Telling the story of Elmira’s contaminated water crisis

Bonita Wagler and Mike Heitmann are hoping to inform the public with their documentary on the 1989 water crisis in Elmira.
Bonita Wagler and Mike Heitmann are hoping to inform the public with their documentary on the 1989 water crisis in Elmira. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

It’s been almost 30 years since the discovery of toxins in Elmira’s drinking water set off a crisis that’s still being played out today. Hoping to tell the sprawling story that spans decades, and shed some new light on the issue, Mike Heitmann and Bonita Wagler are putting the finishing touches on a new documentary.

The 1989 discovery of contaminants in the aquifers under the town were linked to a plant that was then Uniroyal Chemical. The presence of the carcinogenic NDMA (nitrosodimethylamine) in the drinking water precipitated the crisis in Elmira, leading to the construction of a pipeline from Waterloo, which supplies the town with water to this day.

Through its many owners, the plant has been operating a pump-and-treat process to remove a pair of toxins – NDMA and chlorobenzene – from the groundwater underneath Elmira.  An MOE control order sets out the company’s responsibility for dealing with the contaminants in the municipal aquifers, with a deadline of 2028.

The documentary now in the final stages is something of a retrospective on the ordeal.

“The whole idea originally was to get the interviews of the people that were partaking of the initial problem when it sprung up for archival purposes,” explained Heitmann. The project took off in 2015, with the two putting in hundreds of hours to piece together the facts and draw a compelling storyline with their interviews.

“I lived in Elmira in 1989 when it happened, so I had the events in my mind of what occurred,” said Wagler. “But there was always that question of how could this have happened, how did they let this happen?”

For years, the chemical plant, which has undergone a number of transfers of ownership and name changes from Uniroyal to Crompton to Chemtura to its current Lanxess, disposed of its chemicals by using onsite landfills and the nearby Canagagigue Creek.

“It was common practice to bury toxic waste in the ground and to use the creek as a sewer,” says Wagler. “They all buried waste into the ground into the ‘70s. So gradually that leached into the groundwater.”

Over the course of the documentary, they hope to touch on a number of issues, from the lack of communication from the government and the company, particularly immediately after the crisis, to the financial costs to the taxpayer and the ongoing health concerns.

“There’s a number of things that we learned along the way,” said Wagler. “I think the biggest thing for me is the fact that they’ve never done a human risk assessment. So they know what chemicals are still in the sediment. They know that it’s one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous toxin known to man in the creek sediment in Elmira, and they’ve never done a human risk assessment. It’s disturbing.”

In an emailed statement, Gabriela García, communications manager for Lanxess, noted that significant improvements had been made through the company’s remediation efforts.

“At Lanxess we are proud of the progress that has thus far been made with respect to the remediation project at the Elmira site,” she said. “Over the 20-plus years of creek monitoring of water, sediments, and organisms, the results show a record of continuous improvements. For example, the number of fish species is thriving up from only one to now over two dozen, a decreased concentration of chemicals in aquatic organisms, and robust vegetation, all as a result of the remedial actions (beyond just monitoring) that we’ve taken over the past 20 years.”

The filmmakers say they are hoping to have a fair and balanced approach in their documentary, with interviews and conversations from all sides, though they have met some pushback. Lanxess, the company which now owns the plant and has taken on the remediation responsibility, is contesting the use of one of their interviews with a Chemtura employee, Jeff Merriman, formerly involved with the environmental remediation.

“I guess Chemtura was just recently sold to Lanxess and they don’t wish to give us permission to use footage that we have from Jeff Merriman,” said Heitmann, which was one of the reasons the film was being held up. “We’re looking at an objective documentary and we hope still to do that.”

“But they don’t think it’s objective,” added Wagler about Lanxess.

“Well, they want to stop the whole movie,” continued Heitmann.

The two are looking into having their footage of Merriman included in the film, and once it’s done hope to raise awareness of the problem and the ongoing issues. From older adults who lived through the crisis to younger students, they’re hoping their documentary encourages people to have the discussions on how communities in Ontario and the Great Lakes basin protect their water supplies.

In the emailed statement, García noted how the company and the chemical industry had changed to improve environmental standards.

“Despite the progress on this project, we understand that public attention is often focused on the distant past related to generations of prior management, and the environmental performance of our industry as a whole, as has been the case for the past years. However, we remain fully committed to continuous improvement in our performance and to productive engagement with all stakeholders.”

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  1. The reference by Ms. Wagler to never having done a human risk assessment is incorrect. What has never been done is a human health assessment. A health assessment looks at actual health effects of residents whereas a risk assessment focuses on specific toxins, exposure routes and then receptors to those toxins and exposure routes.
    Also while it was common practice for some industries to bury waste in the ground and or dump directly into waterways, the human and environmental damage caused has been known since the 1890s in both Germany and Switzerland where the chemical industry started with dyes for textiles. Human beings died from industrially contaminated well water as well as workers died of bladder cancer due to chemicals used in the dye industries. After laws prohibited in ground disposal in Europe, then companies moved to North America to enjoy their looser or non-existent environmental laws. Now they move to third world countries for the same reasons.

    1. Incredible story, incredible insights, incredible efforts and incredible information for future best practices. Hopefully the human race is becoming more aware of what “progress” means to the health of the earth, its people and all living things. We need to make dramatic changes in order to save our planet.

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