Nfld. & Labrador

10 years after expropriation, Abitibi waste still in the ground

Ten years ago, when Abitibi Consolidated announced it was closing its Grand Falls-Windsor paper mill, the Danny Williams government reacted by expropriating the company's assets.

A century's worth of industrial pollution too expensive to remediate, says Liberal MP

Fencing surrounds the site on which the Abitibi Consolidated paper mill once stood. (Leigh Anne Power)

A decade after the provincial government became the owner of a shuttered mill, whatever toxic mess lies beneath has yet to be cleaned up.

In 2008, when Abitibi Consolidated announced it was closing its Grand Falls-Windsor paper mill, the Danny Williams government reacted by expropriating the company's assets.

Among them, the provincial government would later learn, was the mill building and its polluted grounds. Now, a decade on, the building is gone, but whatever is buried on the site — accidentally appropriated by the province — remains. 

Junior Downey worked there for 36 years.

"You gotta know what's under there," he said. "Over the years, the company has buried everything that we know of. When they wanted to bury something years ago, it was just go dig a hole and put it down in it."

Junior Downey worked at the Abitibi mill for 36 years. (Leigh Anne Power)

He said he knows about containers of PCBs, waste oil from machinery and other contaminants buried on the site.

Mayor Barry Manuel says he's heard about similar things.

There was all kinds of different operations that would have led to different kinds of contamination.- Barry Manuel

"I know that there were some test pits on site down there, I'm told," he said.  "And they were checked periodically to see what the condition was. And there was different degrees of contamination depending on what site you were looking at and depending on the nature of what the site was used for.

"In the past, in the mill operation, there were garages, trains pulling up, there was a fitting room. There was all kinds of different operations that would have led to different kinds of contamination."

In 2009, some months after the expropriation of its assets, Abitibi filed for bankruptcy protection.

Abitibi Consolidated's mill in Grand Falls-Windsor was torn down in June 2016. (CBC)

The province had been intending to issue cleanup orders under the Environmental Protection Act, but didn't get it done before the company went under.

In 2012, the government asked the Supreme Court of Canada to be considered a primary creditor so it could claim cleanup fees from the company's assets. The court refused, leaving the cleanup in the hands of the province.

Back then, the province estimated a full cleanup to cost about $100 million. But in the six years since the court ruling, nowhere near that amount has gone into remediation of the site.

Nalcor still owns the power generating plant on the old Abitibi mill site. (Leigh Anne Power)

The Department of Environment says tearing down the building cost about $250,000. A further $100,000 is going into treating three ammonia tanks.

Lawyer Will Amos, who intervened in the 2012 court case on behalf of environmental organization Friends of the Earth, says he thinks the province hasn't cleaned up the site because it can't afford to.

"There is legislation that provides for cleaning up, which isn't necessarily mandatory," explained Amos, now a Liberal member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Pontiac. "And so you'll have situations where there are legacy contaminated sites and there's no allocated funding to ensure it gets done."

Aside from the risk of old containers leaking their toxic contents into the soil, and then leaching into the Exploits River, the presence of underground pollutants limits what the land can be used for.

Al Hawkins is the former mayor of Grand Falls-Windsor and the MHA for Grand Falls-Windsor-Buchans. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Grand Falls-Windsor-Buchans MHA Al Hawkins, the former mayor of Grand Falls-Windsor and the former minister of Transportation and Works, which is responsible for the mill site, says there's one piece of work left to do.

"I think the lagoon system has to be removed," he said. "Once that's done, unless there's construction in the area, if it continues to be a brown-field area, it could be a park with trees or benches. It could be a grassy area. Then remediation wouldn't have to occur.

"The only time remediation would have to happen would be if there's going to be new construction there and you're disturbing the soil."

Over the years, there have been proposals to build a hotel or condos on the land along the riverfront, but those options won't be possible without a thorough cleanup.

Despite the contamination, the town still wants the land for some kind of development, but council has to make sure it doesn't end up on the hook for any environmental liability.

Grand Falls-Windsor Mayor Barry Manuel says the town has sent multiple requests to the province for access to the old mill site. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"We need to know what the parameters are so we can plan appropriately," said Manuel. "Is it going to be a grassy field? A brown field? Is there a significant cleanup required? If so, to what degree? Can you put buildings down there? What kind of infrastructure? Park benches?

"So right now, we're kind of waiting for a transfer to be done [and] talking to government about their plans to do some testing to see what the condition is. And hopefully, with that information, we can proceed with some planning that would improve the town."

Some plans already in place

As part of the land transfer negotiations, the town has agreed to trade five acres of land it owns adjacent to the mill site to the province. That will become the site of the new long-term care home to be built there soon.

The town would also acquire several buildings, including the historic Grand Falls House, and the training centre building, which they hope will be the new home for the town's historical society. In the case of Grand Falls House, though, the town needs the province to commit to helping pay for its upkeep.

As Hawkins indicated, at this point it's unlikely there will be a complete cleanup of the mill site unless there's new construction or some kind of leak or spill.

Nobody knows for sure how much pollution lies beneath the ground at the Abitibi mill site in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Leigh Anne Power)

Junior Downey says a cleanup operation could even be risky in itself.

"I don't think anybody is going to dig under the ground because God knows if you strikes one or two PCB containers down there, then everything shuts down and you see this place cordoned off and people coming in with haz-mat suits and everything on. So, I don't know what you can do with the ground," he said.

He and Manuel says they just want the matter settled. They both believe the riverfront land is important for the town's future, even if it just becomes a park, and 10 years is way too long to wait for the transfer to happen.

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