3/28/16

Problems with Tainted Wellwater

By now, most people in Mississippi Mills know that several dozen families in the south end of Ramsay ward recently learned their well water is, or may be, contaminated by Perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS). The source is the nearby National Fire Lab on Concession 8, operated by the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC moved quickly to protect people’s health but questions remain about how far the pollution may spread and how long PFAS will stay in the soil and aquifer.

Residents of 49 homes east of the lab, including all of Ramsay Meadows, received letters just before Christmas from the NRC, offering to test their wells for PFAS. A second letter in late February contained preliminary test results and the terms of immediate mitigation—a choice between bottled water or installation of a filtration system—all at the NRC’s expense.

The most recent data shows that 23 homes showed no trace of PFAS, 17 showed a concentration below the level of concern. One was slightly above the safe level. Test results are pending on several more homes. The NRC extended its offer of bottled water and filtration to all homes in the test area, even those testing zero for PFAS.

One hundred concerned residents met in mid-March. They formed a committee and assigned specific roles including public relations, internal communications, science research and legal issues.

Besides health concerns, residents worry the resale value of their homes may plummet.

The Ottawa media got hold of the story in mid-March. Over several days, I gave about 10 media interviews, as did several residents from Ramsay Meadows. The media interest “coincidently” coincided with an increased response from the NRC.

Twice, Kirsty Duncan, the federal Minister of Science in charge of the NRC, phoned me to pledge her support and the make sure any questions get answers. As a former Associate Professor of Health Studies at the University of Toronto, she seems to have genuine concern.

Andrew Norgaard, NRC Director General of Communications, has taken charge of the NRC response. He has committed to an open dialog. On March 24, I joined him, six local homeowner representatives, several NRC staff and two Stantec consultants to discuss next steps.

The NRC admits it does not yet know how far the polluted groundwater may spread or how long the PFAS may reside in the soil. Mr. Norgaard said the NRC and Stantec are working to get answers.

Mr. Norgaard did commit the NRC to testing wells on all neighboring properties, not just those to the east (direction of groundwater flow). The NRC plans to remove soil on one “hot spot” near the lab to reduce the amount of PFAS that can still seep into groundwater. Mr. Norgaard pledged to meet again at the residents’ request.

Mississippi Mills has no formal authority over any aspect of the problem—it is federal and provincial—but I pledged to support the residents by acting as an “ambassador” to the NRC and Minister Duncan, as needed.

Background: The lab has operated since 1983 to test fire suppression techniques, to teach firefighting skills, and to test flame resistant building material. The lab contributes to the national fire code and the national building code. PFAS was once a component of firefighting foam. At that time, pollution control regulations for that chemical family were lax. Water carried the waste foam to the grounds surrounding the lab. Over time, it percolated into the highly fractured bedrock. The NRC began monitoring groundwater contamination as far back as 2008, and alerted neighbors once tests last October showed PFAS had migrated off the NRC property.

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