Updated Sun. Aug. 19 2007 1:43 PM ET
PORT HOPE, Ont. — A planned cleanup of low-level radioactive waste near the shores of Lake Ontario — the largest project of its kind in North America — remains years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, leaving some residents of a picturesque southeastern Ontario town both frightened and angry.
The federal government committed in 2001 to remove more than 2 million cubic metres of uranium-and radium-contaminated soil from beneath neighbourhood houses, roads, schoolyards, farm fields and the bottom of the local harbour.
However, documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Freedom of Information Act cast doubt on how soon the project will be completed, and at what cost.
The National Resources Canada report says “a high degree of public scrutiny and public participation” has been the key factor in delaying the planning-based phase of the project by three years and driving up costs by about $5 to $7 million.
The second phase of the operation will see the contaminated soil — enough to fill 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools — excavated and moved to a different location before being contained in thick layers of clay, rock and soil.
In 1999, the cost of the second phase was estimated at $170 million – a price tag that’s expected to soar as a result of changes in the “amount of low-level waste, the number of facilities, their location and design,” as well as political stresses, the report says.
“When this all finally comes down, the taxpayers of Canada will be on the hook for a lot more money than they realize,” said John Miller, founder of the local group Families Against Radiation Exposure.
A similar cleanup of nuclear waste in the U.S. ran at a cost of $1,000 per cubic metre of soil, Miller said — a rate that would push cleanup costs in Port Hope to more than $2 billion.
The Port Hope Area Initiative was designed to manage radioactive waste left in the city’s soil after decades of dangerously lax standards, said Glenn Case, manager of projects for the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office.
The soil is classified as low-level historic waste because it was contaminated at a time when radiation was not seen as severe a threat to human and animal health, and “the original producers cannot reasonably be held responsible.”
Port Hope’s Cameco uranium refinery, once home to a Crown corporation called Eldorado Nuclear Ltd., developed material used in the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, said prominent Canadian historian Robert Bothwell.
In 2001, the federal government signed an agreement with Canadian municipalities to take responsibility for the waste, and established an office to manage its removal.
According to a newsletter from that year, “another 5 to 7 years (would) be required to construct the facilities, consolidate the wastes, clean up and restore waste locations,” establishing a deadline of 2008 that is no longer realistic.
“This process is open, transparent and traceable,” said Case. Involving the public may be expensive and time-consuming, but for the project to be successful, it needs to be community-driven, he said.
“Going through the process, we have consulted members of the public extensively on the various phases of the project, throughout all aspects.”
Not so, said Miller.
“They absolutely have not informed us adequately,” he said, calling it outrageous that the delays and cost overruns are being blamed on public consultation. No one knows for sure what impact the waste may be having on residents, he added.
“There’s never been any health studies of residents to find out what the health effects of 60, 70 years of low-level radiation are.”
Toxic elements currently found in the area include above-average levels of the radioactive metals radium and uranium, as well as arsenic, radon and lead.
“Our big concern is all the dust,” Miller said. “It’s buried now and they’re going to dig it up and it’ll be in the air.”
“They should have the facts. Instead, the burden seems to be on citizen’s groups to prove there’s a danger. We’re not equipped to do that.”
Since 2002, radiation has ranked at or near the top of the list of concerns for locals, based on an annual public opinion survey prepared for the waste management office.
“The people who have asked good questions have been ridiculed and I think that a good question deserves a good answer,” one respondent to the survey wrote.
“And I haven’t heard any good answer.”
Judy Herod, the office’s communications officer, insisted Miller’s concerns are unfounded. The project has a great many supporters among local residents, she added.
“There’s not going to be a disaster,” Herod said. “People are going to live here. This is up-front and personal, the way we remediate waste in this town.”
Project spokeswoman Sue Stickley said critics of the project remain in the minority.
“We have this ongoing relationship with property owners, hundreds of them, and we need to do it right,” Stickley said.
“We need to take our time to develop a program that suits their needs and the needs of future generations.”