Springhurst toxic soil study leaves more questions than answers

Chestnut Stree resident Christine Honsl has a number of unanswared questions about the Springhurst Park area soil contamination study. Photo by John Dance

Chestnut Stree resident Christine Honsl has a number of unanswared questions about the Springhurst Park area soil contamination study. Photo by John Dance

By: John Dance

Finally, residents west of Springhurst Park have received the results of the soil contamination study conducted a year and a half ago, and the results, as outlined in a letter from the City of Ottawa to residents, mean “(a)ctivities that do not involve digging in the soil are unlikely to pose a health risk.”

The city initiated the study to determine the extent and severity of soil contamination resulting from an old landfill site that was operational from the early 1900s to the mid-1930s. Known as Old Armoury because of a department of defence facility on the location, the landfill site stretched from the current location of the 170 Lees Avenue apartment building all the way to Chestnut Street and likely somewhat beyond.

The study was conducted in the residential area to the west of Springhurst Park, south of Lees Avenue, east of Simcoe Street and north of the Rideau River. The Alta Vista Transportation Corridor open space to the east of Springhurst Park was the primary area for the landfill.

In the 1990s, the site was remediated with, according to city documentation, “a clean soil cap over the majority of the property to limit exposure to the ash, cinders and garbage present across the site.” Similarly, in 2016, a “clean soil cap on top of a geotextile layer” was installed in Springhurst Park before the park upgrade was done.

But related studies at that time raised the question of whether there was additional contamination in the neighbouring residential properties.

In the fall of 2017, residents in the targeted area were asked for permission to test their properties “to confirm that there are no risks from the former landfill site associated with normal day-to-day residential land use activities.” The request letter went on to say, “This sampling will also allow us to evaluate the extent of historic landfilling activities and determine the presence and concentration of potential contaminants in shallow soil.”

With the consent of residents, soil samples were collected from 16 residential properties located within the perceived extent of the former landfill site and from 15 residential properties in the adjacent area that was perceived to be unaffected by the landfill.

“We’ve been waiting since September 2017 for any results from this soil sampling,” says Meredith Newberry, a Chestnut Street resident.

“Some neighbours have been directing questions to the city and not getting any answers. It’s worrisome not knowing what the outcome will be and waiting a year and a half to find out. We’re not sure if this is a normal testing period or if it means something else?”

But now that the letter has been sent, there is some relief, although a number of residents have lots of questions.

“There is so much new construction on these streets and that will continue,” says Chestnut Street resident Christine Honsl. “I am wondering what will now be done with all the new building going on in terms of the soil that is disturbed. There is nothing said [in the city’s letter to residents] about how developers will now be expected to handle the deep soil they are excavating and that is being blown around and tracked around the neighborhood on equipment. I know it said that soil should be disposed of at a proper landfill, but who is enforcing that and what about before the soil gets there?”

The letter to residents identifies the types of contaminants and the levels of contamination found on the various properties, but concludes, “Although contaminated soil has been identified in this area, there must be direct contact with or disturbance of the soil in order for any health risk to occur.”

Included in the city’s “recommended mitigation measures” is a list of activities that could elevate the risk of exposure to contaminants. These activities include eating large quantities of vegetables, especially root crops grown in this soil for many years; working in the soil and not washing hands before eating; and, for children, playing in the soil and repeatedly consuming small amounts of the soil (by putting their hands or objects in their mouths).

The City recommends that residents in the affected area minimize health risks associated with the soil contaminants by using raised beds or planter boxes for growing garden produce and using clean soil from a garden centre to ensure that the produce is not exposed to the contaminated soil.

Also, the City recommends such measures as building sandboxes with a wood or plastic bottom and filling them with clean sand; covering all bare patches of soil so that dust and dirt aren’t tracked into homes and so small children don’t come in contact with the bare soil; and, disposing of excavated soil at a licensed landfill facility.

Honsl, whose small house has been besieged by redevelopment of neighbouring properties, isn’t satisfied with the City’s advice.

“There is nothing said about why these compounds are of concern to human health, what their possible effects are if one has been using the soil for food or gardening over many years, as some of my neighbors have been doing,” she says.

“If you want people to abide by the recommendations, they should be given some information about the risks if they do not. Not everyone will do Google research or understand what they find,” Honsl adds.

Another concern is the impact on pets. “I am concerned about pets playing actively on the soil and ingesting it from their paws and fur. There is no mention of pets at all. Even with reference to human contact with pets’ fur,” says Honsl.

Other residents have raised questions about the impact of the study on property values and whether the City should pay for mitigation measures on residential properties, given that the City has taken such measures at Springhurst Park and also at the Children’s Garden at Clegg and Main streets.

The specific contaminants in the affected area are various metals above provincial standards for residential use and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which, according to the City, are “a group of chemicals that are created during the incomplete combustion of fuels, waste or other organic substances.”

The City has offered to hold a public meeting on the study but, as of press time, nothing had been scheduled.

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