After decades of struggle, residents hope a $260 million project will finally eradicate curse of town’s nuclear past
It will be the biggest radioactive waste cleanup in Canadian history.
An estimated 1.2 million cubic metres of soil contaminated with historic low-level radioactive waste and industrial toxins – enough to fill almost 500 Olympic-size pools – will be dug up in Port Hope and trucked to a new storage facility north of town, where it will be sealed up for centuries.
Approval for the monumental $260 million-plus task, expected within weeks, will mark a major milestone in a decades-long fight to eradicate a dark stain on the town.
Starting in the 1930s, the waterfront Cameco refinery, formerly Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., refined radium used for treating cancer and uranium that helped the Manhattan Project develop the first atomic bombs.
Until a cleanup in the mid-1970s, low-level radioactive by-products and other toxins entered the environment through use of contaminated fill, and to some extent through sloppy transport and water and wind erosion in storage areas. It ended up in parks, industrial properties, ravines and fields, and in yards of many of Port Hope’s 16,000 residents.
For decades, the curse of the town’s nuclear past has permeated every aspect of life, from failed real estate deals to social encounters.
Lifelong resident Sanford Haskill recalls the stranger who didn’t want to be anywhere near him when she learned he was from Port Hope: “She was afraid that I was contaminated and would make her glow in the dark.”
Port Hope residents, observes critic Pat McNamara, “have had a longer exposure to radioactive waste than any community on Earth.”
While Ottawa’s position is that residents don’t suffer higher cancer rates than Canadians generally, the lack of a comprehensive study has led to ongoing debate. Still, both sides agree a solution is overdue.
Do it fast and do it right, was Mayor Linda Thompson’s message to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission at last month’s hearing, when Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. applied for a licence to do the cleanup. She also asked that the community have ongoing input.
The contaminated soil lies beneath hundreds of homes and even in the harbour. Project managers say it will take 10 years to safely transport the waste from sites all over town. The final destination, a huge storage mound south of Highway 401, will be monitored for at least 500 years to ensure its safety.
While most residents consider the cleanup good news, it stirs up a new round of anxieties for those who distrust the federal government’s assessment of the risks and worry about its ability to do the job right.
“How do you dig up any soil, put it in a truck and move it to a dumpsite without any dust? I’m very happy that none of those trucks will rumble down my street,” says retiree Louise Barraclough, interim president of the group Families Against Radiation Exposure (FARE).
“It’s such an enormous piece of goop sitting up there,” she says of the not-yet-built mound. “Are we just kidding ourselves that they can look after it in perpetuity?”
Cameco still produces uranium fuel for nuclear power plants, under tight restrictions, and the little waste that results is stored on site.
A smaller cleanup on some sites was done beginning in 1976. But it took until 2001 to agree on a solution for the rest. Assuming a licence is granted, the “muck and truck” phase will start in 2011, says Glenn Case, manager of project engineering for the Port Hope Area Initiative, a division of AECL.
First up is the existing Welcome waste storage facility, closed since 1988. Contaminated soil will be transferred to a new facility on the same 15-hectare site. Designed in a series of four cells, the mound will eventually house waste from all the contaminated sites around Port Hope. Capped and covered with grass, it will become a park.
“I can take my grandchildren up there and have a picnic,” Case says.
He estimates 300 home properties need remediating, in amounts ranging from “two wheelbarrows to two dump truck loads.” But a radiological survey of about 4,500 properties will produce a final to-do list.
For Haskill, 66, chair of FARE, and self-declared “biggest thorn in the government’s side,” the cleanup will be a partial victory. He came face to face with the contamination problem in 1955 when the family’s cows started dying.
“Most of the time when we found them they’d just be keeled over. It was a pretty vicious death,” recalls Haskill, then a young boy on the farm his family has owned on the outskirts of Port Hope since 1796.
The same thing was happening on neighbours’ farms after cattle drank at a creek contaminated by arsenic and radioactive elements from the Welcome site.
Haskill bemoans the likelihood that Brand Creek won’t be included in the cleanup and contends a drainage pipe built to carry treated groundwater into Lake Ontario is spewing toxins. He and his wife and their neighbours have paid for their own water and soil tests.
Though compensated years ago for the animals killed by arsenic, that experience left him with a lingering distrust. Once the trucks start rolling, Haskill and his wife, Helen Anne, plan to take their personal business to another city.
“What lies beneath we don’t know. There are always surprises.”
Pat McNamara agrees. After six years researching problems associated with the nuclear industry, he accuses the government of secrecy and dishonesty. The former resident, who now lives in Alberta, raised the alarm in a submission to the auditor-general last year.
Convinced the waste is a “witches’ brew” of radioactive, heavy-metal and chemical contaminants, McNamara believes there are many more contaminated sites than have been disclosed – possibly 1,000.
He fears excavation will cause dangerous nanoparticles to become airborne and spread for hundreds of kilometres. Greater Toronto residents “are well within the sphere of influence of these carcinogenic contaminants,” he says.
John Miller, another activist, points out there has never been a “true health study” of residents. Testing paid for by a community group a few years ago found low-levels of radioactive elements in the urine of nine people.
Health Canada said the sample was too small to be meaningful. Port Hope is said to have lower background radiation than Banff and Denver, where altitude results in increased cosmic radiation.
In a report last spring, the nuclear safety commission reiterated that no adverse health effects have occurred in Port Hope, and that its cancer rates are comparable to elsewhere in Ontario.
But Miller, criticizing the government for “very sloppy work” on the cleanup project, says, “There are a lot of questions and there’s so much they don’t know. There’s a great deal of secrecy about it.”
Case, of the Port Hope Area Initiative, is quick to offer reassurance about the cleanup.
After 25 years of handling smaller projects, “we are very confident we can do this and do it safely,” he says, citing covered trucks, dust suppression and monitoring. Cleanup is also planned for a smaller Port Granby site.
The final price tag is still up in the air.
In 2001 Ottawa pledged $260 million, of which $110 million has been spoken for. It won’t be known until 2011 whether the remaining $150 million will cover the full cost.
Critics say it won’t, by a long shot. McNamara says a similar-size cleanup, but far less complex, in Ohio cost $4.4 billion.