Rideau Canal Toxins

While carrying out repairs to the stone walls along a stretch of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa, toxins were disturbed at the bottom of the canal that sat dormant for the past 50 years.

(Transcript of Lawrence Gunther’s bi-weekly 12-minute segment on Live from Studio 5 broadcast over AMI TV and Audio across Canada)

Q. Welcome back Lawrence, how did the toxins get into the Canal in the first place?

A. So much of our industrial activity depends on water for many purposes. Rivers lakes and canals serve as efficient ways to transport raw materials and finished goods. In past they often provided the power needed to power machinery, first by water wheels that turned shafts and belts, and then later for producing hydroelectricity. Water is used in the manufacturing process directly, and finally, water also serves as a convenient space to deposit waste. You know, out of sight is out of mind…. We now know that almost without exception, where there once stood industry along shores, there now exists toxic waste.

Q. How dangerous are the toxins in the canal?

A. Any one of these toxins found, lead, Cadmium, etc. have the ability to cause serious health issues if ingested or touched. No one is swimming in the Canal, but people do fall in. A recent canoe rental business may want to think twice.
A. In the meantime, samples of the bottom along a 6km stretch of the 200 km long canal will be collected and tested, and fish will be assessed to determine if they are safe to eat. Yes, there are many different species of fish that live in the canal – even downtown Ottawa. The aquatic life most certainly makes contact with these toxins, and it eventually biomasses in larger fish that may someday be eaten by other animals, birds or even humans.

Q. Isn’t the Rideau Canal a UNESCO World Heritage Site? It’s also right in the middle of Ottawa; surely politicians find this an embarrassment?

A. As embarrassing as it may be, especially in light of Canada’s 150th celebrations, it will be watched by many groups across Canada who know of similar toxic sites in their own rivers and lakes. For example, we know that only about half of the toxic sites in the great lakes, where millions get their drinking water, have been cleaned up so far. Whatever the government decides to do to clean the Canal, other Canadians will expect the same level of care and treatment for their contaminated bodies of water.
A. Look how hard it was for the first nations people in Grassy Narrows located in Western Ontario to get the government to address the mercury contamination there that’s impacting the health of their people. This mercury entered the river from a paper mill that stopped operating years ago, but its toxic waste remains.

Q. Aren’t companies and their owners responsible for cleaning up behind them?

A. Corporations have legal status in Canada as actual entities. If a corporation goes bankrupt or has no money, it is impossible to get it to pay. Owners of corporations are not responsible for the actions of the corporations that they have invested in, only those who work for the corporations and only if they have broken the law. It’s like a parent, once their child reaches 18; the parents are no longer responsible for the actions of their child.

Q. Have we learned from the past and now prohibit corporations from dumping toxins into the environment?

A. The federal government continues to issue permits to mining companies to turn specific lakes into toxic holding ponds for their tailings. Often, highly toxic chemicals are used to dissolve rock to extract desired metals such as gold and silver. Once these chemic chemicals have been used and are no longer sufficiently concentrated to do the job, they have to be disposed of, and nothing is more convenient than a nearby lake. Over 80 such permits have been issued to mines in Canada. Other tailing ponds such as those used in the extraction of Bitumen from sand in Alberta are known to be leaking into the environment such as the water table underground and the Athabasca River. So to answer your question, no, we have not stopped industry from dumping toxins into the environment.

Q. How can listeners get involved to make sure the environment where they live does not become a dump site for toxins? 

A. Over 100 countries around the world have adopted an environmental bill of rights. It means their environments have the right not to be destroyed. Canada has not adopted such an initiative. The Blue Dot initiative launched by the David Suzuki Foundation seeks to have Canadian municipalities adopt environmental bills of rights and is the subject of my up-coming Blue Fish Radio episode.