Canadian Consulting Engineer

Coal tar said to be contaminating Kingston building

A government building in downtown Kingston, Ontario is giving serious health problems to its workers according to u...

November 29, 2002   Canadian Consulting Engineer

A government building in downtown Kingston, Ontario is giving serious health problems to its workers according to union workers. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union commissioned an engineers’ report by local firm GeoCor Engineering, who found evidence of coal tar pooling below the building, suggesting that harmful contaminants are finding their way up into the indoor air.
Also known as the Macdonald-Cartier building, the structure sits on a former railyard site near the waterfront on the corner of Place D’Armes and Wellington Streets. It is constructed on bedrock and five metres of waste landfill. Ironically the “sick” building is home to the Ontario Health Insurance Plan government workers. They have been complaining of various illnesses, and blame the building for an unusually high rate of cancer. MPP John Gerretsen was calling for a comprehensive health study to be done on the occupants of the building and local residents.
The GeoCor report for OPSEU noted that benzene, tolulene and/or xylene were inside the building. Coal tar elements like naphthalene and fluorine were not tested for.
The provincial government immediately ordered air quality tests and soil tests, but the union remained sceptical, saying there should be independent engineers’ reports. The union said previous government-sponsored engineers’ reports were too limited in scope and the results were withheld from employees.
The problem with the OHIP building is the latest manifestation of a thorny problem for downtown Kingston. The building sits just across from an area once used as a coal gasification plant and known to be contaminated. In 1996 Ottawa’s Intera Engineering of Ottawa (then Duke Engineering) studied a two-block radius bordered by King Street, Ontario Street, Queen Street and Place d’Armes, and found coal tar “almost everywhere it drilled.” Contaminant levels were up to 200 times above the criteria. The site was used from the end of the 19th century to produce fuel from coal for gas lamps. Later in the 20th century it became the site for a bus maintenance garage by the city’s transit department. Engineers have found that the coal tar is oozing horizontally between rock fissures in the ground.
In 1999, the city carried on a clean up in 1999 that removed 217,000 litres of oil water and 300,000 litres of coal tar. Over 16 truckloads of other solid contaminated waste were taken to Sarnia, Bowmanville and Nepanee.
Just as the situation in Kingston flared up again, the Ontario government brought in new provisions to make the development of brownfield sites more amenable to developers. On November 14 they brought into force two regulations under the Brownfield Statute Law Amendment Act, 2001 which among other provisions will give municipalities and “secured creditors” a five-year window to clean up and redevelop industrial property without worrying about liability for past contamination.


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