Soil testing in St. Boniface reveals 'no reason for concern,' province says

Residents in south St. Boniface have no reason to be concerned about eating their garden vegetables after soil tests reveal no heightened levels of toxicity, the provincial government says.

Garden vegetables and soil samples were collected from at least 100 residential properties

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires says St. Boniface residents should not be worried about their gardens and yards being contaminated. (CBC)

Residents in south St. Boniface have no reason to be concerned about eating their garden vegetables after soil tests reveal no heightened levels of toxicity, the provincial government says.

"Today, we want to … provide the residents of St. Boniface with some comfort. All the soil samples taken in the residential and recreational areas showed no reason for concern," Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said at a news conference Monday morning.

In the summer, a residents' group had raised concerns that their soil was contaminated with high levels of toxic metals.

Preliminary tests done in August by Shirley Thompson, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba's Natural Resources Institute, found elevated levels of lead, copper, zinc and cadmium among a dozen soil samples. 

In some cases, the levels exceeded Canadian standards by three to 15 times the recommended limits. A version of Thompson's report was submitted to the province, which undertook a more extensive round of tests.

Soil samples were taken in August from gardens, boulevards, ditches, streams and parks in the St. Boniface area bordering Mission Industrial Park. (CBC)

Researchers and volunteers collected garden vegetables and soil samples from at least 100 residential properties, as well as samples from ditches, streams and parks around the neighbourhood. A particular focus was placed on the area of Mission Industrial Park, which some blamed, saying it was the source of the contaminants.

Squires said the preliminary tests that indicated high levels of the metals "caused tremendous fear in the community," making residents worried about the safety of the neighbourhood, their gardens, and their children playing at Happyland Park.

Squires said samples from six of the eight sites did not exceed guideline limits set by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment. Some did reveal elevated levels of lead but that is not out of line with previous studies in Winnipeg and other cities.

Of the two sites that had levels exceeding CCME guidelines, neither was unexpected as both are in the industrial park.

The area has been an industrial site for well over 100 years and it is difficult to point a finger at one single company as a source of the contaminants, Squires said.

"While one cannot ever say there is zero risk in any situation, I trust that by putting the sampling results in context that we have reduced the level of concern raised by the residents of St. Boniface," she said.

"While the concerns regarding the consumption of garden vegetables may persist, any risk can be mitigated by taking basic steps such as thoroughly washing your vegetables and hands, using raised garden beds and putting new soils into gardens on a regular basis."

The government will continue to work with the University of Manitoba on soil sampling and the provincial department of sustainable development will continue to monitor the area, Squires said.

Don Labossiere, director of environmental compliance and enforcement with Manitoba Sustainable Development, called the industrial park "a unique site with a rather unique legacy" of past manufacturers such as Iko and Shell. His ​department has been working for some years now to determine what historical contaminants might still be present, he said.

Residents left in the dark

The testing results were news to the South St. Boniface Residents Association [SBRRA], who have been advocating for increased testing.

In a statement emaild to CBC news the association said: "we were not certain to which report they may be referring." 

Whether about the preliminary soil testing that was carried out by the SSBRA and U of M researchers or whether about the air testing report carried out by the province in 2016 which failed two peer reviews," the statement continued.   

The association also said they were hoping the province would agree to pay for more studies, and committed to raising their own funds to "assess air, soil and water quality in the area." 

Starting next month, the province will also test air quality in the neighbourhood, Labossiere said.

Researchers will measure particulates in the air "to get a better handle as to what the situation is," he said, referring to the complaints of smells in St. Boniface.

Foul smells are not unusual for an industrial area but Labossiere said he wants to determine the levels of particulate and make sure there is no health concern.

If there is a concern, then steps can be taken to identify the source and launch mitigation efforts, he said.