Ottawa

Well water still contaminated 7 months after Smiths Falls fire

It's been seven months since a fire outside Smiths Falls, Ont., left several homes with contaminated wells, and it could still be months before residents are allowed to use their water again.

Some residents seek legal advice, worry about property values months after nearby fire contaminated wells

David Stevens bought his house as an investment, but says it currently has no sales value. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

It's been seven months since a fire outside Smiths Falls, Ont., left several homes with contaminated wells, and it could still be months before residents are allowed to use their water again.

The situation is frustrating for some homeowners who say they're now seeking legal advice.

"I don't know why it takes so long to get information," said David Stevens, one of the home owners. "We thought they'd be hooking wells back up by now."

A fire destroyed a flea market complex on Highway 43, just outside Smiths Falls, on Nov. 6, 2016.

Toxic runoff from the charred debris, along with firefighting foam, got into the groundwater and residents reported foam and a chemical smell coming from their taps almost immediately after the fire.

Chemicals found

After testing by Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, dozens of chemicals were found in the wells. Local health authorities warned the contamination was so dangerous that even flushing a toilet could be hazardous due to toxic water vapour becoming airborne.

Tina and David Stevens initially purchased a house on Highway 43 as an income property. Their tenant currently lives in their house with the contaminated well.

"What we're still waiting on is the May test results, which we were told will be a few more weeks. The last we heard was they were hoping to have wells back in June. It sounds like that's not going to be the case at all," said Tina Stevens.

The wells and groundwater monitoring networks were tested last month. The results are being reviewed before they are released to homeowners, according to the ministry.

Fire destroys flea market outside Smiths Falls, Ont. on Nov 6, 2017. (Submitted)

'Still some trace levels'

"The preliminary review is that we're seeing continued trends downward of the contaminants of concern, but we're taking a close look," said Steve Burns, a district manager for the ministry. "There's still some trace levels of materials associated with firefighting foam."

Tests from some of the monitoring wells installed have shown firefighting foam, hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds since November.

Starting late last fall, external water tanks were set up in front of the affected homes so homeowners could do laundry and bathe with clean water. Bottled drinking water continues to be supplied.

The owner of the flea market is covered by an Intact Insurance policy, which is paying for the clean-up and water. But residents said they are still out of pocket for some expenses and they're concerned about the value of their properties.

"It's been since November, there's a lot of costs that went along with it — hydro costs, loss of rent," said Tina Stevens.

She's also concerned about what happens when their mortgage comes up for renewal.

"Can you get a mortgage on a property that doesn't have potable water? I'm not sure. In terms of selling the property, if we were to put the property up for sale right now, there's no way we'd sell it. I wouldn't buy it."

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