COVER

ONE CITY’S WATER PROBLEM

A COMMUNITY COPES WITH TOXINS

MARK NICHOLS January 15 1990
COVER

ONE CITY’S WATER PROBLEM

A COMMUNITY COPES WITH TOXINS

MARK NICHOLS January 15 1990

ONE CITY’S WATER PROBLEM

COVER

A COMMUNITY COPES WITH TOXINS

Even though Domtar Inc. closed down its wood-treating plant in Newcastle, N.B., four years ago, the cornpany currently has a multimillion-dol-

lar project under way at the 57-acre site. Domtar has begun the herculean task of excavating 30,000 tons of soil that was contaminated by chemicals from the plant during its 62 years of operation. Company officials say that the firm has begun to pump out and decontaminate groundwater from under the Domtar land

and adjoining property. In the meantime, the 6,000 residents of Newcastle, 150 km north of Fredericton, also have a water problem. Tests carried out by provincial officials in 1988 and 1989 showed that two wells, which were located less than one kilometre from the Domtar plant and supplied Newcastle’s water, were contaminated by a chemical that is suspected of causing cancer in humans. As a result, delivery trucks are supplying Newcastle residents with bottled water at a cost of $31,000 a week to the town and the province, while work continues on a new, $ 1.5-million water system for Newcastle.

The chemical found in Newcastle’s wells was benzo (a) pyrene, one of a family of chemicals known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are found in many substances, including used motor oils and automobile exhaust fumes. They also appear in creosote, an inky black liquid that the Domtar plant used to prevent rot in such wood products as telephone poles and railway ties. Even though

subsequent water tests, in September, showed no further evidence of PAHS in the wells, provincial authorities recommended that Newcastle residents continue to use bottled water.

Tests: So far, the provincial government has not been able to determine how the city’s water supply came to be polluted. And Domtar officials say that there is no evidence that the company affected the town’s water supply. Indeed, Domtar officials say that the tests showing contaminants in the water were flawed. “Poor sampling procedures were used,” said Domtar spokesman Jacques Viau. “The people of Newcastle have been put to a lot of expense for no reason whatsoever.”

Domtar’s current cleanup campaign began in 1988 after Premier Frank McKenna’s Liberal government told the company to clean up or shelve plans for reopening the plant. Since the plant first opened in 1924, a variety of toxic chemicals, including creosote, pentachlorophenol and a copper-arsenic combination, were used to treat wood. Now, Domtar officials admit that a total of seven acres of groundwater at the Domtar plant site, as well as on some adjoining land, is contaminated.

Some Newcastle residents said they have been convinced for years that the local environment was under severe stress. John and Bettina Whalen, who own a 60-acre farm adjacent to the Domtar plant, say that a deadly blight began to creep across their land during the early 1980s. Bettina said that trees, grass and wildlife died out on their land, and that when she threw stones into the pond on their land, black water bubbled up in an oily ooze.

In 1986, Domtar closed down the plant because of declining demand for the kind of wood treatment that the plant supplied. Then, in 1987, company officials applied to the provincial government for permission to reopen

the plant because they had received an order for telephone and electricity poles from Bangladesh. Officials of the New Brunswick environment department told Domtar that the company would first have to clean up the contaminated land around the plant. So far, workers have excavated about 10,000 tons of contaminated soil. Bacteria are being used to break down organic contaminants, while more heavily contaminated soil is destroyed by incineration. Domtar officials said that the project could take up to six years to complete. At the same time, Domtar has begun to pump contaminated groundwater to the surface and treat it by running the water through a charcoal filtering process. The water is then pumped back into the ground. Company officials said that it could take up to 20 years to clean all of the contaminated water.

Risky: Despite recent tests that gave Newcastle’s existing water supply a clean bill of health, provincial officials decided that it would be too risky to continue using the old wells. Last summer, city technicians located three new wells in the northern section of Newcastle, about 1.5 km away from the old wells. But tests showed that water from the new wells con-

tained naturally occurring manganese, a mineral that is not harmful to humans but gives the water an offensive taste and smell. The city of Newcastle and the provincial government agreed to share the cost of building the new plant to remove the manganese from the water. Meanwhile, city officials said the town’s old wells could be reopened for use in the near future. For his part, Newcastle Mayor Peter Murphy said he regretted the amount of time and money his city was being forced to spend to provide a safe source of water.

MARK NICHOLS

with

MARK TUNNEY

in

Saint John, N.B.