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Port Hope nuclear contamination clean-up begins in earnest

It has been a long, messy and winding road from the 1933 opening of the Eldorado Gold Mine radium refinery in Port Hope on Lake Ontario to the current clean-up of low-level radioactive waste scattered throughout the town's ravines, yards and...


Street in picturesque Port Hope, southern Ontario.
Street in picturesque Port Hope, southern Ontario.

It has been a long, messy and winding road from the 1933 opening of the Eldorado Gold Mine radium refinery in Port Hope on Lake Ontario to the current clean-up of low-level radioactive waste scattered throughout the town’s ravines, yards and stored in waste facilities just north of the town and in a nearby municipality.

Combined with a lack of knowledge about the long-term health and environmental effects of radioactive material was the fact that for the first decade of the refinery’s operation, uranium was a waste product piled outside the facility. The resulting contamination of the town 110 kilometres east of Toronto was serious and widespread, as for many years people used waste from the factory as fill in their yards and gardens. Further contamination spread due to spillage from transportation and residue leakage from storage areas. As summarized in recent government background information: “The historic low-level radioactive waste and contaminated soil, located at various sites in … Port Hope, are a consequence of past practices involving the refining of radium and uranium by a former federal Crown Corporation, Eldorado Nuclear Limited, and its private sector predecessors. These waste materials contain radium-226, uranium, arsenic and other contaminants resulting from the refining process.”

The Government of Canada took over the company in 1944 after the shift from radium to uranium refining began. Radium refining ceased in 1954.

Over $1.28 billion in funding

The federal government has committed to providing $1.28 billion in funding over 10 years to complete the Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI), which includes the Port Hope Project as well as clean-up of 450,000 cubic metres of contaminated material at the Port Granby Waste Management Facility in the adjacent municipality of Clarington.

With the delivery in April of four ROCHEM reverse osmosis units for a new $22-million wastewater treatment plant in the community of Welcome, work on the low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) remediation project in Port Hope began in earnest. In cooperation with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, MMM is carrying out the final detailed design for a new long-term waste-management facility, the remediation of 1.22 million cubic metres of historic LLRW contaminated sites, and the preparation of tender documents. MMM has been involved in the PHAI since 2001.

The first of five campaigns of radiological surveys of properties in Port Hope to delineate contamination at approximately 450 sites is almost complete, and radon monitoring (the first step in each survey, which takes about six months) will be completed for another 1,200 properties this summer. These sites will then be ready for the remainder of the testing: interior and exterior gamma readings and borehole drilling.

“There have been very few refusals to participate” (among the affected property owners contacted so far), says Judy Herod, PHAI’s stakeholder and communications manager. She explains that if people do refuse and there is historical evidence of contamination, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission will ensure that those properties are tested. But 90 per cent of the 5,000 properties being tested are expected to meet safety criteria, and therefore will not require any remediation, Herod adds.

Construction of the Welcome wastewater treatment plant should be completed in two years: the plant has to be operational to treat all surface and ground water during construction of the new long-term waste-management facility. The ROCHEM system, which uses chemical precipitation followed by reverse osmosis, was tested on wastewater from the current facility to ensure that it could effectively remove the radioactive and other contaminants found in the leachate. Residue from the reverse osmosis membrane is dehydrated, placed in large tote bags, and will be returned to the mound; treated water is released into Lake Ontario.

Port Granby Project

The Port Granby Project involves the transfer of approximately 450,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste from the existing Port Granby site to a new long-term waste management facility and wastewater treatment plant being constructed on a 50-hectare site 700 metres north of the lakeshore.

AECOM Canada was retained to complete the detailed design of the waste-management facility, design supporting infrastructure, plan remediation of the existing waste management facility, and oversee construction of the project. Design work was completed in March 2011.

Maple Reinders Engineering and Construction won the contract for construction of the $28.8-million wastewater-treatment facility which began in February 2012, and is expected to take about two years. The plant will use a two-stage process – microbiological treatment followed by reverse osmosis – to remove a wide range of contaminants; treated water will be discharged into Lake Ontario

For more information about the Port Hope Area Initiative, click here.

Sophie Kneisel is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Ontario.