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Neighbours angry over NRC silence on water woes

People living in a subdivision beside the National Research Council's fire-safety testing facility in Mississippi Mills say they're frustrated and angry to learn NRC employees were told to stop drinking water nearly two years before residents were informed.

NRC warned employees to drink bottled water 2 years before going public with PFAS contamination

Matt Bertrand lives in Ramsay Meadows with his wife and two young daughters. (Stu Mills/CBC)

People living in a subdivision beside the National Research Council's fire safety testing facility in Mississippi Mills, Ont., say they're frustrated and angry to learn NRC employees were told to stop drinking water nearly two years before residents were informed.

According to documents released under the Access to Information Act, workers were told in an email from the facility manager dated Jan. 14, 2014, that "faucet water at the Fire Lab U- 96 is not to be consumed for drinking purposes."

But it wasn't until December 2015 that residents of Ramsay Meadows were told their water had been contaminated with chemicals often found in firefighting foams.

Perfluoroalkylated substances, or PFAS, were discovered in the groundwater from drill sites close to the facility's border during an environmental assessment in 2013. 

Bought house from NRC employee

"There is not a prayer that we would have purchased this house," said Tom Banfalvi, who moved to Ramsay Meadows in February 2015.
The NRC's fire research lab in Mississippi Mills. (Stu Mills/CBC)

To make matters worse, Banfalvi said he and his wife purchased their home from an employee at the NRC laboratory who would have known about the contamination.

Banfalvi says the employee contacted him after news of the contaminated water became public, denying any insider knowledge​.

"There's no way I would have bought," Banfalvi said. "No sane person would have. I wouldn't be living here." 

Banfalvi said he's waiting to see whether the federal government takes responsibility for the problem before deciding on his next move. He said he hasn't heard from the NRC, or from Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, who has personally contacted some of his neighbours. 

"As you can imagine, it's upsetting, it's frustrating," said Banfalvi. 

Home values plummet 

A retired couple concerned that identifying them would make their property harder to sell told CBC they tried to list their house for sale, but the real estate agency they contacted refused.
Tom Banfalvi bought his house in Ramsay Meadows from an NRC fire research laboratory employee about 10 months before the public was informed of the water contamination. (Stu Mills/CBC)

The couple said their property, once valued at $460,000, is now worth a fraction of that.

The retirees now get their water through a filtration system paid for by the NRC, a gesture they said they now see as an appeasement.

At another home, a retired woman in a similar situation was watering tomato plants in her backyard garden using water from her well.

"Look what I'm doing!" she exclaimed. "I don't even know if this is safe, but what else can I do?"

"We can't pick up and leave," said the woman. "The value of our house has really fallen."

'It's disappointing'

Matt Bertrand, who lives in the community with his wife and two young daughters, said the NRC should have kept residents informed.

I don't know if they've so much lied but they've definitely kept things under wraps. They definitely haven't been as open as they should have.- Matt Bertrand

"It's disappointing, for sure. You'd think if you were concerned about the safety of your own employees, the proper thing to do would be to let the residents in the general area know.

"It's not like we're 10 kilometres away. We're right next door. If the water's no good there, chances are it's no good here."

So far, Bertrand's well water has tested negative for PFAS, with the next test scheduled for Tuesday. Nevertheless, the family is drinking bottled water and using a reverse-osmosis filtration system. 

Bertrand said his family was already planning to move when they learned of the contamination.

"That's going to be something we have to test. We're going to list our house a little bit lower than what we had planned."
After alerting residents to the contamination problem, the NRC paid for the installation of elaborate water filtration and softening systems like this one in many of the homes in the neighbourhood. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Asked if he feels that residents in Ramsay Meadows were lied to by the NRC, Bertrand hesitated.

"I don't know if they've so much lied but they've definitely kept things under wraps. They definitely haven't been as open as they should have."

His neighbour, Tom Banfalvi, agreed.

"As Canadians, we hope that our politicians would help us, as opposed to stand in our way," he said. "Is there more hidden, more that we should be made aware of, as opposed to swept under carpets?"

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