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New film documents Elmira contamination issue

Susan Bryant is one of the local activists interviewed in the film. [Sean Heeger]

Documenting both a decades-long struggle to see chemical contaminants cleanup and “how a community deals with a problem that is there forever” is the focus of Ron Harpelle’s newest film, Toxic Time Bomb.

The documentary explores the impact of the decision to bury a veritable cocktail of compounds on the site of the Elmira chemical plant now owned by LANXESS.

Discovery in 1989 of the carcinogenic NDMA (nitrosodimethylamine) precipitated the water crisis in Elmira, leading to the construction of a pipeline from Waterloo, which supplies the town with water to this day. Uniroyal, which owned the plant at the time, was issued a Ministry of the Environment control order to remove the contaminants from the municipal aquifer by 2028, though that deadline is unlikely to be hit.

Uniroyal Chemical – later Crompton Co., Chemtura and now LANXESS – has been using a pump-and-treat process to remove a pair of toxins – NDMA and chlorobenzene – from the groundwater under Elmira. As well, there have been other chemicals dug up from where they’d been buried on the property over the years – the location at one time manufactured the now-banned defoliant Agent Orange, for instance.

Runoff from the site remains a concern, with reports finding levels of DDT, dioxins and furans, for instance, on the site and along the Canagagigue Creek.

Activists, many of them involved right from the start, remain vigilant, noting cleanup efforts have been inadequate and pushing the MOE to do more.

Along with documenting the environmental issues, Harpelle also set out to shine a light on the activists who have been working for decades to get the government and corporate owners to do more.

“I have friends that live in Elmira [and I] knew about the Elmira situation and I just decided to take a look at Elmira and see what the toxic legacy was. It didn’t take me long to find out that… will be there forever,” said Harpelle. “But the film really isn’t about Agent Orange, in the end it’s about the activists, a small group of people who for 30 years have been struggling to get the corporations – there’s a small number of different companies that own the plant – and the government to pay attention to the problem.”

He says these are devoted people of whom we should be proud, and their story is really the focus of the film. His focus on this group of activists comes from their determination to stay the course because things don’t change overnight and they have not given up after decades of fighting to impose change and bring awareness to the problem.

The situation in Elmira, while devastating, is not unique, Harpelle adds.

“There are something like 22,000 toxic sites in Canada, and only 8,000 of them are monitored. So, every community in the country has some kind of toxic issue – nearby at the very least – and Elmira is ground-zero for very serious environmental problems. So, the people that I interviewed, they didn’t just go out for a couple of weekends and then quit, they’ve been doing it for 30 years [and] they’re to be celebrated really,” he said.

During the 25-minute documentary, Harpelle discusses the history of chemicals made in Elmira – one of which was Agent Orange, the chemical used during the Vietnam War – and how they were not disposed of properly. He talks to activists who have been working on the cause since the discovery of buried chemicals and the impacts that have hit the town.

Susan Bryant is one of those activists that has been working tirelessly since 1989, advocating for a proper cleanup of the contamination. She was initially shocked at what was going on in the town, and the contamination only made things harder within Elmira.

After all this time, the problem still persists as the waste has not been completely cleaned up – something Bryant says may never fully happen. She says her goal is to see the Canagagigue Creek cleaned up as much as possible, so that the contaminants don’t spread and potentially create hazards in other areas.

“What we know is that the deposits of DDT and dioxin are in a few places along the creek; we may not have found all the hotspots, but there are three or four that have been identified [and] the stuff sits there in the sediment. It’s quite shallow in the creek. And then the deposits [are] at the bottom of the creek and on the edge of the creek. It’s not rocket science to get in there and scoop out those deposits. So, we’re not asking the impossible, we’re not asking that it all be you know pristine, because that could never happen. But we certainly are expecting that, finally, the hotspots will be cleaned out,” said Bryant.

More information about the Sheba Films production of Toxic Time Bomb can be found at the company’s website.

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  1. I was born in Elmira and lived the first 7 years of my life there, my Dad worked at the site, then called Naugatuk ( I may have the spelling wrong) We returned in my teens and lived a mere few blocks up hill from the plant. My Dad told me when I was an adult that he had helped with burying the drums of Agent Orange on the Uniroyal site, but he hadn’t told me at the time as he was afraid I and my hippie friends would cause trouble.. I returned to Elmira with my husband and daughter not long before my son was born. My husband went to work for Uniroyal. Approximately 6 years later, other Uniroyal workers began to question the numbers of learning disabled children in the Uniroyal employee families. Nothing came of it. My daughter still deals with the effects of her learning disabilities. My Dad died in 1987 , he had survived lupus and was dealing with leukemia when he passed away. I have always believed that Uniroyal killed my Dad.

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