Site of future Gatineau high school contaminated with mercury

A plot of land intended for a new high school in Gatineau, Que., is partially contaminated with mercury, Radio-Canada has learned.

No public health risks currently associated with the contamination, officials say

The new high school, officially named École secondaire 040, will be able to accommodate 810 students once it opens. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

A plot of land intended for a new high school in Gatineau, Que., is partially contaminated with mercury, Radio-Canada has learned.

The local public school board, Commission scolaire des Portages-de-l'Outaouais (CSPO), wants to build École secondaire 040 next to the Paul-Pelletier Aquatic Centre in the Aylmer sector.

Initial soil tests on the property did not reveal anything abnormal and the school was slated to open in 2020.

But the school board now says that additional sampling needs to be completed after mercury and manganese were discovered in soil on a neighbouring plot of land where Richcraft Homes wants to build its La Croisée residential project.

While the school board is still awaiting results from those tests, it confirmed that current evidence suggests the site is partly contaminated.

The opening of the new high school could be delayed up to two years because of those extra soil tests and what they may show.

The school board and city officials say there are currently no public health risks associated with the site.

Jean-Claude Bouchard is the general manager of the Commission scolaire des Portages-de-l'Outaouais, a public school board in the Outaouais region. (Simon Gohier/CBC)

The mercury was left behind by pesticides used on a former golf course in the area, Quebec's Environment Ministry said. As for manganese, the ministry doesn't know exactly how it got there but suspects it might have come from contaminated backfill.

"The contamination is in the soil's upper layer and there has been no reported contamination of the groundwater nor is it dreaded," a ministry spokesperson told Radio-Canada in an email.

Jean-Claude Bouchard, general manager of the CSPO, said that specific areas of the property can still be used. He added that there's no reason to believe the school site is affected by manganese.

The Environment Ministry said decontamination of the school's property could be done during the construction phase if required. No additional permit is needed.

Bouchard believes "managing" the contamination should not be too expensive nor will it delay the project further. 

Site also in wetland zone

However, the school property is also located in a wetland zone, adding additional complications. Bouchard said the school board has to wait until Richcraft Homes gets the green light for its own project before construction on the school can move forward. 

"In order to launch a bidding process, in order to launch construction, the first condition is for the developer of La Croisée to get the required authorization from the Environment Ministry with regards to the wetlands," he said.

"We cannot receive our authorization, a construction permit, without that."

Bouchard said Richcraft Homes should receive the necessary paperwork before the end of the month.

City Coun. Mike Duggan represents Gatineau's Deschênes district. (Georges-Étienne Nadon-Tessier/CBC)

Gatineau city Coun. Mike Duggan, who represents the Deschênes district, said plans for the new school now include solutions to manage nearby wetlands and that the issue must be managed jointly with the residential project.

"There's one [wetland] which touches a residential lot and one near the planned school. So, how do we manage surface waters?" he asked during a French-language interview.

"We need a retention basin, drainage."

Duggan said the city will do its best to help the CSPO complete construction and open the new school as soon as possible.

With files from Radio-Canada's Guillaume Dumont


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