$1.3B cleanup of Port Hope finally underway after decades of massive planning

Concerns about radioactive tailings spread throughout the town has cast a pall over the picturesque town for more than half a century. Residents are looking forward to clean bill of health when the remediation project is completed as early as 2023.

Low level radioactive waste in and around the picturesque town for decades

Soil from contaminated properties will be stored in the long-term waste management facility built near Hwy 401 in Port Hope. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Saturday was moving day for the Canadian Fire Fighters Museum in Port Hope. The 34-year-old museum, which houses firefighting artifacts and apparatus from across the country, had to be out of its city-owned building by the end of the day.

Will Lambert, chair of the museum's board of directors, says moving the museum's 10 antique fire trucks was the trickiest part.

"It was quite an operation actually. We had to bring in a heavy tow, like a 10-tonne tow truck, to bring these guys over. Even though it was a short distance, it was quite an operation," Lambert said.

Although the pumpers and ladder trucks won't be on display to the public anymore — the museum is hoping to purchase a new location for them — Lambert is glad the move went well.

Will Lambert, chair of the Canadian Fire Fighters Museum's board of directors, poses with some the historic apparatus in the collection. The museum had to vacate its city-owned building to allow for the removal of contaminated soil. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"Well, I'm glad that they have safe dry clean storage. This is a very good location to keep our trucks in. It's going to keep them well-protected," he said.

The museum is the first to be displaced by a massive cleanup planned for the town, and there will be many, many more sites affected. Located not far from Port Hope harbour, the building will be demolished, the soil remediated, and new structures built. 

The soil, which became contaminated over decades by the operations of Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., will be stored at a long-term waste management facility built near Highway 401.

Scott Parnell is the General Manager of the Port Hope Area Initiative, which is in charge of the cleanup. He says that after decades of planning, the first loads of an estimated 1.2 million cubic metres of historic low-level radioactive waste will be on the move.

"There's been a lot of planning a lot of studies a lot of determination into how to approach the work safely, but this will be the first time we will be removing waste from the community," said Parnell, who has overseen similar operations in Washington state and Alaska.

Scott Parnell, general manager of the Port Hope Area Initiative, stands near the town's harbour. He says after decades of planning, the first loads of an estimated 1.2 million cubic metres of historic low-level radioactive waste will finally be relocated to a long-term storage facility. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

The $1.28-billion cleanup operation is a recognition by the federal government that the waste is its "environmental liability." The radioactive tailings were the byproduct of uranium and radium refining operations run by Eldorado, a former Crown corporation, between 1933 and 1988.

Parnell says that the tailings were given away for free, which helps explain how the contamination was spread through the town.

"So, basically they offered it up and it was used for fill material to level up people's backyards, for building foundations, for those kinds of things. So, that's how the material got spread around the community," Parnell said.

Parnell says an estimated 800 properties may be affected, but says there's no indication the low levels of radiation are dangerous.

"There's little human risk associated with the waste that's identified here in Port Hope," he said.

Even so, Port Hope Mayor Bob Sanderson says residents are happy the cleanup is underway and will be even happier when it's done.

Port Hope Mayor Bob Sanderson says residents were a bit nervous about the operation, but think the disruption will be worth ridding the community of the low-level radioactive waste and the stigma that's plagued the picturesque town for decades. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"We're finally going to have the shovels in the ground after well more than a decade," said Sanderson, who said even with years to prepare for the remediation work, some residents are apprehensive.

"I often equate it with surgery. You can have all the information and you need the surgery to be healthy, but until you have the surgery you really don't know what it will be like. But you know they end result is what you need to have," said Sanderson, who was treated for a rare form of leukemia two years ago.

Sanderson says that after the estimated completion date in 2023, homeowners will be given a compliance letter to show that their properties have been remediated.

"When all is said and done and we're finished, any sort of stigma will be removed. And along with it, the community will benefit from a general cleanup," he said. "The finish is definitely what we are looking forward to. Clean bill of health and move on."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.