Information shared on Town Beach contamination, waterfront redevelopment
Tim Brody - Associate Editor
Members of the public packed the main floor meeting room of the heritage train station in Sioux Lookout on April 5 to learn more about the contamination issue which has affected the Town Beach for several years now. Municipal staff, representatives from the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, Northwestern Health Unit, CN Rail, and project consultants were all slated to be on hand to speak with the public about the contamination, as well as the Municipality’s waterfront redevelopment project.
The waterfront redevelopment project had been scheduled to take place this summer, however at their March 21 regular meeting, municipal councillors voted to accept a report from CAO Ann Mitchell directing staff to ensure the contamination issue had been dealt with before construction on the waterfront redevelopment project proceeds.
A sheen was observed along the Town Beach shoreline in 2011, 2015, and 2016, resulting in beach closures.
“Since the fire in 1987 and resultant spill of the fuel from a CN train there has been a period of ongoing issues,” Mitchell stated in a written report she presented to municipal council.
Mitchell further informed in her report to council, “In 1987 there was a fire that occurred on CN lands that released approximately 600,000 litres of NAPL (Non-Aqueous Phase Liquid is a groundwater contaminant that is not soluble in water and has lower density than water) in the area. Corrective action took place which drew some of the NAPL out of the ground however there is still a considerable amount in the area. This NAPL has proven to be stationary but the problem is the groundwater that flows through it.”
“As the responsibility of the clean up initiative falls on CN they will bear the cost of all clean up efforts. No financial implications for the ratepayers,” Mitchell also stated in her report.
The public information session consisted of a number of informational panels having been set up around the meeting room, with municipal staff, organization representatives, and consultants making themselves available to talk.
The public were informed the sheen at the Town Beach was biogenic in nature.
Information presented at the public meeting explained, “The sheen at the beach is not petroleum sheen, rather it is a biogenic sheen that is caused by naturally occurring bacteria growing on iron from minerals in the ground. The iron content in the ground is higher in this area partly due to conditions that allow more iron to dissolve from minerals. This condition is contributed to by the breakdown of the petroleum spill upgradient from the beach. The biogenic sheen is also present in other parts of the lake.”
It was explained biogenic sheen occurs when the soil is both rich in iron and low in oxygen.
The public were also informed, based upon water samples collected from the lake; this biogenic sheen is not harmful to humans.
Ardis Oleksyn of KGS Group – consulting engineers, shared, “The increase in dissolved iron is part of the natural biological process of the degradation of the impacts of the soil. So, as the dissolved iron concentrations increase, and as they approach the lake, essentially what happens is when that water becomes oxygenized, the dissolved iron precipitates out and becomes the iron precipitate which is what is contributing to the discolouration and the sheen down in the beach area.”
He added, “The iron is natural. The iron is in the ground everywhere throughout here in Northern Ontario.”
Asked if there were any way to determine how much petroleum remains under the town beach area, Oleksyn replied, “It’s an almost impossible calculation. The problem being, from the initial release in 1987, there was no accurate record of what was known to have been released, so that makes it almost impossible to characterize what remains when you take into consideration remediation which was performed, it was not clear how much was released in the first place.”
In 2011, contaminated soil at the town beach was removed and replaced with fresh, clean material.
To address this biogenic sheen, engineers plan to use a technique call biosparging.
Eric Nichols, an expert in petroleum clean-up, was contacted by CN Rail to join a panel of experts to advise CN on the situation at the Town Beach.
He explained, “The sheen at the beach, through investigation, we’ve figured out that it’s being caused by excess iron that dissolved in groundwater. Iron is naturally occurring. It’s just being dissolved off the natural rocks and sediments. It’s dissolving more here because of the presence of petroleum inland. The petroleum biodegrades and it creates a condition that allows more iron to dissolve. What we’re trying to do is reduce the iron content of the groundwater before it gets to the lake. Bacteria actually love that iron. When that iron hits the lakeshore, they grow. They create a biomass that becomes a sheen. Basically the sheen you see at the lake is the kind of sheen you’d see in a bog, or a marsh. You see it a lot around here. It’s an iridescent sheen. It’s actually not petroleum it’s microbes, essentially.”
He further explained, “So, to get rid of that iron, one of the most reliable ways to do that is to combine it with oxygen. Iron and oxygen make rust. And in fact, you see that kind of rusty colour sediment along the lakeshore. That’s the iron coming in with the groundwater and then becoming rust and coating the rocks. So we basically want to do that underground, inland, before it can happen at the lake.
“We’ve created this curtain of injection wells and there’s a long row of these, very closely spaced, that are going to be hidden underground below the boardwalk of this beach redevelopment and they are going to slowly bubble air into the sub-surface, and that air brings in oxygen. That oxygen dissolves into the groundwater and it reacts with the iron and makes the iron drop out as small particles of rust. The idea is to do that underground before it ever gets to the lake. We create a long line of these wells, very closely spaced, so that nothing slips past. The whole thing is intended to operate year-round. The iron is treated, but if there is any dissolved petroleum, we don’t believe there’s much if any there anymore, oxygen also helps biodegrade the petroleum.”
Biosparging is to be tested in a small area of the beach this summer to confirm the design parameters for the full scale system, which is to be constructed in conjunction with the beach redevelopment project.
The system will be monitored to ensure it is working as designed.
Nichols added, “The air compressor is going to be on the other side of Wellington Street in an enclosure. There will be an underground pipe that brings the air under Wellington Street to each of these wells, but all that’s buried. You’ll never see it. You’ll never hear it.”
Daniel Salvatore, CN manager of Public Affairs Ontario, said CN will pay for the cost of operating the compressor.
He added, “What is being presented here today will be paid for by CN.”
Mitchell confirmed CN would pay for the remediation process.
Sioux Lookout resident Greg Hlady attended the meeting and disagreed with the proposed remediation process, stating instead the beach should be dug up and the contamination fully removed.
Information presented at the meeting showed the residual LNAPL extending just short of the concreate retaining wall at the beach.
Hlady disagrees, stating he believes residual LNAPL extends to the waters of Pelican Lake.
He said of the sheen, “This is not natural and their consults agree it’s not natural. It’s a product of the contaminated site.”
Hlady served as an environmental specialist for 20 years with the Department of Indian Affairs, now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
“I was the environmental specialist for the province for the northern region,” he added. “I was the review officer that would review all of the consult’s work, all of the scientist’s work.”
He said he spoke with two of the consultants at the meeting.
“They’re acknowledging it’s not natural (the sheen). It’s part of the process of the contaminants moving out and clearly it’s breaking out on the beach, so it doesn’t stop before the beach.”
He also alleged highly carcinogenic compounds have been detected on the beach.
He further alleged, through his own research, and that of fellow Sioux Lookout resident Remi Lorteau, creosote railway ties had been burned in the same area the fuel spilled.
“Where you’ve got kids swimming and eating the dirt, you want the most stringent guidelines,” he said.
He said the Town Beach should be closed, fenced off, and posted as a contaminated site.
Along with Lorteau, Hlady has formed a citizen’s ad-hoc group called Save Our Beach.
He said a report clearly outlining the source of the beach contamination and its extent was created, which is what’s being used to move forward on the contamination issue.
He said Mitchell promised him and Lorteau a copy of that report last May. He said he still has not received it.
Hlady attended the public meeting with a list of questions he’d hoped to get answers to.
“These questions were not answered publically due to the rather decentralized presentation format at the meeting and a lack of any identified project leader to address the public and provide an overview and project status. Consequently, questions were not given a public forum for public input and response to specific concerns about the contaminated site,” he stated in a letter to The Bulletin.
He said he still has a lot of questions and concerns following the public meeting.
Sioux Lookout resident Anne Saltel also attended the meeting.
She shared, “I was disappointed in the format. I really thought it was to be a meeting. The beach contamination is a very serious issue that has spanned decades. All the consultants were there ready to disseminate the technical information and possible remediation options. The forum only allowed some members of the public to glean some information. A town-hall meeting with a moderator would have been a better venue. The consultants could share their findings and proposed remediation to the audience as a whole. Everyone would hear the same information. The moderator would then field questions for the consultants to answer. In my opinion, this information needs to reach as many citizens as possible. There was a large group of people in the afternoon and evening so the interest was there but the venue was not appropriate.”
Fellow Sioux Lookout resident Dennis Leney agreed.
“I was disappointed. I think myself and everybody else thought there was going to be a presentation, rather than walking around.”
Asked about the format for the meeting Mitchell commented, “The group of stakeholders decided on the format. We thought this would be the best way to impart the information to the public.”
Commenting on the plans for the beach redevelopment project displayed at the meeting, Leney said, “I was very disappointed looking at the plans. It doesn’t seem they’re worried about the parking area for the marina.”
Leney, current president of the Edwin Switzer Memorial Legion added, “The other thing I was very disappointed in was I see they have the cenotaph moved.”
Leney said he, along with past Legion presidents, members, and veterans, had asked it remain a central feature of the Town Beach.
Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance commented, “Two public information sessions were held on the Town Beach on April 5th and I was able to attend both. The public turnout seemed to be on par for events of this nature. While at the sessions I was able to review all the material on display, ask questions of the representatives from the various stakeholders, chat with some community members, and observe the overall process. The session covered two separate but related items: the impact of the CN fuel spill on the Town Beach and the planned Municipal project to upgrade the town beach facilities.”
He stated, “On the first item, Municipal staff need to be congratulated for all the work they have done to facilitate finding a resolution to this issue, an issue which was not created by the Municipality. In 1987 a huge explosion of a CN fuel storage tank occurred with hundreds of thousands of litres of CN fuel spilling on to CN owned property. Much of the CN fuel soaked in to the ground and migrated through the soil. Some of the CN fuel migrated under Wellington Avenue, which was then a connecting link in the Provincial Highway system. Some of that migrating CN fuel made it into the soil under the Town Beach area. The two stakeholders who need to be at the forefront are CN and the Provincial Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC).
“Through the persistent work of Municipal Staff, CN has stepped up to the plate. MOECC will be key as we move into the next phase. My takeaway from the session is that over the years the spill has largely been pumped off the water table, has more or less stabilized in the ground, and what remains continues to degrade through natural processes. Information on CN’s presentation panels at the session indicated that the sheen which periodically appears is not harmful. It is my understanding that CN is proposing a system of wells which will ‘pump’ air into the soil which will accelerate processes already underway and in that way form a protective underground barrier for the Town Beach. It is further understood that a pilot project will take place, with MOECC approval, this summer. Assuming it is successful, full installation would be done in concert with the Town Beach upgrade project in 2019. Monitoring will continue, however, it is my hope that with the information currently available we will be in a position to open the Town Beach this year, prior to construction next year.”
He concluded, “The second item on display at the sessions was the plan for the Town Beach upgrade. Municipal Staff have worked closely with the design team at Keewatin-Aski to develop a project that meets the needs within available budget. The presentation remains true to the overall concepts developed, through considerable public input, in the comprehensive ‘Revitalization Plan’ prepared about ten years ago. Comment sheets were available at the session related to the proposed facilities – I took advantage of these to make one comment: a playground area must be included close to the Beach – it is needed, expected, and will be well-used.”
The Town Beach waterfront redevelopment project is currently slated for the spring of 2019.
Mitchell said it is yet to be determined whether or not the Town Beach will be open this summer while the biosparging process is being tested.
The waterfront redevelopment project proposes a new laser cut metal sign and mass planting at the rail underpass.
It proposes expanded parking, replacing the buildings at the north end of the park with a multi-purpose a pavilion, replacing the existing washroom building with a new facility complete with a change room, and developing a food truck and patio space at the south end of the park.
A boardwalk system complete with bollards, railings, solar lighting, and benches is also proposed, along with a marina with a floating dock system.
A kiosk with interactive mapping of the community and downtown area is also proposed.
Asked if all of the components of the Town Beach waterfront redevelopment project on display at the public meeting are moving ahead Mitchell informed, “The Municipality has previously stated that we will take back the input from the public on the Waterfront Development design. This will be done and represented to Council for final decision.”
The Municipality has received funding from both FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) for the project.
Out of the total project cost of $2,898,000, FedNor and NOHFC have committed to $2,000,000. The Municipality of Sioux Lookout will be responsible for funding the remaining $898,000.