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IS IT TIME TO PULL OUR HEADS OUT OF THE SEDIMENT?
By Gillian Ward
With the 16th running of the Cornwall Triathlon behind us, some of our readers wondered, whatever happened to the Cornwall Sediment Strategy? The “Do not Disturb/Do not Develop” policy for the Cornwall riverfront was the means adopted to deal with legacy industrial pollution buried in shallow graves along the Cornwall waterfront. WaterToday checked in with the City of Cornwall and Raisin Region Conservation Authority to find out more.
The Cornwall Sediment Strategy (CSS) was adopted in June 2005 with the City of Cornwall, the Akwesasne Mohawk Council, Raisin Region Conservation Authority, Ontario Ministry of Environment and Environment Canada, being of one mind in agreement on Remedial Action Plan for legacy pollution in the contaminated zones of Cornwall, Ontario.
This sediment management plan states that the sediments along the Cornwall waterfront are to be left in place and effective Administrative Controls are to be implemented to ensure that these sediments are not disturbed or re-suspended such that the deeper, more contaminated material is exposed.”
Cornwall Sediment Strategy, June 2005
It is a matter of public record that Cornwall’s 20th century industrial district, including Courtalds fibre plant, Domtar, ICI/CIL and others discharged a variety of heavy metals, pollutants and contaminants into the St. Lawrence River as a means of disposal. Thought at the time to be harmlessly washed away with the river current, it came to light that mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic compounds were settling in the riverbed, especially near factory discharge outlets close to shore.
Any future disturbance of the river bottom could allow harmful contaminants to resuspend in the current and move further downstream, coming in contact with fish, depositing in fish habitats and generally fouling the area for recreational use of the water by the public.
Yet, the Cornwall Triathlon ran again on Sunday, August 24th, just as it has each year since the CSS came into effect.
WaterToday reached out to the Triathlon event organizers and the City of Cornwall to confirm details for the 1.5 km swim section of the race, which according to the Triathlon event map posted online, goes right through Zone 1 of the CSS Area of Concern.
Dana McLean, Development Coordinator for City of Cornwall Planning, Development and Recreation Department confirmed by email, “Yes the triathlon swim does cross the Zone West indicated on the map of the 2005 Sediment Strategy”. McLean is a four-time veteran of the Cornwall Triathlon herself, and acts as a liaison between the City and the event. With the CSS map and the Triathlon map in one view, McLean took pause, telling WaterToday by telephone, “you do raise a point here.”
Raisin Region Conservation Authority Regulations Officer and Community Liaison Lissa Deslandes confirmed by an emailed statement to WaterToday on 20 August, 2019 “Yes, the 2005 CSS Strategy and Protocol are still in place, no documents have superseded it and the Parties continue to work together to implement the Strategy and Protocol.”
Noting the disconnect between the CSS and the practise of accepted disturbance taking place, WaterToday contacted Roger Houde at his home in Cornwall. The retired former Executive Director of the Raisin Region Conservation Authority, Houde had taken seriously his assigned role in monitoring the Cornwall waterfront for any activity that would violate the CSS “Do Not Disturb” policy.
Speaking in a documentary film about the St. Lawrence River Legacy Pollution issue, Houde explained that the industrial complex situated along the Great River in the 1940s and 50’s had routinely dumped toxic materials into the river. When it became clear that the pollutants were not washing away, but settling in the river bottom, the USA and Canada joined together to address the environmental impact together.
Canada and the United States federal governments came together to address the Great Lakes Ecosystem in 1978, signing the bi-national Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The GLWQA was amended in 1987, detailing remedial plans for the most critically impacted sites, defined as Areas of Concern (AOCs). Each nation funded its own remedial action plans (RAP’s) and provided dedicated staff to the task of studying the sediments, monitoring activity that would disturb the river bottom and consulting with the public about the risk of recreating or fishing in the contaminated zones.
In 2002, another partnership was struck with the Canada Ontario Agreement Respecting The Great Lakes Ecosystem, to deliver on Canada’s obligations under the bi-national GLWQA.
A remedial action plan was indicated for river fisheries, fish habitat and human use of the river, including swimming, before the Area of Concern designation could be retired. In the case of the Cornwall Zones 1, 2 and 3 (see map), the stakeholders opted to allow the natural accumulation of sediment to cover the contaminants, containing the risk and preventing spread of harmful environmental and human health effects downstream.
Environment Canada and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment together coordinated the development of the Cornwall Sediment Strategy, with participation from the Raisin Region Conservation Authority and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.
It was thought at the time the CSS was adopted, that dredging the contaminated zones could create more harm than simply leaving them undisturbed. This sentiment makes sense, as long as the Do Not Disturb is managed and effectively enforced, for the benefit and protection of those downstream.
Roger Houde was in charge of the Raisin Region Conservation Authority through this process. Tasked with the monitoring of three contaminated zones along the Cornwall waterfront, Houde said his group informed real estate developers and agents of the no-disturbance policy, with disclosure of risk to human and environmental health should the layer of pollutants be exposed by dredging, scouring, dragging or drilling into the river bottom. Despite this warning, private property owners have been installing docks and even waterslides in the Area of Concern.
Houde told WaterToday that even though Raisin Region Conservation Authority (RRCA) was charged with monitoring for disturbance activities, the RRCA does not possess the right to enforce compliance with the no disturbance sentiment.
Mr. Houde told WaterToday “I am very concerned about water quality and the impact of disturbance of the river bottom, on fisheries and human health.” Raisin Region Conservation Authority was responsible for monitoring disturbance activity but with no authority to stop such acts, Houde says his role in this was “impossible to do”.
For several years now, the Canadian and Ontario governments have been working toward de-listing the Area of Concern.
Knowing what was sure to be resuspended in the water and mobilized downstream by disturbance and having no authority to enforce the sentiments of the Cornwall Sediment Strategy of 2005, Houde wrote letters strongly opposing the de-listing until all beneficial use impairments had been corrected. According to Houde, his letters indicated “there is more clean up to be done, more monitoring needed” before de-listing and abandoning the remedial plan.
Among his last actions as Executive Director of the RRCA, Houde pressed for a Human Health Impact study related to disturbance of contaminated sediments.
Houde says he also requested an economic analysis of alternative courses of action be undertaken, to assess the cost and benefit of dredging and cleaning up the contamination, leading to full development options for Cornwall.
The cost benefit analysis of alternative policies was not undertaken, but CSS participating agencies, including Environment Canada (EC), Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE), Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA), Raisin Region Conservation Authority (RRCA) and the City of Cornwall did move forward with a Human Health Risk study.
According to minutes of an October 2017 telephone conference obtained by WaterToday, Dr. Marco Pagliarulo of Ontario Ministry of Environment Standards Development Branch reported on his progress with the Human Health Risk: Wading and Swimming study, in which impacts on human health related to chronic exposure to three known contaminants in the Cornwall Area of Concern were considered. The initial draft of the Human Health Risk study was noted in the inter-agency communique to be expected in late 2017 or early 2018.
WaterToday requested a copy of the Human Health Risk: Wading and Swimming from MOECC through its media department.
MOE media spokesperson reported to WaterToday by email, “The ministry is unable to share the requested report before it has been presented to the local stakeholders later this year. With regards to the upcoming event on August 24, we do not believe there is any concern with exposure to sediments for the swimmers participating in the triathlon. Any public health-related questions should be directed to the Eastern Ontario Health Unit.
The guiding principal of the Cornwall Sediment Strategy and Administrative Protocols is to prevent disturbance of the deeper historical contaminated sediments by projects such as dock building, dredging, etc. It is not expected that activities such as swimming would disturb that deeper sediment.”
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