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Questions, concerns over $1 million clean-up continue

UPDATE : This information has been updated from Wednesday's printed version of The Local after some answers were received by town, the MECP and the region.

UPDATE: This information has been updated from Wednesday's printed version of The Local after some answers were received by town, the MECP and the region. However no new information was given about the content of the material in the drain or the source of it. At Monday's committee meeting, Sept. 12, there will be a presentation by the environmental consultant who has been guiding the town through the Cole Drain clean-up.

A representative of the provincial environmental office overseeing the clean-up of the Cole Drain says the town took appropriate steps to
contain and clean up the material in the drain to protect the environment.

However, the contents of that material, referred to as an organic pollutant in last week’s update from the town, has not yet been fully explained, leaving some to question, including one town councillor, whether spending more than $1 million on pumping and removal of the material was necessary, or an excessive and unnecessary expenditure of taxpayers’ money.

On Wednesday, the town provided some emailed answers but didn't address the lab results, which had been sent to a laboratory the morning of Aug. 18. "Results will be reviewed by the consultant, town staff, and MECP and summarized to provide an update to council. This information will be provided as soon as possible," the email said.

Residents who live near the drain, concerned last week about the lack of communication from the town, were invited to a virtual meeting Thursday evening, Sept. 1 — a full two weeks after the vacuum trucks showed up in their neighbourhood very early one morning. They were given an update from environmental and drains supervisor Brett Ruck, told the material was not hazardous, and that he had seen frogs and turtles still living in the water.  There was nothing further about the source of the material, but Ruck told them the cause of the incident might never be known.

One person who attended said there were only five residents, along with Ruck and acting operations director Kevin Turcotte. There were others who have property with the drain on it or nearby, who likely didn’t attend because they were unfamiliar with virtual meetings, not from a lack of interest, she said.

By late last week, the clean-up operation was called off, and the vacuuming of the drain halted. The berms created to stop the flow of the drain into Four Mile Creek had been dismantled and the black water disappeared.

A neighbour said Tuesday morning, Sept. 6, there was some water in the drain from the recent rain — not a lot — but it is still black.

The large blue tanks that were used to contain the contents of the drain as it was pumped out were still on-site, but she’d seen no truck activity in a few days.

She told The Local she feels confident “the town is doing as much as it can. I felt better after that meeting. I’m not as anxious any more.”

Although she says she wishes it wasn’t going to cost taxpayers $1 million to clean up, her perspective living so close to it is a little different than others. 

“It’s a lot of money, but if it had been hazardous, it could have been a lot worse.” 

Rural residents don’t get a lot of services for their taxes, she said,  but this has been something significant that had them very nervous, and she doesn’t fault town staff for their quick actions initiating the clean-up.

Cluckie explained to The Local that although the material in the drain was not hazardous, the levels of concentration of some of the contents found in the lab analysis were higher than normal, and had to be prevented from reaching Four Mile Creek. The material that was pumped into the tanks was at first being sent to Mors Refining Systems, an environmental waste company in Beamsville, she said, but once the composition of the material in the drain was known, the region approved taking it to the regional Port Weller water treatment plant in St. Catharines, beside Sunset Beach.

The region said, in an emailed response to questions, that material was also being accepted at the Lakeshore Treatment Plant in NOTL, and there would be a charge for the material treated, but the amount had not yet been determined.

Niagara-on-the-Lake mining engineer Ron Simkus told The Local that when he heard about the smell coming from the drain, it began to sound like swamp water, old decaying matter that has been underground for hundreds of years in an oxygen-free environment rising to the surface. He is convinced it is not a spill, and he is also quite certain the town didn’t need to spend an estimated $1 million to clean it up.

Simkus, retired from a career of working with what lies underground, says a spill is accidental, and hazardous. He told The Local he believes that what the town staff saw in the Cole Drain last Aug. 17 was neither, and in an email blast he sends out regularly to more than 100 residents, he shared his view that it is swamp water.

Despite assurances that the town wants to be open and transparent, when The Local asked for the lab analysis, Marah Minor, the communications coordinator, said that information would not be released without making a request through the Freedom of Information process.

CAO Marnie Cluckie said last week the amount of material removed from the drain at that point was more than one million litres. Although that material “has no name,” she said it is what would be expected to be found in a drain, but at higher levels of concentration than normal. She mentioned the BOD level being high.

Simkus explains biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) represents the amount of oxygen consumed by bacteria and other microorganisms while they decompose organic matter under aerobic (with oxygen present) conditions at a specified temperature. “The greater the BOD, the more rapidly oxygen is depleted in the stream. This means less oxygen is available to higher forms of aquatic life,” he said. “The consequences of high BOD are the same as those for low dissolved oxygen: aquatic organisms become stressed, suffocate, and die.”

The frogs and turtles Ruck saw in the drain, Simkus added, don’t require oxygen in the water.

Simkus said he couldn’t see why letting the water flow into Four Mile Creek would have any impact. The liquid would be diluted, and even more so when it got to Lake Ontario. As it flows, he explained, it would gain oxygen, and afterwards be darker in colour, but harmless. Instead it’s being taken to Port Weller, “where it will be treated by bubbling air through it.”

Another resident with experience trucking waste said he’s been told the material being taken to Port Weller has a low level of e-coli — not what you would expect from a septic tank leak, but from the excrement of “a few deer or coyotes” in the area.

His question is how much the town is paying for multiple truck loads being taken to sewage treatment plants for disposal, and whether the town has any idea how many trucks or how much time is being spent on this. “I wonder if anyone is on-site monitoring this?”

His problem, like others, is that his questions to the town are not being answered.

Kim Groombridge, the Niagara manager of the drinking water and environmental compliance division of the Ministry of the Environment Conservation & Parks, provided some information about the situation in an email to The Local Friday afternoon, but again, nothing further on the contents of the drain, or the source. Residents have dealt with Phil Hull from the MECP onsite, and questions sent to him by The Local were answered by Groombridge, his boss.

A spill under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act “is a discharge of a contaminant to the natural environment that is abnormal in quality and quantity,” Groomsbridge said, and although the ministry and town continue to call it a spill, they haven’t explained how or where the contaminant was discharged. 

On Aug. 17, shortly after 7 p.m., the ministry’s Spills Action Centre was notified by the town about “an unknown black material resembling sewage in the municipal ditch at Concession Rd 6 and Line 6 Rd in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” Groombridge said.

“We take all spills and threats to the environment seriously and respond to reports of materials that have the potential to cause an adverse effect to the environment.”

Groombridge said “owners of pollutants are required by provincial law to report spills. Municipalities are also required to report spills to the ministry, unless they believe the ministry has already been notified.”

Asked if the municipality should have known whether the material was hazardous, or if that is for SAC to determine, Groomsbridge said “it is the ministry’s role to respond to incidents such as spills that could have an adverse impact on the natural environment or human health, and to ensure that those responsible take all necessary steps to clean up any spills to the natural environment. As part of the clean-up, the responsible parties must characterize the material being cleaned up and if it is determined to be a hazardous waste, additional disposal requirements must be followed.”

She explained the town was given verbal direction, followed up later in an email. She said the ministry did not issue an order, which is a legal document that must be followed, and that “the town has voluntarily taken steps to contain the material to the Cole Drain and carry out the clean-up.”

She said environmental officers had been to the site “frequently” to ensure that appropriate actions were being taken to address the spill  — she did not answer when or how many times — and did not address directly when or how the ministry knew whether it was hazardous material, or if the process would have unfolded differently if it had not been treated as a spill.

Although it would be incorrect to categorize the material in the drain as hazardous, the town said, If left in the ditch, "the substance had the potential to cause harm to the environment. Therefore, it had to be disposed of as a waste requiring disposal at a specialized facility. The steps taken were pursuant to the direction of the MECP."

At last week’s council meeting Coun. Erwin Wiens expressed his frustration at the lack of answers from the town and the expense of the clean-up, and he continues to.

Town staff are not being open and transparent, as they said they would be, he said, “they’re closed and opaque.”

There are three simple questions that should have been answered by now, the councillor said. “What is it, what caused it, and are we insured for it? If the town doesn’t know the answer to those first three questions, we have a serous issue. It’s close to three weeks now, and we should know exactly what it is, what caused it, and if insurance is going to pay for it.”

While he has sympathy for the residents in the area, he said if the town was doing its job, it should have known very quickly if the material in the drain was naturally-occurring sewage.

He believes it was, and “absent any other information,” all the time and money spent was to clean up non-hazardous, non-lethal, non-polluting water.

He has had no other information from the town to tell him otherwise, “zero,” he said. His questions aren’t being answered either.

The installation of the berms to stop the flow of water through the drain contained whatever it was, and that should have been the end of it until the content was known and any more money spent,  he said.

“The question is, would you want $1 million spent on swamp water?”

The MECP, regionl and town all agreed that based on preliminary results, the material in the drain was characterized as non-hazardous, and that all spills are required to be cleaned up under Ontario’s Environmental Protection Act, even if it not categorized as hazardous waste.

Another local expert, Dr. Keith Kennedy, is a geologist with a career in environmental issues who is also trying to get to the bottom of the content and source of the material in the drain, and is questioning who on town staff had the authority to commit to the expensive clean-up.

The first step, he said, should have been determining whether the content was harmless. The MECP should have taken field samples, “straightforward tests” that would have given them information how to proceed.

“Everything depends on that first step, the contents of the spill. And it seems nobody knew what that was.”

If the town doesn’t have qualified staff on hand to make that determination, the MECP, he suggests, should have offered guidance. 

He would expect someone from the MECP would have knowledge that would enable them to “use their eyes and noses,” take some samples and get them to a lab to see if the content justified taking action. 

“They’re the regulators,” he said. “They have the expertise.”

If it’s decided it’s not hazardous, “it becomes a matter of quantity, and not a quality issue.” Instead, it seems decisions were made about how to proceed “without data, without analysis, without knowing how contaminated it was.”

“That’s water under the bridge now,” he said Tuesday, after walking the length of the drain himself.

“The good news is there isn’t anything residual in the drain. There doesn’t seem to have been any adverse effects.”

The future should bring “an autopsy,” a debriefing of what happened, said Kennedy, “and hopefully it will be made public.”

Questions to the town, the region and to the ministry were not answered by press time.