Contradictions frustrate north-end residents

A number of north-end residents remain confused and frustrated as contradictory information flows in about what exactly was in the mill effluent that flooded their backyards last Thursday morning.
Residents who own homes on the south side of Eighth Street between Walker and Cornwall Avenues met Tuesday night to compare notes on the effluent that spread across a widespread area when Moncrief Construction–a contractor laying a water main for the town–struck and broke a pipe carrying the effluent from the Abitibi-Consolidated mill to its secondary treatment facility (lagoon) north of town.
After about 100,000 litres of effluent covered the block, residents were told that they were safe, and that it contained only water and wood residue.
They also were told to wash with soap and water if they came in contact with the effluent, and to contact the Northwestern Health Unit here if it was seeping into their homes.
But some residents have moved out, many have called lawyers, and about 15 home owners met to figure out what to do next as their backyards remain cordoned off by yellow tape to keep them away from an area that they have been told time and time again does not pose a health risk.
There also seems to be some confusion coming from mill officials. One told several residents it would be safe to eat from their gardens while another suggested they don’t.
“Mr. Gary Rogozinski [Abitibi-Consolidated’s environmental officer] has said to many of us on many occasions that it is safe to eat the vegetables in our gardens,” said resident Sue Fletcher.
“I think we’ve advised them not to eat the vegetables in the garden,” mill general manager Jim Gartshore said yesterday.
“There’s byproducts of the pulping process which they call resin and fatty fluids. They’d be present in small amounts, and that’s the purpose of the tests being done by the Ministry of the Environment,” Gartshore noted.
The yellow tape remains up, keeping residents out of their yards, with “biohazardous” labels hanging from it. In some cases, it has been attached right to the walls of homes where the effluent reached that high, prompting some residents to move out, including Tiffany Zub and Marty Bolzan.
“I just want to know our options,” said Zub. “They say that nothing affects me now but what about in 10 years. It would just be nice to know these things.”
Abitibi has reported it took tests but only to determine the concentration of effluent in the area, not the concentration of specific contaminants.
Besides the residents, Abitibi-Consolidated, the Northwestern Health Unit, Environment Canada, the Fort Frances Fire Department, and the Town of Fort Frances are waiting for Ministry of the Environment test results which may not come back for some time, according to an MoE employee in Kenora.
“I think people are over-reacting, frankly. We want to do this on facts rather than on emotion,” said Gartshore. “We’re waiting for the MoE results.”
In the meantime, residents are nervous as they live beside an area they are told is safe–yet that they should stay off of. An area where plants have turned an obvious yellow and that still carries a strong smell of the effluent.
Some of the residents brought their concerns before the town council Monday night.
“This is not just water and wood products, this is water and wood and chemicals . . . nobody would eat a salad from my garden,” argued Fletcher.
“Does anyone here have any knowledge what chemicals are in the effluent?” she asked. “We’ve been advised not to go back there by the Northwestern Health Unit. It is very scary.”
“My blue spruce is not blue any more, it’s brown,” added Bolzan. “Everyone tells us this is not serious but [you] go ahead, go back there and cut the lawn.”
Some councillors appeared surprised the residents hadn’t been contacted by an appointed adjuster but they were told to wait until the lab results were available.
“ [Rogozinski] will contact us as soon as he has any information broken down in layman’s language, not in engineer’s language,” said Mayor Glenn Witherspoon.
“I would hopefully expect them by [Tuesday] or [Wednesday].”
The town’s emergency measures Municipal Control Group, which includes mill, town, fire, and health unit officials, met several times after the effluent leak and released a statement after their last meeting Saturday.
It stated “damage claim forms were delivered to area home owners” but as of last night, none of the home owners had received a form–or even a phone call.
“None of us have ever seen a form and no adjuster has contacted us,” resident Guy Johnston said during the meeting last night. “We’re waiting for return calls from a legal representative to get more advice.”
The municipal control group also instructed the Fort Frances Fire Department to cordon off the contaminated area with yellow police tape.
“That decision was made to put that up by the Municipal Control Group to mark the line of the effluent. We’re leaving the tape up until we hear from the MoE or the health unit,” said Fort Frances Fire Chief Steve Richardson.
“We didn’t put up that tape,” said Bill Limerick, the environmental team leader for the Northwestern Health Unit. “[But] I would advise not to cross. To stay out of the yards until we get results.”
Limerick noted a number of substances could be in the effluent, including chloroform, chlorination, total suspended solids, phenol, and toluene–substances residents have researched on the Internet and, much to their alarm, found Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) that show hazardous effects caused by the chemicals.
“I’m young, I’d still like to have children and one of the symptoms is infertility,” said Zub. “They must know the chemicals that are in there.”
Meanwhile, as residents wait in frustration, Abitibi-Consolidated has announced it holds the Town of Fort Frances responsible for the break in the effluent line. Fort Frances, in turn, has announced it holds Moncrief Construction responsible.
Although the mill did an emergency shutdown because of the break, the line has since been repaired and Moncrief Construction has resumed work on the town’s water main.