Several months ago, back in the spring of this year, Radio Canada ran an investigative report regarding the run-off of chemicals from John Munro International Airport at Mount Hope, the highest point in Hamilton. This was prompted after a lot of fish and turtles were turning up dead downstream in Chippewa Creek which supplies Lake Niapenco and onward to the Welland River. This water system is the drinking source of water for residents of the mostly rural Binbrook section of the city who haven't been hooked up to Lake Ontario's supply, but also for many rural residents in the Niagara Region.
What did the reporters find in the water? Something called Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS. PFOS was until a couple years ago the active ingredient in Scotchgard ™ and was also used in flame retardant foam. The kind you'd find in fire trucks. Radio Canada discovered through lab tests that levels of PFOS were twenty times the legal limit of 10 parts per billion. And what makes it worse, is that PFOS has a half life of five years. Meaning it persists for years, and the concentrations add up the more you drink it.
Two years ago, the 3M ™ company, when it recognized the problem, reformulated what comes in the cans and barrels with another chemical that has a half life of only one month -- meaning it breaks down much faster over time.
It's not just the fish that have been affected. In the States, there are PFOS excess levels in bald eagles, polar bears, minx and two species of the dolphin just to name a few. And public health officials have found kidney cancer clusters from exposure to excess levels of PFOS; and it affects all age, sex, racial and ethnic groups who are exposed, equally. Not to mention how it compromises the immune system.
The story was quickly picked up by the alternate media in town (View Magazine for instance) but it wasn't until this fall that mainstream outlets got on the story. Two days ago, the local city council said it should be the feds who should pay for the cleanup. This after it was learned that the provincial Environment department might slap the city with a cleanup order. The argument the city makes is that the airport fire training facility was used not just by Hamilton but by fire departments in other cities -- that Hamilton only makes up for 10% of the total.
Well, shouldn't it be the company that made the stuff -- 3M -- in the first place, that has to pay, at least a large portion of the damages? Maybe they didn't know what it was, at first. But if it was causing problems, why wasn't anything done then? It would not have been hard to recall the product. And it wasn't like 3M was the only company making flame and fabric retardants in those days -- efficacious substitutes were available.
I lived out in the country for about three years as a kid. My parents and I moved back to the city largely because of water quality issues -- even though ironically it meant the school I attended, the same school in fact, was actually now further away from me and I had to take a school bus. That formerly country area has now been cemented over for suburban housing. But barely 500 metres away, the country begins again (in part due to a hard urban boundary that is enforced). Rural folk have the same right to clean drinking water as those in the urban landscape. They shouldn't have to worry about what's in the water -- whether it's sewage run-off from a week ago, or persistent chemicals that stopped being used twenty years ago. I thought the rule was, the party that caused the problem is the one that should pay to fix it. That means 3M.
Someone once asked, what price progress? Indeed.
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