When the Alberta government helped build the hazardous waste treatment plant at Swan Hills a decade ago, taxpayers were told the facility would help protect the environment from toxic waste. But a university professor and some residents of Swan Hills, 115 miles northwest of Edmonton, claim the leaky plant is doing the opposite. The owner, Bovar Inc., is defending itself against alarming reports that toxic chemical leaks are endangering wildlife and residents who live near the plant. So far, the province’s $441-million investment in the plant has produced only a nominal financial return, and critics say that if further tests show the plant is a health threat, it could be shut down altogether, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up the mess.
To date, there is no scientific proof that the plant poses a threat to the residents of Swan Hills. In fact, the latest evidence indicates that humans living nearby have been unaffected by PCB leaks. Last week, Alberta Health released the results of blood tests on people in the area. Traces of various toxic chemicals were found, but at levels comparable to those in an Edmonton control group and “lower than in other parts of the world.” Alberta Health says the risk to Swan Hills residents has been exaggerated, although it has not rescinded a public health warning, first issued in May, to limit consumption of wild game found near the plant.
There are lingering concerns about whether chemical leaks are harming Indians who live and hunt near the facility, and the federal government plans to perform its own tests. The latest controversy surrounding the waste treatment facility began with a report released by University of Alberta biology professor David Schindler. He believes PCBs, dioxins, furans and other compounds leaked into the environment by way of “fugitive emissions” could harm nursing mothers and their infants. His report alarmed Indians who hunt in the area. They say consumption of contaminated wildlife has resulted in arm rashes and heart attacks, has caused a 19-year-old to require a kidney transplant, and even provoked thousands of birds to attack the plant and kill themselves.
Indians have filed a complaint opposing the plant’s operating licence. Richard Secord, a lawyer representing the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council, thinks the Alberta Health study was defective: “They only tested one Indian. They are the people who are eating the contaminated meat. The rest of those people are buying meat from Safeway and IGA.” Not so, says Alberta Health spokesman Garth Norris. “Our study was not solely targeted towards aboriginals, but was geared towards all inhabitants of Swan Hills. Most of our respondents were people who ate wild game. We welcome the federal government announcing it wishes to look into the situation.”
Health Canada announced last month that it will spend $125,000 studying blood, hair and breast milk samples from over 200 Indians who live north of the plant. “The biggest concerns I have are over newborns [from] mothers who may have eaten contaminated fish or game,” says Prof. Schindler. “There is also concern over an increase in soft tissue cancer that may occur after 20 to 30 years of exposure.” He thinks the plant should be closed down until it is deemed environmentally safe.
Bovar president Monty Davis rejects Prof. Schindler’s report as the work of an overzealous environmentalist. He contends that minor PCB leaks are normal and harmless. “Anybody who handles PCBs has fugitive emissions,” he says. “Even if it is in a tight barrel or a transformer, it will emit PCBs. We never denied that we had emissions, but it is important for people to deal with the facts.” Mr. Davis says “Prof. Schindler works for the native peoples as a consultant. He has his own philosophy that is simply set against this kind of waste treatment.”
Bovar hired its own review team to monitor ecological issues and safety measures. Bob Rogers of Toxcon Inc. says that although toxins have been found in deer and moose meat, “you would probably have to eat a tonne of it to develop any problems.” On the other hand, Mr. Rogers agrees there is cause for concern: “The implications of this issue are far reaching. I cannot imagine speaking to a pregnant woman who is thinking about having an abortion because of possible exposure. Scientists have to be very responsible with this kind of information.”
Bovar took the waste treatment plant off the government’s hands last year, after it had already cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The huge expenditure has produced only a nominal return. The province earned just $23,600 in the last fiscal year, 40% of the plant’s profit, in accordance with a deal Bovar struck with the Klein government. The province will receive 30% of any profit in 1997, 20% in 1998, and 10% every year after that until 2003 when the relationship ends.
Alberta Liberal Treasury critic Gene Zwozdesky wrote in a press release that the Swan Hills affair “has been a taxpayer disaster since beginning operations back in 1987 …And last year, this government cut another deal with Bovar that is completely inadequate, and may eventually lead to taxpayers owning the waste treatment facility as early as January 1, 1999.” Mr. Zwozdesky says Bovar can transfer the plant back to the province after December 31, 1998, in exchange for a dollar. If the plant is forced to close over chemical leaks, taxpayers may be forced to clean up the mess.