An Elmira environmentalist’s “smoking gun” appears to be shooting blanks. Al Marshall, a long-time critic of cleanup efforts at the Uniroyal (now Chemtura) chemical plant, says he recently became aware of a 1991 document he claims lets the company off the hook for contaminating the town’s drinking water. But both the company and the Ministry of the Environment say Chemtura is responsible for remediating the soil and groundwater. As evidence, they point to the millions of dollars spent doing just that over the past two decades – that would not be the case if the company had been given a get-out-of-jail-free card.
On Tuesday night, however, Marshall called on Woolwich council to take action against Chemtura and the MOE. “You (council) at the moment have the moral high ground, as I believe that you do not share blame for this betrayal of the public. Some appropriate and significant action, including expressing your condemnation of the reprehensible behaviour of these other two parties, is required,” he said in his address.
Mayor Todd Cowan, who heads the Chemtura Public Advisory Committee, acknowledged that the document was new to the CPAC members, who would need time to figure out how it fit into the thousands of documents that have accumulated since Elmira’s drinking water crisis emerged more than two decades ago.
Cowan said Marshall’s comments would be discussed at the next CPAC meeting later this month, calling it a more appropriate venue. “There’s a time and a place, and this is not the time or the place,” he told Marshall, assuring him the matter will be addressed. “We’re looking at it quite seriously.”
At issue is a document dated Oct. 7, 1991, part of the settlement agreement between what was then Uniroyal Chemical Ltd. and the provincial government over contaminants found in the aquifers under Elmira. Portions of the document, identified as “schedule H to the settlement agreement” contain language that appears to release the company from liability, particularly section 16 (releases) that begins with “Subject to paragraphs 15.1 and 16.3, the province does hereby remise, release and forever discharge Uniroyal, its officers, directors, shareholders and associated companies … from all actions, causes of action, damages, claims, and demands whatsoever of which both Uniroyal and the province are presently aware …”
But the MOE, pointing to similar agreements in cases like the one involving Chemtura, says the document follows a common procedure when cleanup control orders are issued. In essence, it sets a legal framework under which the cleanup is implemented. It stemmed from the legal action taken by Uniroyal following the first control order issued by the ministry, becoming part of the amended control order.
Taken in isolation, and cherry-picking certain paragraphs, the agreement can be made to support the opinions expressed by Marshall, said Steve Martindale, regional project engineer with the MOE who has spent years on the Chemtura file, including acting as the ministry’s representative on CPAC.
Not a sweetheart deal, “this agreement was the real start of the cleanup at Chemtura,” he explained. “Does it exonerate Uniroyal from its cleanup? No. They’re required to follow up the work plan laid out in the agreement.”
At Chemtura, the cleanup has been an ongoing project, rather than something the company got a free pass on, noted Dwight Este, the plant’s environment, health safety and security manager.
“This is a standard agreement outlining how things are going to be played out or addressed,” he said, noting the company has been following that plan. The company continues to pump and treat groundwater, as well as tackling soil remediation work. Next up in that vein is work along the banks of the Canagagigue Creek, which the company hopes to complete this year. Both Martindale and Este noted that the document has been public since it was drafted. In fact, the MOE issued a press release that same day – Oct. 7, 1991 – about the cleanup agreement. “The ministry thought it was a very positive thing,” said Martindale.