The people of Aamjiwnaag First Nation worry they’re “sitting ducks” as Clean Harbors makes plans to bring in the highly toxic chemical Thallium.
Mike Parker, vice president of environmental compliance for Clean Harbors, says the company has been working with a BC company since 2017 to ship up to 175,000 tonnes of the waste overland to the Petrolia area site. It was on the verge of getting approval by the Ministry of the Environment in November, when the First Nation contacted the company saying it had not been fully consulted on the move, as is required by Canadian law.
So, Parker notified the ministry, put the application on hold to consult the community.
May 15, Clean Harbors officials went to Aamjiwnaag to talk about the project with about 50 residents.
Parker says the Petrolia Line facility is one of two in the country licenced to take the material. The other is on the East Coast.
Normally, Clean Harbors workers take toxic waste out of the shipping containers, incinerate it and put the remains in concrete which is then buried at the site. But Thallium – which destroys the central nervous system – is too dangerous for the workers to handle it.
“It is highly toxic,” he says adding if people were exposed to it, could mean death. In high concentrations this is a very dangerous chemical. It has been used to poison other people.”
The plan given to the Ministry of the Environment to accept the 175,000 tonnes, Parker says, is to take drums of the toxic powder – waste from the heavy metal industry – and place them in another sealed drum. Those sealed drums would be packed in shipping containers, which then would be filled with foam to stabilize them.
The containers would be wrapped with two heavy liners, placed on two-feet of sand at the top of a closed cell. They would then be covered with clay. The whole area would be about 100 meters by about 100 meters.
Parker says with seven layers of encapsulation, it would be highly unlikely any of the thallium would leak out.
If it did, he told the community members, it would have to get through 17 meters of clay, then it would go to a trench which runs around the entire landfill. It would catch the spill, suck it back toward the site, where it would be treated and disposed.
“It should never leak out of it. It’s a secure landfill,” he says.
Danalyn Williams, a member of the community’s environment committee, wanted to know exactly where the material was coming from, fearing the Thallium was coming to BC from overseas nuclear facilities.
Parker says that’s not the case since Clean Harbors is not allowed to take waste from outside of North America.
And many community members voiced their opposition to the project.
“This is invasive to our community,” said one community member. “If you have the money, why not ship it to the other place…why gamble it? Why bother with the risk?”
Another added the community, already surrounded by chemical plants, “is like sitting ducks” for environmental problems.
Others were concerned the plan will affect a lot of other First Nations as it moves from BC to St. Clair Township. “What if you were to have an accident transporting that Thallium,” asked Williams.
But when pressed by community members for a guarantee, Parker said “it probably won’t happen, but those things do happen.”
Parker told the residents he will include in his final report to the ministry Aamjiwnaag “strongly opposes” the plan. He also suggested community members submit letters of their own to the ministry expressing their concerns.
It’s not clear how long the approval process for the project will take.