Some 20 years after cleanup operations first started on the Canagagigue Creek, DDT and dioxins continue to be detected in the local waterway at levels well above government standards. Soil and sediment samples taken downstream of the former-Uniroyal chemical plant in 2017 showed localized hotspots of contaminants along the Elmira creek, according to a recent report.
Welcoming the findings in the report published last month, members of the citizens’ group overseeing the cleanup urged a fast remediation of the identified chemical hotspots.
“We know we’ve got concerns right now and those have been identified, and we want to get at them as soon as we can because river features [are] so volatile and changing all the time,” said Linda Dickson, a member of Woolwich’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG), at a meeting Monday evening. “Are we risking delaying things and things moving on us, and then we’re back looking at other spots again?”
Members of TAG voiced concerns that hotspots detected in the report could be washed away or otherwise move positions in the event of a heavy flood like the one experienced in June of 2017.
“I don’t think it’s lost on us the fact that we don’t want this to drag on,” said TAG chair Tiffany Svensson during the meeting to discuss the report. “I think everybody’s on board on that one, if for no other reason than to avoid another big flood and have it completely change what we now have data for.”
The samples collected from the creek, which cuts through the middle of the chemical plant property now owned by Lanxess, revealed areas where contaminants had accumulated in the soils and sediments, creating concentrations of contaminants along the local waterway.
From New Jerusalem Road to Northfield Drive, all the way to the terminating end of the creek at the Grand River, DDTs and dioxins were detected in isolated locations in the soils and sediments at levels well above government limits.
The standard for 2, 4 DDT concentrations in soil in agricultural lands is set by the provincial government at 0.078 micrograms per gram (μg/g, or one-millionth of a gram per gram of material). However, the samples collected in 2017 showed levels of DDTs reaching up to 399.3 μg/g where the creek intersects with New Jerusalem Road in Elmira.
DDT is a toxic chemical that was commonly used in the production of insecticide in North America, including at the Elmira chemical plant. The production of the chemical has been banned in the country since 1972, but residual traces of the long-lived chemical continue to persist in the soil of the Elmira creek, which for decades was used as a convenient waste disposal for businesses situated along the water. The chemical is considered a possible human carcinogen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S.
Besides DDTs, the other chemicals of concern in the creek detected at high levels have been dioxins and furans, a highly toxic byproduct of industrial processes. At the New Jerusalem Road intersection with the creek, dioxins (and furans, a chemical sharing similarities with dioxins) were measured up to 30 times higher than the Environmental Protection Act standards.
According to the World Health Organization, short-term exposure to dioxins can lead to skin lesions and altered liver function, while the longer-term effects of continued exposure is linked to impairments of the immune system, the developing nervous system the endocrine system and reproductive functions.
With the “Canagagigue Creek Sediment and Floodplain Soil Investigation” report being finalized, the next steps in the remediation process will be to assess both the human health risks of the hot spots, as well as the ecological impact.
While appreciating the extent of the work put into the report, TAG renewed their calls for further testing of the local floodplains to root out the remaining hotspots likely still lingering in the local environment.
“Data indicate that we have hotspots, but we don’t have all of the hotspots fully delineated and characterized,” said Svensson.
The health of the Elmira creek has improved immensely in more recent years thanks to the remediation efforts, as well as local activism to protect the waterway from erosion and cattle grazing. Leading the remediation of the creek, as well as the cleanup of the municipal aquifers contaminated as a result of past practices, has been the current owner of the chemical plant, Lanxess, which finalized the takeover of the property’s previous owners in 2017.
Lanxess operates a number of pumps and other remediation operations in Elmira to clean the contaminated waterways, under the watchful eye of TAG and the Ministry of the Environment.