BY LINDA MONDOUX
A massive low-level radioactive waste cleanup project is about to unfold in the Lake Ontario community of Port Hope, setting the stage for the transformation of a prime chunk of waterfront into the showcase that residents of the pretty heritage town deserve.
The cleanup will also bring the “peace of mind” that has been sought by many in Port Hope since the 1970s, when low-level radioactive waste was first discovered there.
“Although numerous studies have demonstrated that Port Hope has always been a healthy place to live, work and play, the cleanup will give peace of mind, once and for all, to residents and visitors,” Port Hope Mayor Linda Thompson is oft-quoted as saying.
Called the Port Hope Area Initiative, it is actually two projects in one, with the largest to be carried out in urban Port Hope, home to Cameco Corporation, a nuclear fuel conversion facility that inherited historic radium and uranium waste from the former Crown corporation Eldorado and its private sector predecessors when it purchased the lakefront facility from the Canadian government in 1988. The other project is in nearby Port Granby, 13 kilometres to the west in east Clarington, where historic waste was also disposed.
In Port Hope, thousands of truckloads of low-level radioactive and industrial waste will be hauled from more than a dozen large-scale sites and hundreds of residential properties in urban Port Hope to a new long-term waste management facility. Excavated areas will be restored with clean fill, ready for new life.
“We will be the cleanest community in North America,” Port Hope Councillor David Turck tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com about the end result of the $1.28-billion undertaking, which will be carried out over 10 years as Phase 2 of the Port Hope Area Initiative.
In all, about 1.2 million cubic metres of historic low-level radioactive waste and contaminated soil at industrial sites, the harbour, backyards and other locations in Port Hope — including 455,000 cubic metres of waste located at the existing closed Welcome waste management centre — will be placed in a new engineered above-ground mound, which will then be capped off and sealed forever. The mound, along with storm and ground water collection and treatment systems, will be built on the existing Welcome waste management site south of Highway 401 and west of Bauch Road and an adjacent auto recycling yard.
Once closed, the 55-hectare waste management site will be transformed into a natural area for recreation and education based on environment-first principles. The town has plans for a science/heritage centre, trails, gardens and green space. A lookout on the surface of the mound, where residents and visitors can gather to enjoy vistas of nearby professional soccer fields, the town’s historic downtown and Lake Ontario beyond, is also envisioned.
'This will be a landmark in Port Hope'
The Port Hope Area Initiative is being co-ordinated with the cleanup and redevelopment of Cameco’s sprawling Lake Ontario property and the town’s waterfront master plan, whose major components include improved boating and docking facilities at the harbour; possible new marina at the east beach; redevelopment of the centre pier — which is now used by Cameco to warehouse products and waste — as a market-type gathering place, museum or restaurant; fishing pier; playgrounds; trails connecting the lakeshore to the downtown; and redevelopment of Mill Street and the green ribbon along the Ganaraska River that flows through the core.
Cameco plans to clean up, modernize and improve the appearance of its conversion facility on the north shore of Lake Ontario by tearing down the majority of 30 old buildings and removing contaminated soil; constructing new modern buildings and centralizing its storage out of sight; vacating the centre pier; and creating a green ribbon around the perimeter of its property.
“We are finally seeing the vision coming forward for the waterfront,” Thompson, the town’s mayor, tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “The pinnacle is to be able to do the work at the waterfront that will allow you to walk from one end of the beach to the other, with connections to the downtown.”
If all goes according to plan, Port Hope’s waterfront, in just a little more than a decade from now, will become the jewel it was always meant to be. Residents will finally be able to boast that their Lake Ontario waterfront — like that of neighbouring Cobourg — is an attractive people place. No more industrial eyesore. No more pollution concerns.
As part of the Lake Ontario waterfront redevelopment, the town is continuing efforts to create passive parkland, with walking trails and benches for rest and reflection, along both sides of the Ganaraska River. The river, renowned for the salmon and trout that spawn there, empties into Lake Ontario at the harbour, just east of the Cameco conversion site. In future, the river trails will emerge at a revitalized lakefront where public access both east and west are encouraged. “This will be a landmark in Port Hope,” the mayor says.
Port Hope, located 100 kilometres east of downtown Toronto, is already celebrated for its award-winning 19th-century heritage downtown, which is home to galleries, antique shops, fine dining and professional theatre, all just steps to the scenic Ganaraska, a favourite for fly fishing. Redevelopment plans for the Cameco property and the harbour area are designed to attract new residents and businesses to Port Hope by adding that extra bit of cachet to the town’s existing strengths — filmmakers have already discovered the community’s historic charms, choosing Port Hope for location shoots for Anne of Green Gables
, Happy Town
and other films and TV shows.
“Port Hope will be the sparkle in everyone’s eyes,” says Turck, who is the councillor for Ward 1, where the bulk of the historic low-level radioactive waste is located.
Health scare stories batter image
Local officials hope that capping of the mound will close the final chapter in what has been a story of ups and downs for Port Hope, a town of 16,214 residents bruised by media scrutiny that has resulted in many a sensational headline over the years, including this one in the Toronto Star
in November 2010: “Warning: Port Hope a toxic time bomb; The only solution? Move.” That story quoted anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, who claimed that cleaning up the historic low-level radioactive waste poses a “life or death” threat and cannot be done safely.
There is no denying that the cleanup, the largest in Canadian history, is a massive undertaking that will disturb decades of low-level radioactive waste — including 150,000 cubic metres of decommissioning waste from the Cameco conversion site. The scope of the cleanup, and the fact it is being co-ordinated with the Cameco redevelopment, which in turn is being co-ordinated with the town’s waterfront master plan, requires the precision of a military campaign.
As patient Port Hope residents are all too aware, the battle plan wasn’t drawn up overnight. In fact, it took from the 1970s, when low-level radioactive waste was first discovered in Port Hope, to 2001 just to come up with an acceptable solution to manage the waste. Then another 10 years to draw up the plans and wait for implementing funding.
Though the largest, this is not the first cleanup in Port Hope, where fill contaminated with low-level radioactive material from the radium and uranium refining process at Eldorado made its way into parks, backyards, fields and industrial sites as far back as the 1930s. This type of waste material wasn’t considered a health issue until the 1970s, when an elementary school in Port Hope was found to have elevated levels of radon.
The Atomic Energy Control Board, prompted by calls for a cleanup when testing on other properties also revealed slightly elevated levels of natural radioactive materials, ordered more than 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil removed and transferred to Chalk River Laboratories from 1976-1981.
After the cleanup, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Office was established to manage historic waste in Port Hope and across Canada. From 1988 to 1996, the federal government tried, but failed, to find an Ontario municipality willing to host a long-term management facility for low-level radioactive waste.
Then, in 1997, Hope Township, now part of Port Hope, initiated a community proposal to construct a long-term waste management facility at the Welcome site, which stored waste from Eldorado’s former uranium refining operations in Port Hope until the waste centre was closed in 1955. A year later, Port Hope and Clarington developed their own proposals, with the federal government reaching a draft agreement with all three municipalities in 2000; the final agreement was signed in 2001 and became known as the Port Hope Area Initiative. The federal budget for the cleanup was initially set at $260 million.
Port Hope declared a healthy community
It’s been a long, and at times frustrating, decade since the initiative was launched. With the decision made that long-term waste management facilities would be built in Port Hope and Clarington, a plan was needed on how these facilities would be designed to ensure proper management and safety in perpetuity, and how the low-level radioactive waste material would be removed and safely transported to the sites. Much preparation work would be needed.
Since the initiative overseen by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited was launched in 2001, the Port Hope project has been the subject of rigorous scientific and engineering studies. So vigorous are the standards that the price tag for the dual initiative has jumped to $1.28 billion, almost five times the original budget. A licence to move ahead with the Port Hope project was granted by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission after an environmental assessment concluded the job would “not result in any significant adverse effects, subject to mitigation measures being put in place.”
Many of the areas requiring excavation are located along the harbour wall where the groundwater is only 1.5 metres from surface, with some soil requiring excavation located beneath the groundwater table. “Given the proximity of these areas to the harbour wall and its wooden crib supports, controlling groundwater infiltration into the excavations will present a challenge,” Cameco says in a report outlining the nature of the work on its property and how it will get the job done safely.
According to Environment Canada, approximately 90,000 cubic metres of sediments in the turning basin and west slip areas of Port Hope harbour are contaminated with uranium and thorium series radionuclides, heavy metals and PCBs, the result of historic discharges from the former Eldorado refinery. Once that is cleaned up, the town, which has been granted ownership of the federal harbour, including the centre pier leased by Cameco, could develop a dock area with up to 150 boat slips over time. “The cleanup in the harbour area will likely be the longest,” Turck tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “The silt has to be dredged down to the bedrock.”
The natural environment, along with air quality, will be continuously monitored during the cleanup to ensure worker and public safety and to minimize disruption. Special roads and transportation routes have been planned to keep traffic, noise and dust away from as many homes and businesses as possible.
'That is our theme: doing the job properly'
Mark Giles, communications manager for the Port Hope Area Initiative Management Office, says construction of the water treatment plant will begin in 2012 in preparation for the building of the mound and waste excavation at the new long-term waste facility. “It will be at least 2014 before we are moving any waste,” he told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
The task will be carried out in two parts over several years: divided into major and small-scale sites, the latter to include about 400 residential properties. “Designated routes will be used to minimize the impact on the community,” Giles says. “That is our theme: doing the job properly.”
Port Hope, perhaps the most monitored community in Canada, is healthy and everyone wants to keep it that way during and after the cleanup.
Nearly every property in Ward 1 in urban Port Hope has been monitored for radon and radioactive contamination since the 1970s, with procedures in place for renovation work that might disturb known contaminated areas. According to the town’s website, the 40-plus studies carried out over more than 50 years have concluded that the background radiation level in a resident living in Port Hope is not measurably different than the exposure found in a resident of other southern Ontario communities. What’s not so well-known, it says, is that everyone, through daily activities, is exposed to radiation from natural sources like the air we breathe and the food we eat, and from man-made sources like cellphones and X-rays.
Turck, who is also a real estate agent along with his councillor duties, is excited to see the project enter the implementation phase, which he views as good news for Port Hope.
“As a long-time resident and a real estate agent, the $1.28 billion committed by the federal government is going to create a lot of jobs in this region, both directly and in spin-off work,” Turck tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “This is a 10-year proposition. We’re hoping that we will then be able to sell homes to the workers who will be settling into the region.”
A new brand for Port Hope
While the work created by the cleanup is good for the town’s economy, town officials are also preparing for a possible downside to the initiative: As contaminated sites are excavated all over Port Hope and trucks begin hauling the soil to the new waste management centre, property values of homes near the action are expected to suffer in the short term, and visitors may not be as eager to drop in for an afternoon of shopping if they happen to chance upon another one of those sensational health scare stories that have some residents wondering why council would sanction the long, drawn-out cleanup when the waste has apparently not affected the health of the local population, including those who worked at the old Eldorado plant for many years and are still alive to tell the tale.
Citing the “stigma” attached to the issue of low-level radioactive waste and the modern-day nuclear industry presence in Port Hope, council in mid-March agreed to hire the Toronto-based Weave Communications to rebrand the town. “In each instance, our community is subjected to negative impact on tourism, retail, business, real estate, and investment,” a staff report to council says. “Construction and remediation activities will continue to make Port Hope an easily accessible anti-nuclear target.”
Thompson, who represents the town as a member of the non-profit Canadian Association of Nuclear Host Communities, says the Port Hope Area Initiative is recognized internationally as “a benchmark” in waste cleanup, with high marks for the community-driven project's emphasis on public consultation. Unfortunately, closer to home, Port Hope is not always viewed in a favourable light, often receiving more bad press than communities with nuclear power plants in their backyards.
“New residents have moved to the area because they recognize Port Hope as the jewel that it is. They are passionate about the community,” the mayor says. “There are others who fly by and use Port Hope as a beachhead for misinformation. The reality is that Port Hope is a safe community.”
The $102,830 contract for an image makeover includes a brand strategy and graphics that will be used for town communications and by businesses to “reflect and communicate a positive image of our community, capturing the values and attributes that make Port Hope unique and desirable to potential visitors, new residents and business investment.”
“We have been stigmatized,” Turck admits. “We are preparing for the trucks moving. We see it as an educational tool, a way to open eyes. We want to let people know that we live just as long as you do in southern Ontario. We have longevity here.”
Watch for the new positive Port Hope messaging — maybe even a separate “good news” website — to start popping up in late summer.
Meanwhile, construction on several new residential developments continues as Port Hope developers set the groundwork for a brighter future. And over at the Rivers Edge Condominiums, which has now been completed on the banks of the Ganaraska River on Mill Street downtown, new residents are moving in. “Half the units are sold, with most people coming to Port Hope from out of town,” Wayne Wilson, a real estate agent with Morcap Corporation, the company representing Rivers Edge developer Urban Corp. of Toronto, says from the sales office in Port Hope. “It’s looking good.”
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — March 2012