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CPAC, township out of patience with MoE inaction

How much of a threat do contaminants on the Chemtura site pose to those living in Elmira or elsewhere downstream? Is the risk as big as the environmental watchdog CPAC makes it out to be? As small as the chemical company maintains? Somewhere in between?

From its inaction, the provincial Ministry of the Environment appears to be firmly in the don’t worry, be happy camp. That has members of the Chemtura Public Advisory Committee anything but happy. Now Woolwich council is in the group’s camp, this week passing a resolution condemning the ministry’s lack of action and calling on it to come up with an action plan for remediating the site … and then actually enforce a cleanup.

How likely is that to happen? If history is any guide, don’t count on it.

Even in the well-established case of contaminated aquifers in Elmira, the subject of an actual control order obligating the company to clean up after itself, CPAC has found the MoE wanting. And not just a little bit.

Chemtura – Uniroyal Chemical at the time, then later Crompton Co. – 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. Later, an ammonia-treatment plant was built.

The aquifers are supposed to be returned to drinking water standards by 2028, but CPAC and the township have long questioned the ability of the company to meet that deadline. Calls for assurances from the MOE have fallen on deaf ears. Repeatedly.

The company says it will meet the target, but there are no guarantees. And the province has offered no assurances it will see Chemtura carries through.

A strongly-worded resolution on this issue prompted no pledges from the MoE, let alone action.

This time around, the council resolution focuses on other contaminants in and around two former gravel pits on the Chemtura site.

CPAC has long argued that the company must clean up the pits, known as GP 1&2, by fully excavating the contaminated soil and hauling it away to be disposed of safely. The group was disappointed two years ago when Chemtura instead dug up only a fraction of the polluted soil before capping the pits with a heavy plastic barrier.

The latest readings show large concentrations of toxins such as DDT and dioxins, among others, in amounts hundreds and even thousands of times larger than the threshold for posing a risk to human health.

While the current strategy may be cheaper and easier for the company, which CPAC argues has reversed its commitment to remove contaminants when they’re found, it remains a mystery why the MoE does not take a position aligned to the public interest. Instead, we’ve seen the standard method of delay in the call for more studies and monitoring, to go along with plenty of talk, most notably at CPAC meetings.

With this new resolution, CPAC says the time for action is now. At the very least, the ministry should make a plausible case for its current course of action, or lack thereof.

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