No 543 Posted by fw, August 7, 2012
This post marks the fourth story I’ve reposted from Hamilton’s exemplary all-volunteer CATCH news organization. Too bad all municipalities are not equally blessed with a citizen-based municipal watchdog. Here’s CATCH’s self-effacing self-description:
ABOUT CATCH (Citizens at City Hall) is a volunteer community group that encourages civic participation in Hamilton. Our members attend and report on meetings of city councillors and other City committees, and carry out related research and activities. We issue regular news updates to our email list using recordings and transcripts of meetings, staff reports and/or other public documents to highlight information about Hamilton civic affairs that is not generally available in the mass media.
To do CATCH justice, read its latest bracing post that ranks right up there with the best of the best of investigative journalism. It’s a story that brings to mind once again that old truism —
“People do what you inspect, not what you expect” —Louis V. Gerstner, former Chairman of the Board, IBM
Here’s CATCH’s latest scoop —
At first, Ontario government officials and Hamilton City managers publicly denied knowledge of source of contaminant
More than a year before they admitted it, both officials of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment [MOE] and the managers of Hamilton’s airport knew the source of the chemical that has severely contaminated the Welland River and the Binbrook Conservation Area. And both publicly denied having that knowledge after a Hamilton environmental group identified the airport’s fire training pad as the origin of the perfluorooctone sulphonate (PFOS) that is now the subject of a multi-million-dollar cleanup.
But 2010 emails obtained by CATCH through FOI reveal officials were aware
Emails released to CATCH through Freedom of Information show that the Ministry concluded the airport was the source of the flame retardant chemicals in February 2010 – within days of being notified by federal scientists about huge concentrations of PFOS in turtles in Lake Niapenco – the Welland River reservoir that dominates the Binbrook Conservation Area. Yet fourteen months later Ministry officials were claiming they were still in the dark, and promising to conduct an investigation to find the source.
Similarly, Hamilton airport officials claimed not to have known PFOS was coming from their property until June 2011, but 14 months before that they had been asked and agreed to allow MOE testing of the fire training area for that specific chemical.
Environment Canada researcher Shane DeSolla sent an email to MOE officials on February 16, 2010 detailing the results of his turtle investigations in Lake Niapenco. DeSolla noted creeks originating at the airport fed the lake and that PFOS was “recently used in fire-fighting foams”. He concluded that “it is possible that the airport was the source of the PFOS” and indicated he was not aware of any other cause “as likely as the airport”.
An MOE official replied three days later confirming DeSolla’s suspicions.
“I expect the airport is definitely the source to Lake Niapenco,” wrote Eric Reiner. “Both Etobicoke and Mimico Creeks are elevated and they drain Pearson Airport.”
That led to a request by MOE research scientist Satyendra Bhavsar for permission to test for PFOS at and near the airport fire training pad, that was approved by Tradeport’s Coordinator of Airport Support Operations and took place on April 12, 2010.
Through early part of 2011 officials misinformed the public about what they knew and when they knew it
But in June 2011, when airport president Richard Koroscil responded in writing to questions from councillors about “when did Hamilton International Airport know of PFOS contamination on airport property,” he had quite a different story.
“We learned in May 2011 that the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) had been doing testing for PFOS contamination in tributaries of the Welland River, and on the airport site,” wrote Koroscil in his June 17 memo. “Just last week, the MOE told us that further test results indicated PFOS contamination in nearby waterways was flowing from the airport lands.”
The following month, the current president of Tradeport, Frank Scremin, wrote to local weekly newspapers to emphasize the innocence of his company.
“We would like Hamilton Community News readers to be aware that airport officials learned very recently (May 2011) that the Ministry of the Environment had been conducting tests for the chemical PFOS on the airport site and in tributaries of the Welland River,” stated Scremin’s letter. “In early June, the MOE told the airport and the City of Hamilton that further test results indicated PFOS contamination in nearby waterways was flowing from the airport lands.”
Media coverage raise suspicions that officials were not telling all they knew
The picture revealed by the emails is of Ministry and airport officials unworried about the source of the toxic chemicals and not doing anything about it until media coverage erupted in late March 2011 after the publication of the province’s Guide to Eating Sport Fish in Ontario revealed significant restrictions on consumption of Lake Niapenco fish because of PFOS contamination. That resulted in CATCH stories, questions to city staff by Binbrook councillor Brenda Johnson, and subsequent attention by CBC, the Hamilton Spectator and other media.
The revelations in the Guide also led biologist and Environment Hamilton director Joe Minor to privately test the stream draining the fire training pad where it reaches the public right-of-way on Airport Road. His results were released by Environment Hamilton on April 21 and exposed the world’s highest recorded levels of PFOS.
Finally, Ontario Ministry of Environment tests confirm that officials had been evasive
In response, MOE officials told the Spectator that they would “soon begin testing” in hopes that they would “be able to ‘trace’ or ‘track-back’ the PFOS to the original source or sources.” Those tests occurred the following month, confirmed the fire training pad as the source, and finally initiated efforts to prevent more downstream contamination. An $80,000 investigation of how to clean it up still continues, with a report to city council due next week.