St. Catharines activist group takes issue with ministry stance on former General Motors lands
By Jordan Snobelen
October 19, 2020
By Jordan Snobelen
The Coalition for a Better St. Catharines isn’t letting up on their mission to see a 54-acre brownfield along Ontario Street rid of any toxic contaminants left over from the former General Motors plant which operated there for over a century before closing in 2010.
On Oct. 9, the citizen group addressed a letter to Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks (MECP) questioning the ministry’s take on water testing results conducted this past February and released six months later in July.
“In their own letter, they acknowledge that there’s PCBs and metals leeching into Twelve Mile Creek that exceeds provincial guidelines, and they’ve done nothing about it,” said Coalition director, Dennis Van Meer, during an Oct. 15 phone interview.
“We have inspected the site regularly and have not found any off-site impacts to date that would require the property owner to take action. Concerns from the residents and their consultant have been provided to ministry experts for consideration during their review of the ministry’s air and water monitoring data,” said MECP spokesperson, Lindsay Davidson, in an Oct. 16 emailed response.
As part of a $125,000 St. Catharines city council action plan to deal with the former GM property, the MECP was asked to conduct water and air quality testing near the property.
On Feb. 13, 2020, the ministry “completed surface water sampling of Twelve Mile Creek and storm sewer outfalls” near the former GM property, according to the July ministry report. One outfall from the former GM property was not sampled at the time, as it was dry.
The ministry’s testing revealed that cadmium levels exceeded Provincial Water Quality Objectives (PWQO) at “all sampling locations.”
Iron slightly exceeded acceptable levels at a former GM property storm sewer outfall. At this same location, the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) _ a group of 209 chemicals linked to cancer and other health complications _ were detected at 19.5 ng/L, exceeding a tolerance of up to 10 ng/L.
A municipal storm sewer outfall had excess levels of aluminum, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, zinc, chrysene, fluoranthene and phenanthrene – the last three belong to a group called “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” some of which are recognized as being carcinogenic. This same location also had excess PCB levels at 11ng/L.
The coalition has called the excess PCB result of 19 ng/L “alarming” and suggested that the PCB levels could be even higher.
“We don’t believe the (MECP) did testing in the most favourable conditions,” Van Meer said.
The MECP’s July report reads that results of PCBs were “within the range of previous Twelve Mile Creek non-source sites results for wet events (1.5 to 22.4 ng/L). Non-source sites are defined as those “with a lack of evidence of a source.”
The report goes on to read that, despite exceedances at sewer outfalls, Twelve Mile Creek downstream sample locations “did now show any impact.”
According to Davidson of the MECP, the ministry conducted a second round of surface water sampling during dry weather this past September.
But it’s not just the water which has the Coalition concerned.
Asbestos, a known carcinogen, was reportedly used for decades at the former GM plant in the manufacturing of brake assemblies.
Bruce Allen, now a paralegal, said in an Oct. 16 phone call that he worked at the GM plant from 1982 to 2000.
“I worked in an area called the brake bonding area where for about 40 years, in my estimation, brakes were assembled using asbestos brake linings,” he said.
According to Allen, the plant stopped using asbestos in 1991. But despite controls introduced in the early ’80s and a later effort to remove asbestos in the mid-90s, Allen said he couldn’t be sure to what extent the removal was completed.
An Oct. 14 letter addressed to the Coalition and undersigned by Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, among others, urged for the immediate removal of asbestos from the former GM site.
In an emailed response to questions from Niagara This Week about the presence of asbestos, Davidson of the MECP, said the ministry is not aware of any asbestos at the former GM property.
“The ministry confirmed that PCB waste, asbestos and subject waste were removed from the site in accordance with legislative requirements prior to demolition activities. The Ministry of Labour also attended the site and did not observe any asbestos-type insulation in the demolition piles.”
According to Davidson, the ministry has installed air monitoring equipment “upwind and downwind” of the former GM property which will help assess dust concerns and the presence of asbestos, if any. Monitoring will run through the rest of October.
The results of the most recent water and air sampling are still pending but will be made public. The MECP plans to present the results to City council in the fall of this year.
The coalition is calling on the City of St. Catharines to use its authority to enter the former GM site and take sampling independent of the (MECP).
“I just think that people deserve answers, and the city keeps taking the position that (since) it’s private property there’s nothing that they can do,” Van Meer said, pointing out that a park and playground sit adjacent to the property, across Pleasant Avenue.
“My question has always been: who’s responsible to protect the citizens of St. Catharines from carcinogens? If it’s not the city, and it’s not the province, and it’s not the feds – then who is it?”
The property was sold by GM to Bayshore Groups in 2014 and has been the centre of ongoing legal disputes ever since.
Despite a recently passed bylaw prohibiting certain lands for waste disposal, St. Catharines’ Mayor Walter Sendzik said the City’s power remains limited on private property with ownership and taxes paid.
“We can provide notice to the owner of the property and after due notice be able to go up to the site and examine what could be there, but we don’t have the capabilities to actually do the testing of any kind of contaminant,” said Sendzik.
“There’s a sense that there’s certain folks who are trying to make politics out of this property,” he said.
“We’re all trying to get it to a place where the owners and all levels of government have a plan of what the remediation looks like – we’re getting there,” he added.
In September, St. Catharines city council asked the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority to resume monitoring Twelve Mile Creek for PCBs at two different locations, something they had been doing several years ago. Council has also requested MECP scientists appear during an as-of-yet undetermined council meeting to address the community.
On Oct. 17, the coalition is having a “day of action” at the former GM property from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., limited to 25 already confirmed attendees to ensure social distancing precautions.
Van Meer said the coalition has “moved mountains” on the GM issue in the last year and expects more action if they keep pushing.
“If we keep doing what we’re doing, I think Pandora’s box is going to open, (and) at some point in time somebody’s going to be held accountable and responsible, and someone is going to do the right thing.”
-Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter