Feds unloading toxic real estate?



Abandoned military buildings in the Northwest Territories known to contain old PCB-laden paint have been put up for auction by the Department of National Defence.

In so doing, the defence department may be in breach of federal environmental regulations for the safe storage and disposal of hazardous waste.

Eleven former Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line sites scattered across the Arctic were put up for sale by the Public Works Department two weeks ago.

Recent environmental studies show many of the buildings on the sites are covered in paint containing high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

“Basically we found that in areas where people were interested in preventing fire, you would often have PCBs added to paint,” said Ken Reimer, a researcher with the Royal Roads Military College.

PCBs are a carcinogenic substance and a potential environmental hazard. Handling and disposal of materials containing PCB concentrations higher than 50 parts per million is strictly governed by regulations in Canada’s Environmental Act.

Reimer’s Environmental Sciences Group has been conducting extensive environmental tests of all DEW Line sites slated for clean-up since 1989. It was his group that confirmed the presence of the PCBs.

That discovery has brought clean-up of the buildings to a halt.

In addition to laying out in minute detail how PCBs must be stored, Canada’s chlorobiphenyls regulations prohibit the sale of material containing PCBs.

Ed Collins, the head of environmental engineering at Environment Canada’s office in Yellowknife, confirmed that Department of National Defence officials have requested exemptions from the legislation.

“We said, well, that’s not an option, because we can’t voluntarily break the law,” Collins said. “Unless the legislation is changed, they’re going to have to live up to what the existing legislation says.”

Removal too costly

One option for compliance with the legislation would require demolition of the buildings and their removal to an appropriate facility for hazardous waste. The nearest site is in Alberta.

“Now, National Defence’s position is that it’s physically impossible, that the DEW Line clean-up is dead in the water if they have to go to those costs,” said Bruce Gillies, environmental manager with Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the organization charged with administering the Inuit land-claim agreement.

“But I guess that, by their actions, we can see that they’re not just sitting waiting for legislation to change.”

Public Works has advertised for bids on 11 former DEW line sites in local newspapers.

No alternative method for decontaminating structures coated in PCB paint currently exists. Rob Martel, project manager for the DEW Line clean-up, said the Department of National Defence is working with Environment Canada to come up with ways to amend the law.

“The current plan was to landfill all material that was non-hazardous,” said Martel. “Now with this PCB paint, our preferred method would be a secure landfill on site.”

Up until the mid-1970s, PCBs were commonly added to paint because they enhanced resilience and increased resistance to fire. PCB paint was also used extensively as a marine coating on concrete surfaces, such as swimming pools.

The existence of PCBs in building materials across the country is thought to be widespread and not just concentrated in the North. The sale of the structures doesn’t break any laws, Martel said, since the PCBs form an integral part of the buildings in question.

“We intend to do full disclosure of the contents,” Martel said.

“I would point out that we’re not looking for an exception to the law. We believe the law perhaps doesn’t consider this fact. It’s a problem for all Canadians demolishing houses that were painted before the mid-1960s.”

Use of PCBs in Canada was banned in 1979.

Liability transfer

In the meantime, buyers of old DEW Line sites beware. Given full disclosure of the existence of the PCBs, new owners will likely assume full liablility for any potential environmental threat.

“We’ve been working with Environment Canada and Health Canada on this issue, and we do know if it’s in an intact state, the PCBs do not come out of the paint and they don’t leech out into the environment,” Reimer said.

In other words, because they are locked in, the PCBs are considered inert – unless the building burns or someone eats the paint.

Reimer advised anyone thinking of taking the federal government up on its offer to give careful thought to any remodeling.

“The main thing is you would want to avoid a fire because the low temperature burning would release PCBs,” Reimer said. “And also, PCBs at low temperatures will convert to dioxins.”

Although the environmental assessments were thought to be complete when clean-up crews began working last year, Reimer says his team overlooked the fact that U.S. military personnel at the sites in the 1950s and 1960s would have likely used PCB paint.

They returned to the sites last summer to examine the extent of the PCB paint coverage. When contacted last week, Reimer said he was unaware that Public Works had proceeded with the sale of the buildings.

“I believe that what’s happened is we’ve got a wheel that’s turning independent of other activities,” Reimer said. “In fact Public Works was asked to (sell the sites) some time ago.”

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