Bay dumps prompted health concerns three years ago

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From the Dundas Star, Friday, 25 Mar 2005

Bay dumps prompted health concerns three years ago


Migratory ducks enjoy unfettered access to two open-water waste disposal cells in Hamilton Harbour three years after an expert committee raised concerns about the potential health impacts on hunters who eat them.

The harbour's toxic substances task group called on owner Hamilton Port Authority to find a way to keep migratory waterfowl away, citing a 1993 Canadian Wildlife Service study that found mallard ducks feeding at the cells had elevated PCB levels.

"Since many species of both resident and migratory waterfowl use Hamilton Harbour (cells), the effects of elevated contaminant concentrations on waterfowl and the public health implications to hunters should be addressed," the task group stated in the 2002 Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan update.

It recommended the port authority work with Environment Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service to implement a management strategy within a year to "minimize contaminant uptake in wildlife/waterfowl in the confined disposal facilities."

Yet though the issue was again flagged by Environment Canada a year later, when the port authority applied to dump more toxic sediments in the cells, there is still no sign of a management strategy - or government action at any level.

Regulators gave the port authority approval to dump the new sediments even though the Migratory Birds Convention Act prohibits the disposal of any "substance harmful to migratory birds in any waters or any area frequented by migratory birds."

According to the port authority's own assessment, the latest sediments contain heavy metals, PCB, nutrients and organic contaminants that in several cases exceed the severe effect level for aquatic species.

The cells have become an issue again after covert sampling by citizen groups confirmed their noxious contents, killing daphnia fleas in standard toxicity tests.

Jeff Brookfield, the port authority's operations manager, said most of the waste in the cell at Pier 26 has been capped to prevent exposure to wildlife, but acknowledged the cell at Pier 27 has no such controls.

He said he's not sure if Migratory Birds Convention Act prohibitions apply because the cells were created in the 1950's to accept harbour sediments and the waterfowl arrived afterwards.

Mr. Brookfield said the authority uses raptors to scare off gulls and is working with a remedial action plan (RAP) committee to address wildlife management problems harbour-wide.

"It wasn't as though the birds were there and we started dumping dredge material in these cells," he said. "If there's things we need to do to satisfy our partners in the RAP, then we'll do that... We're there to play a role, not to hinder issues."

But John Hall, the remedial action plan's coordinator and member of the committee in question, said it's up to the authority to find a way to keep birds out of the cells, particularly the one at Pier 27.

He said his committee is working to reduce the fouling of beaches by gulls and Canada geese, for instance, but is still awaiting an authority plan for the cells.

"There isn't a study that we have underway at the present time that addresses this specifically," Mr. Hall said. "The whole business of contaminant uptake by wildlife, for instance ducks and other animals getting into those sites, that's something that the Hamilton Port Authority would have to deal with."

As to whether the Migratory Birds Convention Act applies to dumping in the cells, Mr. Hall said that's an issue for the Canadian Wildlife Service, whose offices are located two piers away from the cells.

Gerry Brunet, the wildlife service's coordinator of investigations, said he was unaware of the issue and his branch generally only probes spills and other incidents where birds have already been harmed or killed.

He said although Section 35 of the Migratory Birds Convention Act does prohibit the dumping of harmful substances in bird habitats, "it's not a routine section that gets used."

"Honest to God, first I'm ever hearing about it. Don't know anything about what the issue is at all," Mr. Brunet said. "Obviously, my next step is to go further in my department and ask the questions, what is going on here, somebody educate us.

"I know I'm not giving you the answer you probably want to hear, but I truly don't know anything about it."

The lack of visible action doesn't surprise McMaster University political scientist Mark Sproule-Jones, who specializes in harbour issues.

He said the environmental assessment on the latest sediments to go into the cells is typical of how government agencies operate - concerns are raised, but never followed up.

"They all want to get along. It's depressing, actually," said Mr. Sproule-Jones, who quit as president of the Bay Area Restoration Council three years ago to protest plans to cap, rather than remove, a massive toxic blob at Randle Reef.

"This is a real flaw in the provincial and federal assessment process. They make everybody go through these hoops and then nobody checks up afterwards to see if there's been compliance. It's preposterous," he said.

"How many people can you keep fooling that something's being done? It calls into question the whole point of having environmental assessments in the first place."
 
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