Toxins in well water near Smiths Falls finally dissipating, residents learn

People living in 11 homes near Smiths Falls have been forced to drink bottled water for the past four months. The level of toxins in the ground water is going down, but authorities can't predict when it will be safe to drink again.

'We are seeing significant improvements,' Ministry of Environment says

Ministry of Environment representatives Jena Leavoy and Steve Burns updated residents near Smiths Falls about the clean-up of a large fire in November that contaminated well water. (CBC)

People living in 11 houses just outside Smiths Falls still can't use their well water, but the good news is the level of contamination has gone down.

"We are seeing significant improvements," said Jena Leavoy, an officer with Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, at a public meeting Thursday night.

The residents have been unable to use their well water after it was contaminated with dozens of toxic chemicals last November, when a popular nearby flea market complex burned to the ground.

Firefighters doused the flames with water and fire foam but the business was destroyed. 

Runoff from the charred debris, along with the firefighting foam, got into the ground water. Residents reported a chemical smell when they turned on their taps, along with lots of foam.

Local health authorities warned the contamination was so dangerous that even flushing a toilet would be hazardous due to toxic water vapour becoming airborne.

Site of fire cleaned up

For the past four months, people living in the homes have relied on bulk water deliveries for laundry and other household uses. Bottled water is delivered for drinking.

There is now hope that in a few months at least some of the residents can start using well water again. But the ban on drinking the water will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Fire destroyed the Rideau Valley Marketplace and Liquidation Outlet on Nov. 6, 2016. (CBC)

"The pumping and treating at the site and removal of the waste has removed the contaminants at the original source, the original site of the fire," said Steve Burns, a district manager for the environment ministry.

"There is no soil contamination on the fire site," Leavoy added. "If we can reconnect some people to their wells, I think everyone would be happy about that."

The optimistic tone was echoed by Dr. Paula Stewart, medical officer of health for the Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District Health Unit.

"There are dramatic changes and it's all going in the right way," she said.

Low levels of toxins present

Tests from some of the monitoring wells that have been installed still show very low levels of firefighting foam, hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds. And with the spring run-off there is a chance the levels could rise again.

The concern is that increased water flow will come into contact with hidden pockets of contamination.

Gail Read owns a home on Highway 43, across from the site of the flea market fire. She replaced her plumbing and said she hasn't heard back from the insurance company about having those costs covered.

"Ground water levels come up and there is a flushing action, so we are going to watch that and see what happens," Burns said.

"Does more contamination come out or does it stay steady?"

Burns can't predict when the well water will be safe to drink again, but said there is a chance that, by summer, people will be able to use their own water for household uses.

Insurance questions

The clean-up progress was somewhat overshadowed at the meeting by continuing complaints about insurance.

The owner of the flea market is covered by an Intact Insurance policy, which is paying for the clean-up and costs incurred by the residents.

Gail Read, one of the homeowners, said she replaced the plumbing in her home because she was worried about the health of her recently born grandson, who has respiratory problems.

Aubrey Churchill, reeve of Drummond/North Elmsley Township, said the insurance company should be attending the public meetings.

"We have simply moved ahead and replaced our plumbing, replaced our tub and done that on our own dollar and submitted it to the insurance company. We have not heard back," she said.

The claims representative for Intact hasn't shown up at the public meetings, a fact that does not impress Aubrey Churchill, the reeve of Drummond/North Elmsley Township.

"I don't know why they are not here. They have been invited every time and every time it's a no show, so I think that speaks for itself," he said.

"It seems to me the insurance is the issue … and I think that is a problem we have to look into."

In a statement, Intact said the reason it didn't send a representative to town halls is because it could not discuss residents' claims in a public forum for privacy reasons. 

The absence of the insurance company at the public meetings has forced ministry representatives to become a conduit for information, which they say is not a comfortable role.

"We're carrying it forward, but the insurance is really a little bit outside what our mandate is," Burns told the residents.

Churchill said he will soon arrange a meeting with Randy Hillier, the Conservative MPP for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, to help residents with insurance questions.