Measures taken to reduce Ontario toxic hotspots


Efforts such as installing a thin sediment layer, as here, help remedy areas of concern in places such as Peninsula Harbor. Image: Environmental and Climate Change Canada

By Emile Rizk

This is the second story in a 3-part Great Lakes Echo series on toxic hotspots in the region. 

Ontario has taken a variety of recent measures to reduce the prevalence of toxic hotspots and other Areas of Concern in places such as Bear Creek, Nottawasaga River and Pine River.

Those measures have reduced the overall number of Areas of Concern in Canada by three, bringing the total to nine, according to the government of Canada. That has also made residents of the province more aware of this pressing issue .

A variety of chemicals can create toxic hotspots, such as perchloroethylene, commonly referred to as “PERC”and commonly used in dry cleaning.

Environmental groups such as the Toronto Environment Alliance have highlighted dry cleaners’ use of PERC as one of the main contributing factors to toxic hotspots.

When scientists assessed the use of PERC, they deemed it too toxic to the environment, according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and set regulations for dry cleaners to reduce their use of the harmful chemical.

“These regulations require dry cleaners to have efficient dry cleaning machines and PERC spill prevention plans and manage the way residues and waste water containing PERC are collected and disposed of,” said Mary Perkin, Environment and Climate Changes Canada’s manager of consumer and cleaning products.

Perkin said that in 2020, 600 dry cleaners were reported to meet the conditions of the regulations imposed by the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and that Canada’s dry cleaners overall have reduced PERC use by 86%.

However, numerous other factors also create toxic hotspots and other places of concern, according to Gary Wheeler, a communications officer at the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

“Generally speaking, toxic hotspots can be attributed to various human activities such as transportation, industrial production, construction, mining or agriculture that have resulted in contamination above the ministry’s protective standards,” said Wheeler.

A crane operator installing a cap on the recently finished engineering containment facility at Randle Reef at Hamilton Harbor. Source: Riggs Engineering

Furthermore, Steve Clement, the manager of Great Lakes Areas of Concern at Environment and Climate Changes Canada, said, “These past practices resulted in degraded water quality, contaminated river and lake sediment, and severely impacted fish and wildlife populations and habitats.”

In late 2021, the Ontario ministry repealed and reworked the Toxics Reduction Act to be more effective and to not overlap with the federal government’s Chemicals Management Program, said Wheeler.

“Ontario’s environmental laws and regulations are intended to ensure that no new toxic hotspots are created,” said Wheeler

The original plan, which began in 2009, put into place regulations that reduced the use and improper disposal of toxic materials. They included requiring facilities that deal with toxics to have a detailed disposal plan, as well as an assessment of whether companies could use less toxic substances.

The United States and Canada are still cleaning up toxic hotspots created in the 1900s, such as the Hooker Chemical Co.’s contamination of Lake Ontario and Niagara Falls in the late 1970s.

Other toxic hotspots in the Great Lakes Basin were started in similar ways.

There have been no recent accidents due to human intervention that created new areas of concern in Ontario, and efforts are now primarily focused on being able to delist existing Areas of Concern.

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