By Doug Draper
The waters of the world-famous Niagara River – at one time known for being plagued with some of the deadliest chemical contaminants in the world from notorious dumpsites like Love Canal and Hyde Park in Niagara County, New York – are showing significant improvement, according to a report released this December 6 by Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory in St. Catharines, Ontario.
“Overall water quality in the Niagara River has improved significantly … since 1987” when” remedial action plans” for both sides of the river were launched under the umbrella of the Canada/U.S. International Joint Commission – the official binational watchdog for Great Lakes waters, and other relevant federal, state, provincial and local agencies, says the report prepared by Niagara College instructor Annie Michaud for the Observatory.
Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when tests found the Niagara River and its aquatic life loaded with dioxin, PCBs, mirex and a cocktail of other highly toxic chemicals – many of them oozing in from dumps along the American side of the river – continued testing shows concentrations of 18 priority toxic pollutants have declined by as much as 99 per cent.
The remedial action plan (or RAP, for short) being pursued on the Canadian side of the border by Environment Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Environment and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and its RAP coordinator Valerie Cromie (Valerie has devoted more than two decades to this important project by the way and deserves a special award for her efforts) has also made significant progress in improving the quality of waters in the Welland River watershed and other sources of water to the Niagara River.
Yet the report stresses that there is still a good deal of work that needs to be done to make the vital water resource as healthy as it should be for human populations and wildlife that depend on it for survival. Once waterways are degraded, it can take many years or decades to clean them up, which requires continued government and public vigilance, and “one of the most significant challenges facing the Niagara River RAP is the ability to convey the importance of its long-term vision in a world that demands instant results,” concludes the report titled ‘The Niagara River Remedial Acton Plan: 25 Years of Environmental Restoration.”
“Achieving a complete environmental clean-up and meeting all restoration targets in the short term will not be possible.”
One new issue, raised by environmental groups in Ontario and New York State, and first reported by Niagara At Large earlier this fall, that was not mentioned in the Observatory’s report is that of plans by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove the Hyde Park dump in Niagara County, New York from its national list of priority dump sites.
The Hyde Park dump, located near the brink of the Niagara River gorge just upstream from the Rainbow Bridge crossing, operated as a burial site for some 80,000 tonnes of some of the most hazardous chemicals ever generated by industry between the early 1950s and mid-1970s. Sitting on fractured bedrock that once had it leaking like a siv, it is also home to a tonne of the deadliest form of dioxin – a chemical once notoriously used as a defoliant during the War in Vietnam.
Doug Hallett, a former Environment Canada scientist who first tracked the spread of dioxin through the waters of the Great Lakes, once told this reporter and testified in a U.S. court that a couple of shovels full of the strain of dioxin known to be buried at the Hyde Park site has the potential to endanger the lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario as a source of drinking water and fish as a source of food for fish-eating birds and humans.
The U.S. EPA is now considering removing the Hyde Park dump from its priority list on the grounds that court-ordered “containment” structures built in the 1980s around this site, owned and operated by the Occidental (former Hooker) Chemical Corporation, have arrested the movement of chemicals to the Niagara River. The problem is that the containment systems have the potential to begin breaking down after 30 or 40 years, and we are in that zone of time now.
No real surprise then that recent tests on the flesh of fresh-water mussels and other wildlife immediately downstream from the Hyde Park dump have recently shown rising levels of some of the chemicals known to be buried at the site. Environment Canada and Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley (a St. Catharines, Ontario MPP) have written letters to the EPA, asking it not to remove Hyde Park from its priority list for monitoring and maintenance.
Bradley said in his comments to the EPA and local media that removing Hyde Park from the priority list would be “inappropriate.” That is an all-too-cautious way of putting it. It is more appropriate to call such a delisting “reckless,” “dangerous,” or “potentially disastrous.”
After all the chemicals in this site have the capacity to remain deadly to life they come in contact with for hundreds of years and disturbance of the cracked rock they site in – a slight quake of the earth, for example – could have dire consequences for Lake Ontario and tens-of-millions of Canadians and Americans that rely on that resources as a source of drinking water.
For more information on this report and others prepared by the Niagara Community Observatory visit www.brocku.ca/nco .
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