An Elmira chemical company says it’s committed to cleaning up the town’s contaminated groundwater by the provincially-set 2028 deadline, arguing its current approaches will be sufficient to reach that goal.
The township’s environmental watchdog, however, wants the Ministry of the Environment to force Chemtura Co. to do more, including the digging up and removal of source material, to ensure the work gets done.
In voting on the issue this week, Woolwich councillors sided with the Chemtura Public Advisory Committee, despite a call from the company to stay the course. They did, however, welcome Chemtura’s commitment to the cleanup project.
The company has been using a pump-and-treat process to remove a pair of toxins – NDMA (nitrosodimethylamine) and chlorobenzene – from the former drinking water aquifers underneath Elmira. Discovery in 1989 of the carcinogenic NDMA precipitated the water crisis in Elmira, leading to the construction of a pipeline from Waterloo, which supplies the town with water to this day.
An MOE control order sets out the company’s responsibility for dealing with the contaminants in the municipal aquifers, with a deadline of 2028. More than two decades past the start of the crisis, CPAC is worried the timeline won’t be met, calling for provincial intervention. It wants the company to remove contaminated source material rather than simply treating the groundwater. The resolution endorsed May 8 by council also ask for the province to review the funding formula outlined in a 1991 agreement between the MOE and Chemtura, to make money available to CPAC to pay for studies, consultants, legal advice and other experts, and to establish a trust fund that would continue to pay for groundwater cleanup if Chemtura fails to meet the 2028 deadline.
“CPAC represents the residents of Elmira, the injured party in all this, and needs to have a budget that is adequate to the job,” new committee chair Dan Holt told councillors. “In addition, we need to impose a penalty so that if our aquifer is not cleaned up there is a price to pay.
“[…] now is the time to change directions and make sure that we have clean, drinkable water again by removing the sources of contamination. Currently we are only treating the symptoms; we need to remove the cancer.”
The company, however, says its current pump-and-treat process is working, and will clean the groundwater by 2028.
“We will meet that deadline,” said plant manager Josef Olejarz. “We have no reason to believe we won’t meet this date.”
Pointing to data that show contamination levels continue to drop, he said the pump-and-treat method would get the job done.
“There is nothing better on the market right now,” he said of the technology.
Peak concentrations of contaminants offsite from the plant have been reduced by 10-fold or more, said Olejarz. There’s been a 20 per cent reduction in the size of the NDMA plume in the municipal upper aquifer since 1998, covering 174 acres; a 41 per cent reduction in the chlorobenzene plume in the municipal upper aquifer in that timeframe, a decrease of 34 acres; and a 25 per cent drop in the chlorobenzene plume in the municipal lower aquifer since 1998, some eight acres.
“We consider this as a good success story.”
His rosy outlook was tempered, though, by CPAC volunteer David Marks, a hydrogeologist, who called the company’s forecast for pump-and-treat “overly optimistic.”
That technology, he explained, works in limited circumstances, but is not likely to fully remediate groundwater in the complex geology found underneath Elmira.
“Personally, I hope that happens. Professionally, I have my doubts,” said Marks, adding the pump-and-treat system is containing the contaminants and would have to be part of any stepped-up plan to treat the pollutants.
Supporting the resolution calling for greater MOE involvement, Coun. Mark Bauman said a more diverse approach would help get the cleanup efforts back on target.
“Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” he said of simply sticking with the pump-and-treat process.
He also called for more cooperation and less of an adversarial relationship between all the parties, stressing the need for a backup plan if the 2028 deadline is in jeopardy, though hoping not to need it.
“It’s always nice when you don’t have to go to Plan B.”