Flea market fire toxins contaminate more wells

Two years after fire destroyed a flea market near Smiths Falls, Ont., toxic chemicals from the foam firefighters used to douse the flames have appeared in the well water of homes half a kilometre away.

2 years after blaze, chemicals found in firefighting foam appear to be spreading

Nancy MacDonald, centre, and her husband, Neal MacDonald, right, are relying on bottled water for drinking and cooking since toxic chemicals from a nearby fire were discovered in their well water in October. They worry about the safety of their grandchildren, from left to right, MacKenna, Samantha and Oliver Branscombe. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Two years after fire destroyed a flea market near Smiths Falls, Ont., toxic chemicals from the foam firefighters used to douse the flames have appeared in the well water of homes half a kilometre away.

The Rideau Valley Marketplace — and everything in it — burned to the ground shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2016. As CBC has reported, residents of about a dozen homes adjacent to the Rideau Valley Marketplace soon noticed their tap water was foul-smelling and bubbly, and were advised not to drink it, cook with it, bathe in it or even flush their toilets.

Now CBC News has learned that the wells of more homes further from the scene of the fire have become contaminated.

"To learn after about 19 months that in fact our water was polluted, it was a shock," said Nancy MacDonald, whose home on Poonamalie Side Road is among those affected.

8 homeowners notified

Poonamalie Side Road meets Highway 43 about 500 metres from where the flea market stood, and stretches southwest toward the Rideau River and Lower Rideau Lake. MacDonald is among eight property owners on the road who were informed in October that their well water contains unsafe levels of Perfluoroalkylated substances, or PFAS.

PFAS are a group of chemicals used in a wide variety of products including adhesives, cosmetics, cleaning products and firefighting foams. 

High levels of PFAS have been linked to negative health effects in animals, including liver damage and stunted neurological development, according to Health Canada. There is little information about the human health risks associated with the chemicals.

Nancy MacDonald can no longer use her water after a 2016 fire in town — and she doesn't know when that will change. 0:57

Long-lasting chemicals

"[PFAS] are chemicals that hang around a long time in the environment," said Dr. Paula Stewart, medical officer of health for the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit. "They glom to rocks and move into the water bit by bit."

Heavy rainfall within the last several months has likely pushed the chemicals into the groundwater along fractured rock, Stewart said. Whether a particular well is affected depends on which part of the aquifer it taps into, she explained, which means levels of contamination differ from neighbour to neighbour along Poonamalie Side Road.

We were the priority. We needed clean drinking water.- Nancy MacDonald, Poonamalie Side Road resident

Stewart would not reveal the addresses of newly affected properties, or say whether the contaminated wells are clustered near the highway or staggered along the three-kilometre road, describing that information as "sensitive."

Twenty more homeowners on the road have been issued precautionary notices pending the results of water testing, she said. 

In total, 31 homes are now being supplied with drinking water at the expense of the provincial government, according to a statement from Ontario's ministry of the environment. 

Cory Read, who lives across the street from the former Rideau Valley Marketplace, filmed the fire in the early hours of Nov 6, 2017. Read's family home now has a water filtration system after toxins from the fire contaminated their well. (Submitted)

Province providing drinking water

Previously, the flea market's insurer was paying for the water, but "due to a lack of action by the responsible party, the ministry arranged for bottled water to be delivered to affected homes."

However, delivery began more than a month after affected residents first received notice their water posed a risk — a delay that concerns MacDonald and her neighbours.

"I would think [the ministry's] foremost concern should have been our health and safety, and deal with the owner after the fact," MacDonald said.

"We were the priority. We needed clean drinking water."

Tom Pirie, the owner of the Rideau Valley Marketplace, did not return messages left by CBC. 

Two years after a fire contaminated well water near Smiths Falls, more homeowners are saying their wells are also polluted. We hear why toxins from a fire two years ago are continuing to spread. 7:28

Filtration systems imperfect

Unlike people living closer to the site of the fire, who were told they were at risk of inhaling aerosolized benzene​ from the contaminated water, MacDonald and her neighbours have been told their water is safe for bathing because PFAS can't be absorbed by the skin. 

However, with regular visits from her four young grandchildren, including a 10-month-old, MacDonald said she's uncomfortable taking the risk.

"Children do tend to drink bathwater," MacDonald said. "I'm just erring on the side of caution, especially with the baby."

Eleven of those previously affected homes now have drinking water treatment systems, paid for by the flea market owner's insurer, according to the province.

A fire in November 2016 destroyed the Rideau Valley Marketplace. The province has installed monitoring wells in the area to detect toxic contaminants which are spreading through groundwater in the area. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

But Cory Read, who lives across the street from the fire site, said it's not a perfect solution. His family can only drink from a special tap in the kitchen and the water dispenser in the fridge, and he worries about his young children drinking from other taps or swallowing bathwater, particularly after he received notice in recent weeks of a spike in the level of contamination.

The system also requires annual maintenance, Read said, and he's not confident the government will foot the $500 bill he's expecting to receive soon for work completed last Friday.

"I've tried to get in touch with the appropriate ministry representatives and haven't been able to get any answers," Read said.

No guarantees, MPP says

Randy Hillier, the PC MPP for the affected property owners, said he doesn't believe homeowners with filtration systems were ever guaranteed reimbursement for maintenance costs.

Is this a short-term blip or a long-term and prolonged problem?- Randy Hillier, MPP

As for whether the residents of Poonamalie Side Road will require such systems at all, Hillier said it's too soon to say.

"Is this a short-term blip or a long-term and prolonged problem? Those things can't be determined until more water sampling is done," Hillier said.

If the systems are needed, they will be installed at no expense to homeowners, Hillier said, but because Pirie's insurance coverage has been exhausted, the province may have to pursue him for costs later.

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