Residents want answers about ongoing TCE contamination in Cambridge

In 2005, residents in the Bishop Street area of Preston were told their area was toxic. Despite remediation efforts, not much has changed in 2017.

'The city has to take ownership of the residents ... we didn’t create this problem'

Tracy Hipel of Cambridge is seen in his backyard earlier this year. The shed behind him houses a soil vapour extraction unit. He has to ensure clear access to the shed at all times as an employee visits the shed twice a week. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Like many people, Tracy Hipel has a shed in his backyard.

But unlike others, Hipel didn't put it there and he can't really use it to store anything.

The shed, which is powered 24/7, houses a soil vapour extraction unit that pulls toxins from dry wells dug in neighbours' yards.

There are about 75 homes in the Bishop Street area of Preston in Cambridge with sheds in their backyards.

The sheds are needed to keep Hipel and his neighbours safe. In 2004, they found out the chemical trichlorethylene (TCE) had made its way into the groundwater, making the ground and many of the homes in the area toxic.

"The shed ... it's my lifeline to be able to live in this house safely. Without it, levels in the house would get to the point where we would have to be moved out," Hipel said.

Hipel is one of many residents in the area who said he is fed up with a lack of information about efforts to clean up the soil and water under his house.

He said a worker stops by the shed twice a week to ensure everything is working property and he can't restrict access to his backyard.

He also said every time he receives an assessment from the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC), he has to apply to have the assessment reconsidered and lowered. So far, he has had to appeal his property assessment three times.

The former Northstar Aerospace helicopter parts manufacturing facility at 695 Bishop Street North, as seen in this 2011 Google StreetView image. (Google StreetView)

Contamination exceeded allowable limits

TCE is a solvent used to clean or degrease metal parts. It has been classified a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is regulated under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

Northstar Aerospace had a helicopter parts manufacturing facility at 695 Bishop Street North in Cambridge from 1981 to 2009, during which time the company used TCE during the production process.

Today's regulations for disposing industrial waste did not exist at the time and some TCE made its way into the groundwater.

"It is unknown how often TCE waste was discharged onto the ground and in what quantities," a May 2011 provincial report to the Region of Waterloo said.

The TCE discharged would have stopped around 1986 or 1987 when new rules for hazardous waste came into effect.

Groundwater testing in the area in November 2004 revealed the contamination had migrated offsite and by July 2005 the Ministry of the Environment had been told levels of TCE in the Bishop Street community exceeded allowable limits.

A total of 350 homes and four businesses were affected and, according to a 2006 report by Valco Consultants for the City of Cambridge, the contamination plume extended to the Grand River.

The TCE "evaporated and migrated through the porous soils and has penetrated basements through any faults in the walls or floors," the report said.

During immediate clean-up efforts in 2005, some residents were removed from their homes for several weeks.

No estimate for remediation timeline

Remediation and monitoring of the area is ongoing, said Amy Shaw, the district manager for the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change based in Guelph.

They perform annual indoor air monitoring in more than 400 homes to ensure levels of TCE are below acceptable levels, with the most recent testing being completed in February.

'All we can commit to is that we're going to continue to monitor and mitigate for as long as necessary. We do not have an estimate on how long that will be."- Amy Shaw, district manager for the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change

Annual samples are taken from the groundwater, the surface water and from the former Northstar property, where a groundwater extraction system is in place to treat water to acceptable levels before discharging it into the municipal storm sewer.

Shaw said the ministry has commissioned a consultant report on the area to see where remediation efforts stand.

The Valco Consultants report had suggested remediation could take 10 years, but Shaw said they have no timeline for when the area will be cleaned up.

"It has been 10 years and groundwater contamination still exists in the Bishop Street community and all we can commit to is that we're going to continue to monitor and mitigate for as long as necessary," she said. "We do not have an estimate on how long that will be."

Property assessments for 13 homes lowered 

This year, Hipel helped his neighbours get their properties reassessed under MPAC.

The city has to take ownership of the residents. We live in the city, we didn't create this problem.- Resident Tracy Hipel

He pointed to the 2006 Valco Consultants report, which said the impact on the value of homes in the Bishop Street community could range from 15 to 30 per cent.

Karen Russell, the director of valuation and customer relations for MPAC, said they received 14 requests for consideration, of which 13 homes had a 10 per cent reduction applied to their 2016 property assessments.

"When assessing the residential properties on the Bishop Street community, MPAC considers the local real estate market including any recent sales as well as the key features of the property, including state and condition and location," Russell said.

Anyone who feels their assessment is wrong can apply to have it reconsidered.

This document shows air quality testing in Tracy Hipel's Cambridge home in 2005. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends an indoor air guideline for residential settings of 2 micrograms per cubic meters. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

'We're still living this'

When contacted by CBC News, City of Cambridge officials directed all questions to MPAC and the Ministry of the Environment.

Hipel said there hasn't been a public meeting on the issue in five years and his calls and emails to city officials don't get returned. There have been newsletters sent to residents to provide some updates.

"The problem is, we're still living this. The people who still have the SVE (soil vapour extraction) sheds are still going through this every day. We live this every day," Hipel said.

"The city has to take ownership of the residents. We live in the city, we didn't create this problem."

Public meeting this spring

Hipel has sat on advisory boards, an environmental registry tribunal and regularly attempts to contact officials from the city to the provincial government.

"A lot of the neighbours are to the point now where we want these gone," Hipel said of the sheds.

"I'm the person who seems to step up and now I'm stepping up again for people because they really don't know who to turn to."

"I've reached out to everybody that I should ask for help, and I've sort of had a turned blind eye to every question I've asked and just can't seem to get help from anybody."

The Ministry of the Environment is planning a public meeting at the end of May to go over the newest consultant report, which Shaw anticipated they would get back in March. The date and location has yet to be determined.