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Update on the Thunder Bay Harbour Clean-up

As reported in TB News Watch, a recommendation on the best method of cleaning up 400,000 cubic metres of contamination sediment in Thunder Bay Harbour is not expected until the end of 2019. There’s enough industrial sediment (mainly pulp and paper sludge), containing mercury and other contaminants, on the bottom of the north harbour to fill 150 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Thunder Bay is located at the northwest corner of Lake Superior and has a population of approximately 110,000. As the largest city in Northwestern Ontario, Thunder Bay is the region’s commercial, administrative and medical centre. It had been known in that past for it pulp and paper mills and as a key shipping port for grain.

Approximate Area of Contaminated Sediment in Thunder Bay Harbour

A new working group that’s revived efforts to manage 400,000 cubic meters of contaminated sediment in Thunder Bay’s north harbour has targeted the end of 2019 for a recommended solution.

Two federal departments, Transport Canada and Environment Canada, co-chair the group which also includes the Ontario environment ministry, the Thunder Bay Port Authority and numerous other local stakeholders.

A new steering committee has been formed to examine three options for remediation presented to the public in 2014. A previous committee formed to look at those options went dormant, necessitating the refresh.

“At this point, we want to further evaluate those [three existing] options and to look at additional options over the next 14 months,” said Roger Santiago, the head of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s sediment remediation group in November of 2018. The group primarily works on cleaning up contaminated patches in the Great Lakes.

A previous steering committee was established 10 years ago, and remediation options were developed, but momentum toward a cleanup or remediation of the contaminated site slowed after that.

That was despite the fact a 2013 risk assessment identified “unacceptable risks” to human health and to plant and animal life in the harbour area:

  • potential risk to people consuming fish (fish consumption advisory in place to mitigate the risk)
  • potential risk to people coming in direct contact with contaminated sediment
  • potential risk to kingfishers from mercury
  • potential risk to sediment-dwelling organisms from total resin acids

Impetus for a cleanup occurred earlier this year after Patty Hajdu, the MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, raised the issue with her cabinet colleagues, the transport and environment ministers.

There’s enough industrial sediment, containing mercury and other contaminants, on the bottom of the north harbour to fill 150 Olympic-size swimming pools.

The area was classified by a consultant and by federal experts as a Class 1 polluted site using the Federal Aquatic Sites Classification System. Class 1 sites indicate high priority for action.

A Transport Canada spokesperson told Tbnewswatch the working group will spend the next 12 months on technical and environmental studies, and will consult with the general public and with Indigenous groups as it evaluates a short list of management options.

The source of the contamination is historical dumping of pulp and paper mill pollution that resulted in mercury-contaminated paper sludge up to 4 metres thick lying at the bottom of the harbour. The sediment is contaminated with mercury in concentrations that range from 2 to 11 ppm at the surface of the sediment to 21 ppm at depth and ranging in thickness from 40 to 380 centimeters and covering an area of about 22 hectares (54 acres).


Greyish, digested pulp sludge up to 4 metres thick lies across the north harbour bottom (Transport Canada)


Clean-up Options

A 2017 Consultants report stated that the preferred option was to dredge the sediment and transfer it to the Mission Bay Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) at the harbour’s south end.  The dredging and transfer option was estimated to cost $40 million to $50 million, and was considered the best choice based on factors such as environmental effectiveness and budget.  The consultants also looked at other options, including capping and excavation/isolation.

The capping option would consist of placing clean material on top of the contaminated material to contain and isolate the contaminants. A geotextile (a strong fabric barrier) will support the cap material. The budget for this option was estimated at $30-$40 million.

The proposed excavation option would involve building a dam to isolate the contaminated material from the water prior to removal. Once the dam was built, the area would be dewatered so that earth-moving equipment like excavators, loaders and bulldozers can be used to remove the material. It would then be disposed of in a secure landfill. A new on-site Confined Disposal Facility has been recommended or the use of the the existing Confined Disposal Facility at Mission Bay. The excavation option is estimated to cost $80-$90 million.

No matter what is decided upon, the 2017 consultant’s report estimated it would take seven years to complete the clean up. 


Who is Charge of Harbour Clean-ups in Ontario?

As reported by the CBC, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) does not consider itself as the lead for the clean-up of Hamilton Harbour or Thunder Bay harbour.  ECCC says, while it is leading an ongoing harbour cleanup in Hamilton, it’s not a role the federal agency usually assumes.

That comes as proponents of cleaning up historical pollution in the harbour in Thunder Bay, Ont., try and sort out who is responsible for spearheading similar efforts in the northwestern Ontario city.

“If your question is, does it need a champion? It absolutely does,” Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger said of the importance that an organization with jurisdiction over a polluted site push for a cleanup. “It needs one organization to keep pushing it along.”

“If it continues to be work that is just secondary work for someone off the corner of their desk, then it’s going to be a long, hard, arduous process.”

Efforts to clean up historical industrial pollution at the Randle Reef site in Hamilton’s harbour date back at least 15 years, said Eisenberger, who also used to be the chair of the board for the Hamilton Port Authority.  For years, he said, the port effectively served the lead agency role, coordinating local stakeholders and senior levels of government to move the project forward.

Environment Canada took the reins well into the project’s lifespan, according to Eisenberger and a spokesperson with the federal agency, and only after the involvement of the Hamilton port — who owns the harbour bed at Randle Reef.

In Thunder Bay, determining who should be that advocate has been difficult; the water lots where 400,000 cubic metres of mercury-contaminated pulp fibre sit in the harbour’s north end are owned by Transport Canada but administered by the Thunder Bay Port Authority.

Transport Canada has told CBC News spearheading a cleanup is up to the port, while port officials say they’ve been told by Transport Canada to advise on — not lead — remediation efforts.  The port has pointed to Environment Canada as the most appropriate lead agency, citing its role in Hamilton.

Approximate Area of Contaminated Sediment in Thunder Bay Harbour

‘No standard model’

Just because Environment Canada takes a leadership role in one project doesn’t necessarily mean it will in all cases, a spokesperson with the agency said.

“There really is no standard model for remediating contaminated sites other than that governments try to apply, where possible, the polluter-pay principle,” Jon Gee, Environment Canada’s manager of the Great Lakes area of concern wrote in an email to CBC News.

In Thunder Bay, the industrial companies largely responsible for the legacy pollution no longer exist.

Environment Canada’s lead role in Hamilton was the result of “a long negotiation between the Government of Canada and the other organizations,” Gee wrote. “It is not a role that the Department usually undertakes.”

The jurisdictional confusion in Thunder Bay has caught the attention of at least one legislator in the area.  Officials with the office of Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu said she has met with members of the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan’s public advisory committee and that she will also discuss the matter with the federal ministers of transport and the environment.

Construction of the Randle Reef cleanup project in Hamilton Harbour

Gee said Environment Canada “remains committed” to working with government and other stakeholders on the project.

In Hamilton’s case, funding for the $139 million Randle Reef project is being split among the federal and provincial governments, as well as Hamilton, Burlington, the Hamilton Port Authority and Stelco, a steel company based in Hamilton. It’s expected to be complete in 2022.

In Thunder Bay, a number of remediation options were presented in 2014 to the public, with feedback going into a report.  Environment Canada has said no preferred option was identified because there is no lead agency on the project. Cost estimates at the time ranged anywhere from $30 million to $90 million.

Status of Hamilton Harbour Clean-up

As reported in the Hamilton Spectator, Hamilton Harbour still has an undetermined number of years to go before it can meet water quality and ecological standards acceptable to the International Joint Commission.  The Canada/U.S. bilateral agency that oversees cross-border water issues said in a statement this week that — after three decades — it is growing restless about the slow pace of Great Lakes water improvements on both sides of the border.

“The IJC identifies specific gaps in achieving the human health objectives … for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes,” the agency says.

More than 30 years ago, the commission deemed 43 “areas of concern” on the Great Lakes — including Hamilton Harbour — and only seven sites have so far been delisted, three of which are in Canada.

Two big projects currently underway in Hamilton harbour are expected to lead to major improvements in its water quality. The first is the ongoing work encapsulating the highly toxic coal tar blob at Randle Reef. The Randle Reef Contaminated Sediment Remediation Project is scheduled for completion in 2022 at a total cost of $138.9 million spread out over three phases.

The other ongoing big-ticket item is Woodward Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is in the second year of a five-year, $340-million upgrade that will raise treatment to a modern tertiary level. This is expected to dramatically reduce discharges into the bay with most notably a reduction of 65,000 kilograms of phosphorus per year.

Status of Thunder Bay Harbour Clean-up

As reported in TB News Watch, the recommendations in a clean-up report of mercury in Thunder Bay, Ontario harbour have yet to be acted upon.  It has been more than three years since a consultant’s report identified options for the management of 400,000 cubic metres (14 million cubic feet) of mercury-contaminated sediment.

Thunder Bay is located at the northwest corner of Lake Superior and has a population of approximately 110,000.

The source of the mercury in the sediment was industrial activity along Thunder Bay’s north harbour for over 90 years including pulp and paper mill operations.  The sediment is contaminated with mercury in concentrations that range from 2 to 11 ppm at the surface of the sediment to 21 ppm at depth and ranging in thickness from 40 to 380 centimeters and covering an area of about 22 hectares (54 acres).

The preferred solution in the consultant’s report was to dredge the sediment and transfer it to the Mission Bay Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) at the harbour’s south end.  That came with an estimated cost of $40 million to $50 million, and was considered the best choice based on factors such as environmental effectiveness and cost.  The consultants also looked at other options, including building a new containment structure on the shoreline adjacent to the former Superior Fine Papers mill.