Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

Rotting sauce in an abandoned plant is 'acutely lethal' to fish. A small N.L. town wants the mess cleaned up

Residents in a tiny Newfoundland community are concerned about what was left behind, after a local fish sauce plant closed down two decades ago. Now CBC News has uncovered some old testing results that have sparked new concerns in the town.

St. Mary’s mayor says community was never apprised of Environment Canada test results

A man stands in front of an abandoned industrial building.
St. Mary's Mayor Steve Ryan says he was not aware of Environment Canada testing results from more than six years ago that found effluent from an abandoned sauce plant in his community 'acutely lethal' to fish. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Steve Ryan trudges down the beach in St. Mary's. On one side is a picturesque bay that sweeps out into the ocean. On the other is something much less pleasing, looming near the edge of the water.

"It's turned into a disaster zone for the town," says Ryan, mayor of the community of 309 people on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula.

What does he mean by "disaster zone"?

"We don't really know, because we don't know what we're dealing with," he says.

He's talking about an abandoned fish sauce plant that hasn't operated in about two decades.

On this bone-chilling January afternoon, the sub-zero temperatures dip further when the wind blows off the bay. But even in these frigid conditions, the acrid smell gets worse when you approach the dilapidated building. The air is so tangy you can actually taste it.

"The smell is just unbearable," Ryan says. 

It's not an understatement. He says the worst times are late summer and early fall.

People in the community have complained for years about the rancid smell emanating from the building and the vats of decomposing product left inside — a mixture of capelin and pineapple juice. They are worried about potential health impacts.

Now CBC News has uncovered old testing results that have sparked new concerns in the community.

WATCH | Foul smell from abandoned fish sauce plant envelopes N.L. town: 

Rotting fish sauce turns N.L. town into ‘disaster zone,’ mayor says

2 months ago
Duration 3:02
A CBC News investigation found that the waste from an abandoned fish sauce plant that was the source of a stench that had plagued the town of St. Mary’s, N.L., for years was also 'acutely toxic' for fish. The mayor is using the information to fight to get the site cleaned up.

Environment Canada inspectors visited the site in late 2016, after receiving reports of effluent from the building flowing into the ocean.

They sent it to a laboratory in New Brunswick for testing. When they got the results, they immediately ordered a written directive under the Fisheries Act to make sure it didn't get into the bay again.

"All fish placed in the effluent died within 15 minutes," that Nov. 18, 2016, direction advises.

"The effluent deposited from the former fish plant sauce plant in St. Mary's, N.L., was acutely lethal and therefore a deleterious substance under the Fisheries Act."

A pipe was sealed to stop the effluent from running into the water.

Inspectors later went back to check and found no discharge — confirming that the directive issued under the Fisheries Act had been followed.

According to internal documents, Environment Canada decided against further enforcement action.

CBC News recently obtained those testing results through an access-to-information request, nearly four years after filing the request.

A dilapidated building is pictured next to a beach and bay.
The dilapidated Atlantic Seafood Sauce Co. building is perched on the edge of St. Mary's Bay, which opens into the Atlantic Ocean. (Dan Arsenault/CBC)

The mayor says he was never made aware of those findings. And he's not happy about it.

"They never came to the town, to let us know how toxic this really is to fish and the environment," Ryan said. "This is not right."

The test results were also news to the local Liberal member of Parliament.

Avalon MP Ken McDonald said he raised the situation about the effluent in St. Mary's with top federal environment department officials and was informed everything was fine.

"They had no concerns at all," McDonald said.

McDonald now plans to go to the current environment minister to ask for help.

"I think somebody fell down on the job and actually left the people of St. Mary's in a tangle that they shouldn't be in today," he said.

In a statement, Environment Canada did not answer questions about what was done to notify residents about the test results.

They said their responsibility is to protect the fish — which they did when the pipe was sealed to stop the product from entering the water.

They say any other concerns should be directed to the province.

Previous efforts to enlist federal and provincial financial aid were not successful. 

The Newfoundland and Labrador government says it turned down a previous request for funding because it didn't meet program criteria, and there are no other applications pending.

A waste management plan has been approved for the product, but cleanup is the responsibility of the owner.

That company dissolved 17 years ago, and the owner hasn't been heard from in years.

A close-up shot of a woman's face.
Juliette (Sis) Lee, who lives near the former fish sauce plant in St. Mary's, says the smell from the defunct operation can be unbearable. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Muriel Whelan and Juliette (Sis) Lee live near the former Atlantic Seafood Sauce Co. plant.

They've had concerns for years about what's been left there, and the smell that sometimes blankets their homes.

Lee's grandchildren had experience with N95 masks long before the pandemic, she says, donning them to play on the swing sets outside.

And she notes that there is a school about a half-kilometre away from the abandoned building.

"Just up above the hill there, our school kids are up there," Lee said. 

"We mightn't have a big school, but like I said, if this is toxic — and when we got the word today that it's supposed to be — well, if it's killing fish, what is it doing to the people that's living here?"

The face of a woman looks off camera to the right.
St. Mary's resident Muriel Whelan says there are days she can't even open the windows in her home because of the odor from the abandoned plant. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Whelan is 73 and says there is nowhere for her to go.

"People say it's just a couple families that live near the plant. That's not true, it's more than two families, it's our kids and our grandchildren," Whelan said in a French language interview with Radio-Canada.

"They come up here and tell us, 'Mom and Pop, how do you still live here?' We don't have a choice. Our house was our future and we put all our money into it."

And she doesn't know why the long-running problem hasn't been solved.

"I can't understand why the government, after being here so often, they're looking at it and smelling it and not doing nothing," she said.

An abandoned building with boarded-up windows.
The Atlantic Seafood Sauce Co. plant in St. Mary's, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, has not operated in two decades. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

But the mayor hopes government help will be on the way now.

"We have our ocean here, it's 50 feet away. If this product gets into the ocean what can that do?" Ryan said.

"We know what's here now. Let's just go and clean it up. All levels of government. Let's work together and get this done. Once and for all."

Ryan says that's something his small town can't accomplish on its own.

A red and white logo says CBC Investigates.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler and Jen White


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