Environmental studies show a complex mix of fuel spills, heavy metals, poisons and cancer-causing chemicals in Newfoundland and Labrador sites formerly managed by newsprint company AbitibiBowater.
Meanwhile, the Newfoundland and Labrador government moved Thursday to assure residents in at least four communities that there is no immediate risk to their health, while admitting that it is pushing the struggling newsprint giant to clean up the messes it left behind.
Extensive tests in Grand Falls-Windsor, Stephenville, Botwood and Buchans, as well as in former logging camps, provide an inventory of toxic materials left behind by AbitibiBowater and its predecessor firms.
Reports released by the Newfoundland and Labrador government show — among other things — that sports fields in the central Newfoundland town of Botwood have carcinogenic materials in the soil.
At the house of assembly, the Liberals accused the governing Progressive Conservatives of hiding information from the public, while the government tried to assure residents that their safety is not in immediate jeopardy.
"There was no issue of a concern for the residents in those communities, Mr. Speaker. If there had been, we would have done the exact same thing as we did in Buchans," said Environment Minister Charlene Johnson, pointing to how the government had recently taken action on toxins in the mining town.
Last month, residents in Buchans were relieved to learn that their exposure to toxins was within acceptable limits.
AbitibiBowater shuttered its century-old newsprint mill in Grand Falls-Windsor in 2009 and closed a smaller newsprint mill in Stephenville in 2005. It exported products from Botwood and inherited mining operations at Buchans that were founded in 1906.
The reports were completed by Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, a consulting firm based in Waterloo, Ont., and were released by the provincial government.
The reports outline that contamination in some areas is complicated by other factors. For instance, Stephenville has already been dealing with the environmental legacy of a U.S. air force base that was built during the Second World War and closed in the 1960s.
Heavy metal hazards
CR&A investigators detailed a long list of environmental hazards in Stephenville, including arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium.
In Botwood, the report notes that soil samples were collected by another consulting company in an area where residents now play soccer and baseball.
"The soil samples contained BTEX, TPH and metals at concentrations greater than the applicable criteria," says the report. BTEX stands for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, all of which can harm the brain and nervous system. TPH stands for total petroleum hydrocarbons.
In documenting spills of toxic materials at the site of the Grand Falls-Windsor mill, CR&A reported that "numerous releases varying in quantity and composition have occurred."
The report added: "Spills to the ground surface, the sewer system and the Exploits River were identified as a potential area of environmental impairment."
The report also found that some soil and groundwater samples taken in Grand Falls-Windsor significantly exceeded acceptable criteria for arsenic.
Speaking about the reports Thursday at Confederation Building, Johnson said the government is taking action, including exploring its options in court. Johnson said the government's goal is "to ensure that Abitibi brings the land back to the state that they found it in when they came here to use our resources…. If there's any human health and safety issues, we will deal with them head on."
But Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones went on the offensive, saying that government could have done much more in explaining potential risks to residents in former Abitibi towns.
"To date, they have not even seen the information," Jones told Johnson.
Accused of fearmongering, Jones — who lobbed question after question about contamination risks, including in the Exploits River, which is internationally renowned as a salmon river — fired back at the government.
"There is a difference between panic and public information, and your job is to provide public information."
Opposition House Leader Kelvin Parsons was more caustic.
"The minister of environment is more concerned about gravel pit campers than she is about arsenic in our water," he said.
Stephenville Mayor Tom O'Brien told CBC News he is glad the former mill site in his town is being cleaned up, although he is not sure how much has been completed.
He said he worries that AbitibiBowater may not finish that work, given that the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government has been pressing AbitibiBowater to fulfil its obligations to clean up its former sites.
However, the issue of responsibility for some assets has become complex, as the government admitted earlier this year it had accidentally expropriated the contaminated Grand Falls-Windsor mill when it rushed legislation.