Ottawa

Province still trying to determine scope of water contamination near Smiths Falls

A water contamination crisis near Smiths Falls that erupted after a local flea market burned to the ground last month is far from over — and authorities said Friday night that they still don't know the full scale of the problem.

'We don't know how big this is,' says MOE official at Friday meeting

Staff with Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change attended a meeting in Drummond North Elmsley Township on Dec. 16 to offer an update on a water contamination crisis that erupted after a local flea market burned down in November. (CBC)

A water contamination crisis near Smiths Falls that erupted after a local flea market burned to the ground last month is far from over — and authorities say they still don't know the full scale of the problem.

That became clear during an information meeting Friday evening attended by homeowners from the affected area in Drummond North Elmsley Township, officials from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOE), the local medical officer of health and various township politicians.

The meeting was to update residents and owners of eleven homes that surround a now-destroyed flea market on Highway 43, just outside the Smiths Falls town limits.

The Rideau Valley Marketplace caught fire on Nov. 6. Firefighters battled the flames for hours, but the business was a total loss.

Flames engulf the Rideau Valley Marketplace just outside Smiths Falls, Ont., on Nov. 6, 2016. (Submitted)

Soon after the fire, nearby residents noticed foam and a strong chemical odour in their water. 

Health authorities told people not to drink the water. Ten days later, they expanded the warning, urging residents not to splash the water on their skin. Even flushing one's toilet was considered dangerous, due to the possibility of inhaling airborne water dropets.

Tests showed that the water was contaminated with a toxic brew of chemicals, washed into the groundwater as firefighters doused the flames with foam and an estimated eighty truckloads of water.

'We don't know how big this is'

At the Friday meeting, MOE staff said they had been testing the water at other groups of homes further away. They know the contaminated water is moving around, staff said, but no one yet knows the size of the contamination below the ground.

"It all depends on the groundwater, the characteristics of the groundwater and the bedrock and everything. So we don't know how big this is and how many people will be impacted," said Jenna Leavoy, provincial offficer with the ministry.

To get a handle on the scope of the problem, a groundwater cleanup company has been hired to drill test holes at the site of the fire. The contaminated water will then be pumped out and treated.

People who live near the site of a now-destroyed flea market outside Smiths Falls, Ont., receive updates on water contamination issues at a meeting on Dec. 16, 2016. (CBC)

"The idea is to eliminate the source of any continuing materials coming off and see what the impact is on the natural recovery of the groundwater," said ministry district manager Steve Burns.

"Monthly sampling will help us understand if more active treatment is required off that site or further from the marketplace itself."

The MOE has extended a deadline for a consulting company to come up with a long-term plan for dealing with the contamination. The plans were supposed to be submitted to the ministry by Dec. 20, but now the deadline is the end of February 2017.

In the meantime, affected residents are drinking bottled water, while heated outdoor tanks are being used to supply water for baths, laundry and household cleaning.

'I'm not bathing in that'

Plumbing systems have also been pressure-flushed to remove lingering toxins from pipes, but despite that precaution, resident Chelsea Metcalfe said she's still not ready to move back into her home. 

Metcalfe, who has been temporarily living with her parents near Carp, said she thinks all of her pipes will need to be replaced.

"Now the water is brown and has chunks of [what] kind of looks like flat asphalt. I'm not bathing in that. I'm not putting my kids in that," she said.

 
Chelsea Metcalfe is one of a handful of homeowners affected by water contamination issues after a flea market burned down near Smiths Falls, Ont., in November 2016. (CBC)

A big source of frustration at Friday's meeting was the fact that no one showed up to answer questions about insurance. 

Some residents said they're facing the prospect of spending thousands of dollars to buy new washing machines and bathtubs because the old ones were destroyed by the toxic water. They said they don't know if they will be compensated by insurance — and that they're having trouble getting answers.

Burns promised to convey their frustrations to the insurance representatives.

"It is unfortunate the insurers' representatives are not here tonight, because there are so many of these questions that we can't answer that you need answers for," he said.

Aubrey Churchill, the reeve of the Drummond North Elmsley Township, closed the meeting by offering praise to the team from the MOE.

"I gotta say, from the last meeting to this meeting, a lot has happened," Churchill said. "And I have to congratulate Steve Burns and his team on what has been done, because this is a serious issue for everyone."

now