’s toughest toxic waste regulations, the year-old Liberal regime is still sending out mixed messages on pollution. Although Bradley’s ultimate goal is to remove all toxins from the environment, five Ontario landfill sites still accept untreated liquid wastes from factories. And Ontario still allows contaminated solid waste to be used as landfill in numerous sites around the province.

Acidic: Still, even the most stringent regulations can miss often-severe pollution from inconspicuous sources. That problem is familiar to city engineers across the country, who deal increasingly with sewer systems destroyed by acidic wastes clandestinely dumped by smalland medium-sized polluters. In Toronto alone, two electroplating companies, B.E.S.T. Plating Shoppe Ltd. and Jeteo Manufacturing

Ltd., have consistently defied court orders to stop dumping toxic waste—including cyanide and chromium—down sewers during the past four years. The courts fined B.E.S.T. $67,750, but the company paid only a few thousand dollars and ceased operations last February. Jeteo has paid half of the $50,000 in fines levied, and city lawyers are seeking an Ontario Supreme Court order for the balance owing.

Moral: Despite the multitude of local and regional problems, most environmentalists look to the federal government to lead Canada’s toxic cleanup. And McMillan told Maclean ’s that he wants to demonstrate “leadership and UJ moral authority and

1 commitment” in dealing o with toxic waste. In

2 part, he is striving to repair damage that occurred before he replaced Suzanne Blais-Grenier as environment minister last August. When she held the job, one of the new government’s first acts was to strip $33.6 million from the department’s budget, cutting such projects as Hallett’s gull-egg program and a federal commitment to build a $25-million toxicology centre in Guelph, Ont.

The result, according to Pollution Probe researcher Joanne Kidd, is that Canada suffers “such a fundamental lack of knowledge about toxics it’s mind-boggling.” Hallett says that the department is “winding down,” and James Kingham, his former boss in the department’s highly praised Ontario office, told Maclean’s: “We have been decimated in staff. We are suffering attrition to the absolute limit.”

Emergency: Still, McMillan insists that the Conservative government’s commitment to environmental issues is substantial. In support of that claim, McMillan told Maclean’s that he wants to follow a U.S. example and create a $100million “superfund” to g speed toxic cleanups across B the country. According to g the minister, the fund would I provide money to deal with I an emergency—like the 1978 evacuation of a Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood. It had been built over the deadly chemicals dumped in the Love Canal by Hooker Industrial and Specialty Chemicals.

That crisis prompted the U.S. government to begin a $1.6-billion cleanup of deadly waste sites throughout the country. And by modelling the Canadian cleanup on the so-called superfund, McMillan says he hopes to get most of the money through voluntary contributions from industry. At the same time, he is also planning a new environmental protection act designed to provide Canadians with “an environmental bill of rights” as well as to “bring some order to what is anarchy and chaos in environmental law in the country.” McMillan plans to increase Canadians’ awareness of the country’s threatened environment with a $l-million media blitz marking the first week of June as “Environment Week.” Despite criticisms that the money could be better spent, many environmentalists say that complacency and ignorance about pollution are more formidable barriers than finding effective methods of cleaning up the environment. That restoration will cost billions of dollars. But delaying the fight against the toxic menace will be even more costly—and paid for in the ruined health of children living in a poisoned environment.

JOHN BARBER

DIANE LUCKOW

JEAN LAVERTY

NORA UNDERWOOD

DAN BURKE

KATHRYN HARLEY