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Who is responsible for leading a cleanup of Thunder Bay's harbour? Depends who you ask

Local proponents for cleaning up a large toxic patch of historical industrial pollution in the harbour of Thunder Bay, Ont., say they're still looking for an agency to spearhead remediation efforts.

Work to remediate north harbour largely stalled since options presented to public in 2014

No lead agency has yet been identified for cleanup efforts in Thunder Bay's north harbour, effectively stalling the project. (infosuperior.com/Google)

Local proponents for cleaning up a large toxic patch of historical industrial pollution in the harbour of Thunder Bay, Ont., say they're still looking for an agency to spearhead remediation efforts.

Efforts to cap or remove an estimated 400,000 cubic metres of mercury-contaminated pulp fibre in the harbour's north end have largely stalled since remediation options were presented to the public in 2014. According to the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan, that's because no lead agency has yet been secured.

"Typically, that would be the owner of a given site," said Jim Bailey, the coordinator for the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan — the group responsible, at the local level, for advocating for a number of remediation efforts in the harbour.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the lead agency foots the bill, Bailey added, but it would be responsible for things like managing the project and applying for funding.

Bailey said Transport Canada has been identified as the owner of the harbour bottom, or water lot, in that area. The industrial companies largely responsible for the legacy pollution no longer exist.

"These situations are difficult; they tend to be expensive," Bailey said. "But that's not to say that they're impossible by any stretch and there have been any number of cleanups around the Great Lakes where various organizations ... have cooperated to affect cleanup."

"There's really no reason why the Thunder Bay situation should be any different."

The Thunder Bay harbour remains one of northwestern Ontario's "areas of concern" listed under bilateral efforts between Canada and the United States to clean up the Great Lakes.

The problem is, there seems to be little agreement on who should ultimately take the lead role.

Transport Canada

The Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan said it recently identified Transport Canada as the owner of the lake bottom where the contamination sits.

No one from the federal department was made available for an interview with CBC News, but in an email, a spokesperson said, while Transport Canada owns the site, the Thunder Bay Port Authority "is entirely responsible for the management of the property (including the lake bottom)."

Transport Canada said it is aware of ongoing cleanup efforts in Thunder Bay, but, to date, has not been involved and has had little contact with local stakeholders.

The co-chair of the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan's public advisory committee, Frank Edgson, told CBC News they have secured a contact in the department and expect to speak soon.

"It's incumbent upon Transport Canada to attend these meetings and initiate conversations regarding next steps," he said.

Thunder Bay Port Authority

While Transport Canada said it doesn't see itself as the agency that should lead cleanup efforts, port officials say that's not really in their mandate either.

"Our involvement in the harbour is basically administrative in nature, in terms of breakwall and dredging maintenance, things like that, for navigation," port CEO Tim Heney said.

"Our efforts are focused on building new cargos for the port, [we're] pretty much fully engaged in that right now."

The Thunder Bay Port Authority says it would have expected that Environment Canada would be the lead agency in a harbour cleanup. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

Heney also said the port has been advised by Transport Canada that it should not lead or be a primary funder, but act in an advisory capacity; he said the port has since reached out to the federal department for further clarification without response.

Another issue, Heney said, is that local stakeholders want the harbour added to the Federal Contaminated Sites Plan — making it eligible for remediation funding — but the port could not apply for that distinction.

"I can't understand why Environment Canada wouldn't be the lead on a cleanup effort of this nature," Heney said.

Environment Canada

While Environment Canada said it is the lead agency in Canada for implementing the overall Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, when it comes to Thunder Bay, it's been very involved in getting the project as far as it is, but isn't necessarily the lead going forward.

"As far as Environment Canada has been able to take the plan was up to the stage of identifying ... technically feasible sediment management options," said Kate Taillon, a senior program coordinator for Environment Canada.
A thick layer of pulpy fibrous material like this sample above is suspended in the water at the Thunder Bay North Harbour site. (Jamie Saunders/EcoSuperior)

After the 2014 open houses in Thunder Bay, Taillon said Environment Canada, along with other partners in the steering committee, including the provincial environment ministry and Cascades Paper Group, took the feedback from the open house as part of a report presenting options for cleanup. No preferred option was identified, Taillon said, because no lead agency has been identified.

"Environment Canada is still committed to seeing a plan developed here, so we're trying to help understand what the complexities are, be they science or legal or ownership and try and find a way through them together," she said.

Despite the issue not having a clear answer, Jim Bailey said he believes the project will move forward.

"I am a little more optimistic than I have been previously," he said. "There are the beginnings of dialogue, so I think we're seeing a bit of light of day here."

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