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As CPAC winds down, longstanding concerns remain

New testing having shown elevated levels of contaminants downstream from Chemtura plant in Elmira, local officials are not only concerned that toxins are leaching offsite but are again questioning whether the chemical producer can meet the 2028 deadline for cleaning the town’s aquifer.

While the company has for years maintained it could meet the timeline, it has recently acknowledged current remediation efforts – pumping water from the aquifer underneath Elmira and treating it for contaminants – aren’t likely to succeed on their own.

That’s long been the position of the Chemtura Public Advisory Committee, the environmental watchdog group whose term expires at the end of the month, to be replaced by a more company-friendly arrangement cooked up by Mayor Sandy Shantz. Both the current township council and its predecessor, however, have also expressed doubts about the deadline date.

Addressing council for the final time last week, CPAC members encouraged the township to keep pressing both Chemtura and the Ministry of the Environment for action on the pollutants on and near the site.

Ron Campbell, a CPAC member whose business is remediation of contaminated properties, said the pace of progress since cleanup began two decades ago indicates there is little chance it will be done in another 13 years.

“It’s a monumental task.”

Chemtura 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.

A CPAC-commissioned study that found elevated levels of DDT in the Canagagigue Creek downstream of the chemical plant – 20 to 2,900 times higher than the applicable Ontario Maximum Allowable Concentration standards – is an indication pollutants are migrating offsite, said Graham Chevreau, a CPAC member and a professional chemist who drafted the report tabled earlier this month. He called for a comprehensive study of the problem areas, something far more extensive than has been done to date, pointing to a site at Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan, home to a 52-acre parcel once occupied by the Michigan Chemical Corporation, and later Velsicol Chemical Company, where the contamination issues were much the same.

“You can’t design a solution until you define the problem,” he said, noting the company and the ministry have been reluctant to do so.

Pointing out that the province’s own guide to eating sports fish warns about fish caught downstream of Chemtura, he said that speaks volumes compared to the MoE’s stance in Elmira.

“That is a pretty good indication that something is going on.”

For its part, Chemtura maintains the situation is not as grave as CPAC paints it to be.

“Chemtura has been aware of the issue of downstream contamination with DDT and dioxins for many years. Our approach has been to first investigate and understand the sources of these contaminants, and then remediate any source areas that were found. In the mid 1990s, we determined conclusively that these contaminants are not transported by groundwater due to their hydrophobic properties, but rather by erosion of on-site contaminated soils with deposition as sediment further downstream in the creek environment. CPAC seems to have completely missed this point,” Jeff Merriman, Chemtura’s manager of environmental remediation, said in a written statement to councillors.

“We do not believe, however, that the lack of evidence so far means that we shouldn’t investigate further. In fact, Chemtura has prepared an “East Side Surficial Soil and Groundwater Investigation Work Plan” to examine the possibility that contaminants in the soil or shallow water on the eastern or southern boundaries of our property could be impacting creek sediments at the present time. We are confident that with the information gained from this sampling project, a definitive, data-driven statement can be made on this topic. If ongoing contamination is found to be moving into the creek environment, Chemtura will address the matter appropriately.”

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