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Feds accused of foot-dragging on Pointe des Chenes benzene cleanup

City Council will be asked Monday to put off any decision on re-opening Pointe des Chenes campground until federal and provincial officials can ensure potable water there
20200301-Sault Ste. Marie Airport, winter, stock-DT-01
Sault Ste. Marie airport file photo. Darren Taylor/SooToday

Almost 14 years after it was first detected in well water at Pointe des Chenes, benzene remains a critical issue in deciding whether the now-closed campground there should re-open.

A well-established cause of cancer in humans, benzene was one of the most prevalent and dangerous chemicals involved in the 1970s Love Canal disaster, later declared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history."

Elevated levels of benzene were first noticed in water samples drawn at Pointe des Chenes campground in 2007.

In a series of four 2016 reports published by SooToday, we disclosed that high benzene levels still persisted in untreated water at the PUC-operated plant, built to serve Lions Club Pointe Des Chenes Campground.

On Monday night, city solicitor Karen Fields will lay blame squarely on Transport Canada for dragging its feet on cleaning up the Pointe des Chenes mess.

Malcolm White, the city's chief administrative officer, will recommend that councillors put off any decision on re-opening the campground until federal and provincial officials can "ensure the timely and sustainable provision of potable water for the campground and day park."

Fields says Transport Canada conducted firefighter training from 1964 to 1993 on the southwest portion of the nearby Sault Ste. Marie Airport property.

The Pointe des Chenes water treatment plant was built by the city in 2002, to be operated by PUC.

"In June 2015 in a meeting with the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the MOECC confirmed not only the presence of benzene in their samples, but now also confirmed the presence of PFAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances], leading to the conclusion that the airport firefighting activities had resulted in offsite contamination. PFAS are found in the foam used to fight fire," Fields says in a report to Mayor Provenzano and city councillors.

Last month, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a warning about elevated levels of one PFAS in Lake Superior rainbow smelt, recommending that consumption be limited to one serving a month.

Fields says that Transport Canada was asked to do three things:

  • provide a timetable for restoring the water supply at the campground to potable conditions. This was set as an immediate priority
  • prepare a project timeline for preparing a sampling plan to further delineate the nature and extent of the contamination resulting from the airport
  • prepare a project timeline to develop a remediation plan to restore the natural environment

"To date, items one and three have never been achieved and to the city’s knowledge not addressed by Transport Canada to [the province]." Fields says.

"From 2015 to date, there have been various samplings, changes to samples, bi-weekly sampling, new filters, new filter systems, meetings, ongoing monitoring, multiple Transport Canada team leads, various Transport Canada consultants, reports, new wells, and one-year plans but there is still no timetable for restoring the water supply in this area to potable, nor a remediation plan to restore the natural environment."

"The city has continually asked for a long-term solution for the drinking water contamination. The latest proposal from Transport Canada is yet another filtering plan – this one stated to be a 'semi-permanent' solution involving another type of filtering. As past filtering plans have not been consistently successful, staff question whether this is the path forward and question what 'semi-permanent' means."

"Beyond this latest plan, Transport Canada has no other plans for how to clean up the water they have contaminated," Fields says.

Biweekly water sampling of two PFAS (PFOS and PFOA) taken from June to October last year exceeded the maximum acceptable concentrations allowed by Health Canada, she adds.

Aside from the campground, the contaminants don't seem to be affecting homes in the airport area.

Transport Canada has advised Fields that a residential sampling program developed with Algoma Public Health and the province is ongoing.

"They stated that the results to date demonstrated that all sampled residences met the Ontario drinking water quality standards for benzene, met the Health Canada maximum acceptable concentrations for PFOS and PFOA, and Health Canada drinking water screening values for other PFAS parameters," Fields said.

City Council decided in February to end a 35-year-old arrangement under which the Lions operated the municipally owned campground.

That decision won't affect the adjacent day park, which will remain open.

In fact, councillors voted late last month to run a beach bus there on summer weekends.

Fields provided this excerpt from the Lions Club report on last year's campground operations:

"2020 brought us challenges which made keeping the park open very difficult.

As it was made clear to the Lions Club, we were responsible for ensuring rules at the campground kept campers and employees safe.

It was decided that it would not be possible to open the comfort stations as we were not in a position to pay staff to clean the comfort stations every half hour.

We implemented restrictions on visitors.

No travellers were to be allowed and campers were only allowed to have visitors to their campsite if said visitor was a member of their own household.

We installed a Plexiglass shield on the counter of the office and made masks and hand sanitizer available for staff.

These conditions were made clear in a letter to seasonal campers that was sent to inform them that we would be opening the park on June 19, 2020. We lowered the site fee by 20 per cent and extended the season to the Thanksgiving weekend.

As the result of the restrictions, many campers decided that they were not going to camp at Pointe des Chenes during the 2020 season.

We lost 27 campers immediately as they did not want to camp at Pointe des Chenes due to the restrictions.

We lost a few more during the season as we would not change the rules so they could bring in visitors (grandchildren) from outside the Algoma District (from Michigan and Sudbury for example).

We had some interest expressed by new campers part way through the season but decided that it would not be fair to the current campers to bring in new people when we were not allowing visitors to the park.”

Fields added: "There was also no site remediation plan in place. With a substantial outlay of money that would be needed to replace the city’s old pressure tank the decision was made to close the campground to the public."

Transport Canada continues to ask for more time to deal with the Pointe des Chenes situation but Fields isn't optimistic potable water will be available there anytime soon.

"Despite many years of engaging Transport Canada and the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, there is still no provision of potable water at the site," says city CAO Malcolm White.

"Staff are recommending that council confirm its authorization... to continue to press Transport Canada to provide an acceptable solution for the provision of potable water at the site to serve the campground and the day park facilities in a timely manner," White says.

"Once this issue is resolved, staff can then evaluate and present to council options for the long-term future of the campground."

Monday night's City Council meeting will be livestreamed on SooToday starting at 4:30 p.m.

David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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