Intervenor: Vol 23. No 2 April - June 1998

Community Work: South Riverdale - Vigilance Born of History

After 30 years, the people of South Riverdale, east of downtown Toronto, keep an ever watchful eye on the Canada Metal Company. Lead contamination of the surrounding neighbourhood from this secondary lead smelter reached extremely high levels in the late 1960s. The surrounding neighbourhood then spent many years fighting with the company and the Ministry of Environment. After much wrangling, the neighbourhood was "cleaned-up" in the late 1970s according to a soil removal guideline of 2600 parts per million. This removal guideline was the subject of extensive controversy at the time as many experts considered it too high.

Another ten years passed and lead emissions continued. Provincial limits for lead in air and dustfall were not exceeded. Despite reduced emissions, tests during the 1980s by the Toronto Public Health department repeatedly found elevated levels of lead in children's blood. And, all the while, the international scientific community compiled evidence of the harmful effects of low level lead exposure. That evidence resulted in the elimination of lead from gasoline, at least in most industrialized countries. That evidence, combined with elevated lead levels in the soil and children's blood around the Canada metal smelter, contributed to a lowering of the soil removal guideline to 500 parts per million. Once again the trucks moved in and, at public expense, soil was removed from dozens of properties. Houses were thoroughly cleaned for lead contaminated dust. The Ministry of the Environment initiated an $11 million lawsuit to recover clean-up costs.

CELA has worked with clients in South Riverdale since the early 1990s on the community's response to the Ministry's negotiations around the lawsuit and other matters related to changes in plant operations. Today, the Canada Metal plant is a shadow of its former self, reduced to a very small lead oxide facility. The large smelting operation has been shut down and partially decommissioned. Contaminated empty buildings await the careful demolition and decommissioning that the company cannot afford. In 1996, a settlement agreement was negotiated whereby the province agreed to drop its $11 million lawsuit in return for the establishment of a $65,000 trust fund. The fund is to be topped up by a percentage of after-tax profits (when, and if, they exist).

The lawsuit named two company directors personally. The agreement enables them to be free and clear of any liability for the site once the fund exceeds $300,000. At that point, the Ministry will face the prospect of pursuing a company with little or no assets (if and when outstandng liabilities arise). For the time being, the fund pays for interim steps towards securing the site and cleaning up only the most dilapidated buildings and structures.

In the surrounding neighbourhood, the Ministry of Environment has continued to test for lead contamination in the air, dustfall, soil and on plant foliage. Recently, the community received soil and foliage test results. Multi-year tests now show that lead contamination continues to exist in the neighbourhood. Tree foliage tests showed a higher level of contamination within 350 metres of the plant implicating it as a continuing lead source.

Tests also show that lead levels in soil are steadily increasing since the second round of soil removal and replacement was done in the early 1990s. However, the soil was replaced with "clean fill", likely from rural agricultural areas, and despite continued lead deposition, South Riverdale soil is still cleaner than soil in other urban neighbourhoods. The increasing soil lead levels are likely the result of re-entrainment of dispersed urban sources rather than coming from Canada Metal. While this is a piece of good news, it shows once again that everyone, not just people living near a lead source, needs to be vigilant about environmental lead contamination.

CELA continues to represent clients in South Riverdale as the community stays closely involved in negotiations to clean up the site and monitor possible emissions. The community is a leader in Canada in the production of educational workshops, written materials and advocacy about the hazards of lead exposure and the means of avoiding it. That's not always easy to do, since lead sources include contaminated urban soil, consumer products, or, of special concern, from renovations and paint removal in older homes.
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Kathleen Cooper is a researcher at CELA