A former GM plant in St. Catharines is leaking toxic chemicals

A former GM plant in St. Catharines is leaking toxic chemicals
October 26, 2022 The Narwhal

By Ashley Okwuosa, The Narwhal

Photography by Ramona Leitao

This story first ran on The Narwhal, a non-profit news organization that publishes in-depth stories about Canada’s natural world.

Susan Rosebrugh rose from sleep when she heard the sound of fire trucks, and turned to her partner in frustration. “Not again, Glenn,” she said. The couple has become accustomed to St. Catharines Fire Services showing up to deal with fires set by trespassers at a former General Motors plant on Ontario Street, which sits behind their home in Niagara Region. It used to be a machining plant churning out brake shoes for cars and trucks, until the automaker shuttered it in 2010.

In 2014, Bayshore Groups, a development company with offices in Canada and Budapest, bought the plant from General Motors for $12.5 million, announcing plans to transform it into a $250 million mixed-use development including retirement residences, commercial businesses and even a technical trade school. But in 2018, Bayshore stopped construction abruptly, leaving piles of debris and pools of machine oil littering the site. Since then, it’s been a source of contention for residents like Rosebrugh and her partner, Glenn Brooks.

Rosebrugh and Brooks have lived together in their home for a little over a decade — for a few years, Brooks had a small garden in their backyard on a small strip of ground next to the picket fence that borders the former plant. Last year, Brooks was diagnosed with breast cancer, a rarity for cisgender men. He was tested for genetic markers that could have increased his risk of the disease, but the tests didn’t show any. The couple couldn’t help but think of the chemicals leaking into the ground and water from the former plant, and asked their doctor if their proximity to it could have anything to do with his diagnosis. They say the doctor said it was a possibility, but that there was no way to prove it.

St. Catharines’ residents have long suspected carcinogenic chemicals were in the mess on the former auto plant site. A 2020 report from the Ontario ministry of the environment confirmed it. Two years later, they’re still waiting for it to be cleaned up.

And this summer, they learned that staff at the City of St. Catharines, the environment ministry and the Ministry of Labour were discussing the strong likelihood that such chemicals were leaking into the land and water as early as 2018. The information, which came via a freedom of information request made by a citizens group called the Coalition for a Better St. Catharines, has angered residents and re-inflamed a longstanding belief they have about their local government: that the politicians at city hall don’t care about them.

In August, Mayor Walter Sendzik told The Narwhal that the city wanted to wait for confirmation of toxic chemicals before informing residents, to avoid causing undue alarm. Sendzik, who has been mayor since 2014, also says the city is moving as quickly as it can to get the site remediated, but its power is limited because the former plant is private property.

Bayshore Groups announced plans for a $250 million mixed-use development, but stopped construction in 2018. St. Catharines has sued Bayshore over alleged infractions under the Building Code and Fire Code Act, and fined it $60,000 for building code and waste disposal violations.

He points out that in 2018, the city sued Bayshore over alleged infractions under the Building Code and Fire Code Act, which the company pleaded guilty to last year. This year, the city fined the company $60,000 for building code and waste disposal violations. “When the community doesn’t see the outcomes, they are like, ‘Well nothing’s being done.’ ” Sendzik says. “A lot of stuff is being done, but our hands are tied on a lot of these.”

The mayor refuses to even mention the company’s name, saying “They’re the reason for a lot of the frustrations that are being experienced by the entire community.” Bayshore did not respond to multiple emails from The Narwhal requesting comment.

Residents say they don’t expect the city to have all the answers, but want the mayor and council to take charge of the situation. “We’re concerned citizens. We look to our city to take leadership in these kinds of significant municipal crises,” Don Sawyer, a member of the coalition, says.

St. Catharines’ residents left worrying while city, province privately discuss presence of carcinogens

It’s no question that there were toxic chemicals on the site during General Motors’ tenure. John Pula, who once worked as a health and safety officer for the union at the former plant, tells The Narwhal “asbestos was pretty much everywhere” at the plant. He describes times when the powdery mineral would fall from the ceiling, coating the clothes of the workers.

Pula blames metal-working fluids and pesticides for making people ill. “I’d say 70 per cent of the plant population had some type of an irritation either in their throat, nose or right in their lungs,” he says.

Another dangerous material known to be on the site during the car-making years were polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been banned in Canada since 1977 and are described by Health Canada as a “probable human carcinogen … toxic to fish at low concentrations.” This May, the coalition received an answer to a freedom of information act request it filed more than two years ago with the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. In the many hundreds of pages of correspondence between the automaker and various government officials, there are status reports about PCB testing and storage dating back to 2000.

In 2014, Ontario’s environment ministry told General Motors that it had “decomissioned” the site as a PCB facility, but that such a status “does not address whether there might be other contaminants on the site …” The ministry said the the responsibility for ensuring the site was suitable for “a particular use” was up to interested buyers.

In 2014, the provincial government and General Motors discussed cleaning up the site. In a letter from that September obtained by the coalition, an environment ministry official told a General Motors engineer that the province had “decommissioned” the site as a PCB facility and removed it from the provincial PCB Inventory System, which “confirms that a reasonable assessment has been completed to verify that there is not any residual PCB contamination in buildings, structures and/or soils.”

However, the letter goes on, a “decommissioned” status doesn’t mean that the ministry had “done a comprehensive review of the property” and “does not address whether there might be other contaminants on the site as a result of past operations.” The responsibility for ensuring the site is suitable for “a particular use,” states the letter, is left up to interested buyers — which by fall was Bayshore.

Other documents released though freedom of information legislation show that residents complained vocally to government officials and Bayshore about their worries as early as 2015. In 2016, a resident complained to the environment ministry of massive waves of dust from the property invading the surrounding area.

“I’m sure this dust is extremely toxic,” said the resident. “Why aren’t there inspectors from the ministry of the environment on hand to monitor the soil and dust to see if there’s any health hazard to the surrounding community? What is your purpose?” the resident complained.

After Bayshore stopped construction abruptly in 2018, the company tried to sell the site in 2019. Along with questions about when and if Bayshore’s development would materialize, residents continued voicing worries about chemicals and potentially harmful debris that had been left out in the open, clearly visible from the street.

Even before Glenn Brooks was diagnosed with breast cancer, a rarity for cisgender men, his partner Susan Rosebrugh was protesting the condition of the site. General Motors told The Narwhal that its sale agreement with Bayshore Groups “required the new owners to meet environmental and other requirements.”

Even before Brooks’ 2021 diagnosis, Rosebrugh was protesting outside the site. Sometimes she was alone, using hand warmers to protect her from winter cold, as drivers honked in support. Other times, she was joined by members of the Coalition for a Better St. Catharines, a non-partisan organization that formed in 2019. Residents lobbied the city and provincial governments to do something about the mess on Ontario Street — to figure out just what it was and, more importantly, to clean it up. Rosebrugh made highlighter-green posters with letters in glitter calling out the government’s inaction, with one sign reading “This is our worst nightmare.”

In January 2020, Rosebrugh took her protest to city hall, alongside members from the coalition bearing a petition with over 2,000 signatures. She read a letter to Sendzik and members of council expressing disappointment with the inaction at the site. “I’m here tonight to voice my concerns and disappointment with the city or anyone’s lack of effort to clean up or deal with this huge eyesore and probably toxic waste that was left behind by Bayshore,” it read, in part.

Members of the Coalition for a Better St. Catharines, from left: Barb Scollick, Don Sawyer, and Dennis Edell. This May, the coalition received documents showing that provincial and city staff were discussing the potential presence of toxic chemicals on the site two years before residents were informed.

“That was the culmination of a lot of frustration that had arisen from us and other people trying to work with the city on planning the future of this property,” Sawyer says.

After that meeting, the city enlisted the help of Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks to conduct surface water and air monitoring surveys. It laid out an action plan to assuage residents, promising to mitigate “concerns related to environmental protection, trespassing and safety at the site in order to keep the city and neighbourhood clean and healthy.” The city retained a security company to avoid trespassing on the property and passed a waste bylaw, which prohibits the use of certain lands for disposal of waste, among other things.

While residents were comforted that the city was making an effort, they worried that the actions did not go far enough — after all, trespassers are still waking Brooks and Rosebrugh regularly.

And any goodwill between government and residents evaporated this spring when the coalition got its hands on the 1,700 pages of material released through freedom of information legislation. Those revealed that the city and the provincial environment and labour ministries all had knowledge of possible PCBs on the site as early as 2018.

In a newly-released email from July 2018, a former manager of inspections and bylaw enforcement in St. Catharines named William D. Brouwer asked provincial employees to visit the site, calling it a matter of “urgency.” He wrote that the city had discovered six to eight pits on the site that appeared to be contaminated with machine oil and PCBs that were possibly leaching into surrounding soil and water.

In 2020, the provincial environment ministry confirmed that chemicals implicated in increased cancer risk were present in storm sewers near the site after rain or snow, at levels exceeding Ontario’s water quality objectives.

Residents learned this summer that St. Catharines staff had informed the province of the potential of such chemicals being present a full two years earlier, in 2018.

Brouwer also noted that bituminous tar and “demolition debris,” which could contain asbestos — which Health Canada’s website notes can cause cancers including mesothelioma and lung cancer, as well as scarring of the lungs — were found uncovered on the site. Brouwer worried both were leaching into the surrounding soil and water table. In the email, Brouwer said he hoped to coordinate a time with an officer from the ministry to discuss the findings on the site.

“Normally we wouldn’t emphasize the urgency to attend, but I think in this case it is warranted,” Brouwer wrote. Sendzik’s office told The Narwhal that Brouwer no longer works for the city and directed further questions to Tami Kitay, St. Catharines Director of Planning and Building Services, who confirmed that the water body that Brouwer would have been referencing was Twelve Mile Creek.

Email replies to Brouwer from 2018 suggest provincial inspectors visited the site soon after, and took aerial photos with a drone several months later.

Though it did not provide specific dates, the environment ministry told The Narwhal that it has conducted inspections and monitoring surveys of the property and reviewed environmental assessment reports. It said that it did not identify off-site impacts “with the exception of PCBs in the municipal storm sewer,” which weren’t brought to residents’ attention until two years after Brouwer sent those emails to provincial staff.

The Narwhal also contacted Environment and Climate Change Canada, since federal regulations require the department be notified of an actual or likely release of PCBs to the environment. When asked if it was notified about possible release of PCBs at the St. Catharines site, the federal department directed The Narwhal to the province of Ontario.

In January 2020, Rosebrugh went to city hall, alongside members from the Coalition for a Better St. Catharines bearing a petition with over 2,000 signatures.

There, Rosebrugh read a letter expressing disappointment with the inaction at the site.

The private warnings from the city’s inspections manager contrast with what residents say they were told at the time. Sawyer and other members of the coalition say that St. Catharines previously dismissed their concerns or called them alarmist for suggesting the site was contaminated. “We put so much effort, so much time, into trying to confirm what they already knew,” he says.

Sendzik says the matter is more complex than it seems. According to the mayor, while demolition was ongoing, asbestos on the property was being handled in accordance with standards set by the environment ministry and the ministry of labour. Sendzik said this changed in 2018 when demolition stopped. He said the city reached out to the ministry for assistance at that point, since it could no longer access the site.

When asked why the city didn’t inform residents about its suspicions regarding PCBs, bituminous tar and asbestos in 2018, Sendzik says there was no point alarming residents before fully confirming the toxicity of the site. “I don’t think you go into a neighborhood and say ‘Things could possibly be happening,’ ” he says. “I think that would be an irresponsible thing to say to surrounding residents without any proof.”

St. Catharines’ residents left wondering who’s responsible

The indisputable proof came in December 2020, in a water and air monitoring report presented by Ontario’s environment ministry. The report was official confirmation that during rain and snow events throughout 2020, PCBs were present in the storm sewer at levels above provincial water quality objectives. The PCB levels were similar to those in water samples from 2003, when the auto plant was still in operation, and the report notes that the chemicals could have come from historic landfills upstream.

The report also found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the storm sewer after rain and snow fall events at levels that exceeded provincial objectives. According to the World Health Organization, exposure to PAHs results are associated with increased incidences of breast cancer, childhood cancers and lung cancers, as well as other lung and cardiovascular conditions.

The report also stated that various metals were found in a storm sewer outfall on the Bayshore property during a rain or snow fall event, in amounts exceeding provincial water quality objectives. According to Health Canada, a number pose potential health risks.

The view of the former General Motors site from where Susan Rosebrugh and Glenn Brooks live in St. Catharines.

For copper, effects range from diarrhea, abdominal pain and nausea in the short-term to long-term kidney or liver effects. Oral exposure to too much cadmium, according to the federal department, can have “adverse effects on kidneys and bones.” Another metal with levels over water quality standards was chromium, though the report was unclear as to what form: Health Canada says that one form, trivalent chromium, is largely benign, while hexavalent chromium can lead to polyps in the small intestine that can be a “precursor of tumour formation.”

The report also included the results of air quality testing, which found no presence of asbestos.

Despite the findings, the ministry stated in the report that the Niagara Region public health authority believed there was no increased risk of adverse health to residents living in the vicinity of the former General Motors plant and had not detected any unusual health outcomes in the vicinity. The ministry went on to say that based on its sampling and analysis, the water in the vicinity of the site “appears to be better in terms of harmful contaminants than is typically seen in urban areas” and the air quality “shows contaminants well below standards meant to protect health.”

The next year, the ministry released another report on surface water quality, indicating that a source of PCBs was traced back to a machine called an oil-grit separator on the east section of the site. In the report, which came out three years after city and ministry officials were aware of the possibility of PCBs on the site, the ministry wrote that it would work with Bayshore to stop PCBs from the property from entering Twelve Mile Creek and Lake Ontario, as that would contravene the Canada-Ontario agreement to reduce or eliminate the release of harmful pollutants to the Great Lakes basin.

Nearly another year later, in March 2022, Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini sent a letter to St. Catharines’ city clerk saying that Bayshore presented the ministry a work plan for addressing the source of PCBs — but that the timeline couldn’t be shared publicly.

In response to an August request about the cleanup timeline, the ministry told The Narwhal via email that “remediation projects such as these take time and often evolve as more information is available. The owner of the property is currently updating their plan with actions for the decommissioning and replacement of the existing stormwater system, and stopping contaminated stormwater from entering the storm sewer.”

The ministry says it is also conducting sample testing to “assess the quality of stormwater discharging from the site for any improvements in quality resulting from the work plan progress.” The results of the sampling have not been released, but the ministry says it is working to make the results available to the City of St. Catharines.

Health Canada told The Narwhal that it was not involved in the preparation of any reports on the former plant, but based on the data in the 2020 presentation from Ontario’s environment ministry, measured levels of contaminants are below maximum allowable concentrations in Health Canada’s drinking water quality guidelines.

Currently, Sendzik says that the mortgage holders on the property — not Bayshore — have engaged a contracting company to clean up contaminated materials on the surface of the site. He says about $2 million has been spent on remediation tactics since last December, including surface cleanup and removing liquid that had accumulated in pits on the property.

Responses from all levels of government have only inflamed residents’ beliefs that no one is taking the issue seriously. “Who’s responsible to protect the public on a derelict site?” says Dennis Van Meer, a member of the coalition and grievance chairperson of a local steelworkers union who is running for regional council in this fall’s election. “Is it your local government? Is it your regional government? Is it your provincial government? Is it your federal government? Or is it public health? They all want to point fingers at each other but all we want to know is who’s responsible?”

Councillor Karrie Porter, who represents the ward Rosebrugh and Brooks live in, says one major party that shouldn’t be forgotten when assigning blame is General Motors, the previous owner of the site Porter describes as “once the pride of our community.“

“I believe they should have cleaned it up,” says Porter, who was elected in October 2018 and is not running again this fall.  “If we don’t have the legislation that is in place to kind of force the cleanup by those responsible, I feel like there’s a moral obligation by GM to somehow come to the table. They’ve been silent for a decade.”

Mayor Sendzik says the automobile company still has ties to the site as it included a $2 million assurity when selling the site that whoever purchased it would have to clean it to grade. “It just means that the person who ever purchased it has an obligation to do that or GM will call in that $2 million obligation.”

General Motors told The Narwhal in a statement that when it sold the Ontario Street property in 2014, “the sale agreement required the new owners to meet environmental and other requirements.” The automaker has been a significant employer in the city for over a century, and still is: its statement continues on that “the current owners and mortgage holder continue to work with the city on plans to redevelop the site — which would benefit the entire community, including many of the people who work at GM’s St. Catharines Propulsion Plant.”

Bayshore did not respond to questions from The Narwhal about the environmental requirements made by General Motors in the sale agreement.

Glenn Brooks moved his vegetable plants from his yard into pots. He feels like the damage to his health is already done, though he is in better spirits after his doctor told him there is a very small chance of his cancer returning.

After Bayshore purchased the property, Brooks decided to move his growing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers into pots because of the demolition happening next door. But he feels that the damage to his health was already done. His cancer diagnosis took a toll on the couple. “It was the hardest time not knowing if he was going to be okay,” says Rosebrugh. Brooks’ treatment required surgery and radiation. He took three months off from his job driving a delivery van, which he’s done for 18 years. To help with finances, Rosebrugh set up a GoFundMe. “It was hard, but we managed,” Brooks says.

Now, Brooks is in better spirits, especially after being told by his doctor there is a less than five per cent chance of the cancer returning. But knowing that the city had evidence that there were chemicals on the site for years is something he won’t easily get over.

“It’s like criminal that they had this information that affected the area residents and did absolutely nothing to protect the people or even notify the people that they’re living next to a ticking time bomb,” he says.

Updated on Sept. 21, 2022, at 2:19 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include that Dennis van Meer is a candidate in the municipal election.

Updated on Sept. 23, 2022, at 8:57 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to correct that provincial staff emailed St. Catharines staff about drone photos of the site in 2018, not 2014.

Updated, on Oct. 11, 2022 at 1:49 p.m. ET: This story was revised with a correction, removing a sentence that incorrectly stated that St. Catharines Standard had reported that a cleanup on the former General Motors site cost $400 million. In fact, the Standard reported that $400 million was spent on cleaning up a former coal site in Nova Scotia.

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Featured image: Glenn Brooks in his St. Catharines yard, which backs onto a former General Motors plant. In 2014, the automaker sold the site to Bayshore Groups, which promised a mixed-use development. Instead, the site was abandoned. In 2020, residents learned that high levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals were present in sewers near the site after rain and snow.


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