The land surrounding River Road near the Ottawa airport is sparsely populated with houses, an Asian restaurant and a large government laboratory. These buildings are sitting just metres – for the lab right on top of – an active, high priority contaminated site, according to an analysis of data from the Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory.
335 River Road is an Environment and Climate Change Canada laboratory, where they study chemical contaminants and oil spills. According to Samantha Bayard, Environment Canada spokesperson, the site once housed a manufacturing facility that could have contaminated the area.
She added, however, that the lab has “a number of storage tanks and there are hazardous materials stored onsite.”
The soil and groundwater around the laboratories are contaminated with chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and halogenated hydrocarbons. Both occur naturally but can be harmful in large amounts.
According to Richard Amos, a Carleton environmental studies professor who specializes in groundwater contaminants, PAHs refer to a larger group of toxins. The harm from these chemicals differs depending on the specific compound, said Amos. The specific compounds on the site are not listed.
“You really don’t want any of them in your drinking water,” said Amos, hand drawn illustrations of chemical compounds sitting on his desk. “Most of these are going to be harmful at some level.”
The full extent of the contamination at this site isn’t yet known. According to the government listing, the site has only had initial testing done, and it was ranked high priority under the National Classification System for Contaminated Sites.
According to the system, high priority means the site typically “shows a propensity for high concern for several factors, and measured or observed impacts have been documented.”
It isn’t just Environment Canada that has contaminated sites near major city centres. There are a total of 14 active, high priority federal contaminated sites within the Ottawa area alone.
The chemicals at 335 River Road are in the groundwater, according to the listing. Contamination in the groundwater doesn’t necessarily pose a problem on its own, said Amos, given that there isn’t much besides bacteria to be contaminated. The issues arise, however, when the water moves from underground.
The Environment Canada labs are located right beside the Rideau River.
“If contaminants are near a river, it makes it more of a problem because they can be transported more easily,” said Amos, and therefore can affect both the local ecosystem and human health.
Amos said that public knowledge is critical. According to Sabrina Kim, assistant to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, a notice was sent to stakeholders and locals in the community about the site at the end of October this year. She said no one has complained or responded to her office about the notice.
Staff for the ward councillor of Gloucester-Southgate – where the site is – were completely unaware of the site. The staff at Angry Dragonz – the Asian restaurant just down the road from the site – were equally unaware of it, as was the single customer having lunch who works in the area.
“They don’t advertise it, so how would we know?” said the cook at the Angry Dragonz, who did not want to be named. “If we’re not looking for it, how would we know it’s there?”
Bayard declined to answer further questions about the site when asked about the content of the notice and who it was sent to.
The extent – and cost – of fixing the issues of this site are still unknown. According to Bayard, the second round of testing on the site is scheduled to begin this month and will last until March.