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Council passes $20M agreement with DND to clean up leaked chemicals from airport

A long-standing drinking water advisory for Lees Creek remains in place, as does a consumption advisory for fish from the creek
20191216 lee's creek turl 1
PFAS leaked into Lees Creek from firefighter training at Jack Garland Airport. Jeff Turl/BayToday.

With North Bay City Council's approval Tuesday evening, the City of North Bay and the Department of National Defence (DND) officially have an agreement in place related to the remediation of per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) at Jack Garland Airport.

The $20-million contribution agreement stipulates DND will provide up to $19.4 million over six years toward the airport PFAS cleanup, including study, removal and remediation. The City will fund the balance of up to $600,000 over the same period. Additionally, the agreement allows the City to submit a second proposal in the future for additional costs if required.

Councillors Mark King and Scott Robertson have both expressed dismay that the City was on the hook for any portion of the cost at all.

Coun. Chris Mayne termed it "a huge agreement for the City of North Bay to reach with the Department of National Defence," adding the City's share is about three per cent. "We don't think this will be the full cost of the remediation work that needs to be done over the years to provide safety to our drinking water in Trout Lake but this is a significant start and gets us moving as early as we can. Ultimately, we think the cost could be as high as $38 million for the work that needs to be done."

Mayne, who is the chair of council's infrastructure and operations committee, added, "As councillors, we are personally liable for anything involved with water protection in our community. This is one of the most significant projects we'll be undertaking in our careers as council members."

Since 2017, the City has been working collaboratively with DND, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), and the Health Unit to support ongoing testing and monitoring for PFAS in Trout Lake, Lees Creek and residential wells in close proximity to the North Bay Jack Garland Airport lands. The municipality's source of drinking water is drawn just hundreds of metres from where Lees Creek empties into Trout Lake. PFAS have been detected in the soil, surface water, groundwater, and fish on the 22 Wing/CFB North Bay property, and nearby downstream locations.

See related: Homeowners on bottled water as testing continues

See also: Don't drink water or eat fish from this city waterway

And: Federal funding sought to clean up airport and Lee's Creek

In order to expedite the remediation process, the City also completed its own environmental investigations into PFAS soil and groundwater contamination on the airport site.

“The City has been working proactively toward this agreement for the past two years. It is a major step that will advance PFAS cleanup efforts at the airport,” said Mayor Al McDonald. “The health and safety of our residents is our highest priority and we will continue to do all we can to move this remediation work ahead as quickly as possible.”

The level of PFAS detected in the City’s municipal water supply remains significantly lower than drinking water screening values set out by Health Canada and the interim guidance level provided by the MECP. A long-standing drinking water advisory for Lees Creek remains in place as well as a fish consumption advisory for fish from the creek issued by the MECP.

PFAS are manmade substances found in many consumer and industrial products, including firefighting foam. Past use of the airport lands for firefighter training between the early 1970s and mid-1990s has been identified as the main source of PFAS on the airport property. Although firefighting foam containing PFAS was an accepted practice and was in accordance with regulations at that time, its use is very limited today. According to Health Canada, adverse environmental and health effects have been observed and they have been shown to pose a risk to the Canadian environment.

Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence said, “Our government has been working hard with our partners to leave a better environment to future generations. Though our work to solve the PFAS issue in North Bay is complex and ongoing, we remain committed to addressing this issue with the seriousness it deserves. By working together with our partners, including the City of North Bay, we are making real progress.” 

The City says immediate next steps will include issuing a request for proposals for engineering consulting services to aid the City in the environmental remediation process for the airport lands. The scope of work will include environmental assessment, site-specific risk assessment, development of remediation objectives, treatability studies and remediation design. Once a design is complete, the works will be tendered and remediation can begin.

King called the agreement "a huge move forward. It's taken a long time to make it happen. Obviously, it had an impact on industrial development at the airport," and also acknowledged the individuals impacted by the PFAS infiltrating Lees Creek, saying he hoped they were able to be provided with clean drinking water as a result.