All photos via the author.
What’s a city to do when it turns out the crown jewel of a beautiful waterfront park is lying on top of a toxic mess that’s bubbling up from underground to menace locals and visitors alike?
That’s the question dogging Sarnia’s city council as it prepares to decide on Monday how to restore sections of Centennial Park, the city’s waterfront promenade along the St. Clair River, which was featured in the VICE documentary about the Chemical Valley last year. Centennial Park has been closed to the public for the last year due to the discovery of toxic chemicals—a legacy left from decades of indiscriminate dumping.
City workers first knew they had trouble on their hands when a “black, bubbling goo” was found oozing up in the park in June 2012, city engineer Andre Morin told about 50 people at a public information meeting earlier this month. No, they hadn’t found an oil well; “black gold” or “Texas tea” (attention fans of silly ‘60s sitcoms!). It was a nasty brew of materials dating from those same 1960s, or even earlier. Some of the mess could even date back to the Depression era.
It took a fair bit of historical detective work to find the sources of the sludge, Morin says. It turns out just about the entire park is land reclaimed from the river thanks to the dumping of “fill” material by nearby industries, possibly including a 19th century coal gas plant, an insulation maker and a pesticide plant. While the industry that boomed during those years in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley may not have made everyone here a millionaire like Old Jed in the Beverly Hillbillies, it was the foundation of the city’s prosperity. Now the nasty underside of the boom years is returning to bite the city where it counts—its public spaces.
Canadians, both in industry and in their homes, were not exactly particular about where they got rid of their problems in earlier times, as seen by the results of “test holes” dug throughout the park. Not only did material from the holes reveal toxics from industrial sources, including asbestos, lead, a number of carcinogenic hydrocarbons and metals, but it even found evidence of household garbage, Morin explained. “It looks like everybody contributed to this,” he added.
What sealed the deal was the asbestos. As soon as the tests turned up traces of the deadly fibres—presto—fences went up almost overnight in May 2013, blocking off the fields that have hosted the wildly popular Bayfest that’s drawn thousands of rock fans to Sarnia each July. A popular childrens’ playground is also cut off. The fences still loom over dog-walkers, stroller-pushing parents, joggers, and cyclists on the scenic path around Sarnia Bay.
Council will have trouble trying to reconcile differing opinions among its citizens about how to deal with the problem. Opinions voiced at the recent open meeting ranged from wanting to do nothing and re-open the park, to those questioning if even the most complicated measures being considered would be enough for public protection.
Sarnians really want council to save money and leave the park the way it is, says retired lawyer Paul Beaudet. While the report prepared for Sarnia council by Golder Assoc. outlines a number of remediation measures, after spending over 10 hours reading the report, Beaudet feels the experts are really telling Council they can just conduct “risk assessment“ rather than cover areas of the park with new soiI. The consultant can’t say that directly, as it would “expose them to very considerable liability,” but the idea is there between the lines, he said during the meeting. He points to the fact tests found only trace amounts of asbestos in the soil, and no air sampling was done to find out if the asbestos is breaking loose. “I’ve not found a single person who thinks anything should be done,” Beaudet told this VICE reporter.
In spite of his reading and research, Beaudet hasn’t found a sympathetic ear with city engineer Morin. “Trace asbestos is not safe. It’s a risk (to citizens) and a liability (to the city government),” he told Beaudet, as the mayor and several councilors listened from the audience. The area’s chief medical official and Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment also agree something must be done, he said.
Asbestos may be a touchy word for most folk in the developed world, but it has particular poignancy in Sarnia. Just ask Margaret Buist and her friends who filled up part of a row at the public meeting. All four lost their husbands to either lung cancer or mesothelioma, a cancer of the tissues around the lungs that has long been linked to asbestos exposure. The material was used in the Chemical Valley until the early 1980s as an insulator. A few years later, occupational health advocates started noticing this especially ugly cancer was killing off industrial retirees in the area at an alarming rate; a rate tabulated at between 4 and 6 times the provincial average. Some victims would endure dozens of radiation treatments, lose their teeth, and suffer tumours on their faces before the inevitable. Over 600 cases turned up in this city of 74,000 between 1999 and 2007, an epidemic delayed until later in their lives due to the long latency period of the disease.
Sarnia’s asbestos didn’t just stay inside the walls of local industry either. The fibres have been known to stick to workers’ clothing making their family members sick at home, and the lighter-than-feathers strands may have blown around Sarnia in years past coming to rest in Centennial Park. Paul Beaudet remembers a business known as Holmes Insulation was once operating next to the park, making an asbestos-based product that was heated for drying, forcing the air from drying ovens up stacks and into the open air. Are you wincing yet? This reporter’s children, growing up in Sarnia, still remember the man down the street “with no nose.”
Some families of mesothelioma victims started a support group called “Victims of Chemical Valley,” the group that Margaret and her friends belong to. She remembers the group holding their annual memorial service for workers who died on, or because of, their work a year ago by their memorial in Centennial Park, and the following day the fences went up around the area. The women felt “pretty awful” that the city workers let them in the area when they knew it was to be cordoned off as unsafe. The land under and by the memorial is one of the most contaminated zones, she told VICE at the meeting. “Is that ironic?” she asks, needing no answer.
Plans for fixing the park don’t include excavating contaminated areas, says Mayor Mike Bradley, a possibility some residents worry would have asbestos wafting around the city. “The plans call for capping areas with soil or a hard (concrete) cap,” he explains. It will probably take 2-3 years more before the park is re-opened, Bradley tells VICE.
Yet the capping plans may be a source of controversy even without digging. Environmental activist Zak Nicholls, quietly attending the public meeting, wondered if the city’s plans are adequate to reassure the public. The city, provincial environment ministry, and the consultant have all agreed to use 0.5 m of soil to cover affected areas instead of the original recommendation for a full metre. “Will these materials re-emerge in 10 years?” he questions. “When this is all said and done, and millions of dollars are spent, are people going to trust the remediation? Are people actually going to use this park?” asks Nicholls.
The remedial work could cost up to $8 million, a cost that helps convince City Councillor David Boushy to side with Sarnians who want to do as little, and spend as little, as possible. “We just need to cover the most important spots, he says, explaining the city doesn’t have the 8 million for what he calls “the Cadillac plan.”
For Mayor Bradley, the middle way is best. “We’ve had 20,000 people a night through this area,” during Bayfest before, and taking the chance those 40,000 feet could trample the earth enough to put toxic materials into the air is “too big a risk to take,” he says.
The hundred-year mark keeps cropping up around this issue like the long grass and weeds that have flourished in the fenced off areas. While the park opened for Canada’s centennial in 1967, this year marks Sarnia’s own Centennial. In 1914, on the eve of World War I, the oil town on the periphery of southern Ontario was first declared a city.
Plans for a Centennial legacy project, a multi-purpose centre right in the middle of the park, have been put on hold because of the contamination. Covering dangerous spots in the park are only part of the plans. If Council approves the full plan, new pathways, lighting, and an artificial turf sports field, along with the new building, will sprout instead of weeds and black goo.
Some even dare to imagine Sarnia could eventually boast a world-class waterfront. A local architect proposed at the recent public meeting that city council hold a competition for architects from around the globe to re-design the area and the legacy project.
Who would have thought it? Sarnia, the city that’s spawned one bad-news pollution story after another, could end up with a sparkling jewel of a waterfront; a creature rising, phoenix-like, from the toxic ashes and cinders, burned and buried long ago, in a new, bolder, and brighter plumage. Wouldn’t that be great?