OTTAWA — Ottawa’s past as an industrial city haunts it still, with a new environmental report showing that several of the capital’s landmarks and civic facilities stand on polluted land.
The annual report on contaminated sites for which the federal government is responsible, released Tuesday by federal Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan, shows that of the 22,000 sites identified nationally, 317 are in the National Capital Region, and 256 of them are in Ottawa.
The Mooney’s Bay beach area for instance, has an estimated 130,000 cubic metres of pollutants in the soil, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, commonly known as PAHs. The Garden of the Provinces and Territories has an estimated 4,488 cubic metres and 8,970 tons of unidentified contaminants, and the Central Experimental Farm has an estimated 63,000 cubic metres of petroleum hydrocarbons, known as PHCs. And the former U.S. embassy building across Wellington Street from Parliament Hill also has an estimated 3,500 cubic metres of PHCs and PAHs.
Vaughan rates the contaminants in these locations to be of medium priority.
Of the 60 contaminated sites in West Quebec, 51 are in Gatineau, and the rest are spread throughout towns like Pontiac and Chelsea. Many more polluted sites are spread throughout Eastern Ontario, with the bulk of them in Petawawa, site of a Canadian Forces base.
Across the country, the federal government is facing $7.7 billion in environmental liabilities for approximately 22,000 federal contaminated sites, and a funding shortfall to clean up the polluted lands.
The sites listed in the report can include anything from small areas of soil contaminated by fuel spills to massive abandoned mines with heavy metals and other toxic substances. The contaminants can include toxic and hazardous substances and range from petroleum products to radioactive materials.
Unless properly managed and remediated, the sites can contaminate water, soil and air, and threaten human health.
The National Capital Commission owns or operates most of the contaminated sites in this region — 234 in all — but it says the sites pose no imminent danger to the public, and as soon as a problem arises, it is quickly fixed.
Beyond the NCC, the Department of National Defence owns most of the remaining contaminated sites cited in the report, including the Connaught Range, Shirley’s Bay and other DND properties, including a chemical disposal site near Shirley’s Brook and Watts Creek in Ottawa’s west end. The site was contaminated by biological and chemical warfare agents, but the environment commissioner says the problem has been remediated.
Steve Blight, the NCC’s director of environmental management and protection, says that given Ottawa’s history as a major lumber town and industrial hub, no one in the city should be surprised by the environmental commissioner’s findings.
“Like most industrial cities around the world, we have a legacy of our past industrial practices. If you think of Ottawa, both sides of the river, the Rideau River and the canal were highly industrial areas with factories, mills, foundries, fuel depots, rail lines — you name it,” Blight said.
“A lot of the land the NCC picked up … [was] the main areas of industrialization and the main areas of contamination. One of the legacies of the past is not good and now we have to tidy things up.”
He says the three major “problem contaminants” in Ottawa are: heavy metals like lead, copper and zinc; the PAHs, the most well-known of which is benzine, the product of old industrial operations like the burning of coal; and petroleum hydrocarbons, which come from the storage of petroleum products in tanks up and down the Ottawa River and places like Hurdman and Richmond Landing.
While heavy metals like lead and other hazardous substances are buried deep below our feet, Blight says they don’t pose a clear and present danger, and as soon as a problem arises, the authorities act quickly snuff it out.
He says that though the report may list sites like Stanley Park as contaminated, they have been secured so that even though the pollutants are still underground, they pose no danger to people. Blight says Ottawans are in no more danger than people in Toronto, Montreal or other Canadian cities that have a similar history industrial history.
“We are not living in a dangerous city. It is really no different than any of the other big cities, and the NCC’s job is to manage its properties so they are not posing any risk to human health or the environment,” Blight said.
He says for instance that when lead was discovered at Stanley Park, the NCC moved quickly to fix the problem because it realized that families use the park and children in particular could be at risk. Other places such as Jacques Cartier Park, Riverfront Park at the War Museum, and Maple Island have all been put through remediation, he says.
However, of the NCC’s 234 contaminated sites, only 48 have been remedied, leaving the vast majority unattended. Blight acknowledged that remediation is slow and a lot still remains to be done. The problem is that removing contaminants costs a lot of money, and the job has to be done as resources become available.
“There’s a ways to go, we know that. Our objective is to secure all the sites by 2017 and we have a program in place and we are knocking off a few every year,” he said.
With files from Jason Fekete
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