Range of Actions Improve Water Quality and Aesthetics
Posted on: September 15, 2017
Tugboat Tour 2012
Members of the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan Public Advisory Committee observed no “slicks, scums, foams or odours” on a tugboat tour of the lower Kam and Lake Superior Harbour in 2012. More recent harbour surveys support this observation. From left Bruce Pritchard, Aaron Nicbholson (RAP Coordinator), Jane Todd, Heidi Strobl, Sarah DaSilva (Environment and Cimate Change Canada), Gerry Dawson (tugboat Capt.), Jean Hall-Armstrong (kneeling, Advisory Committee Co-chair).

Harbour Success Story

“Aesthetics” is definitely not one of the words that come to mind when talking about cleanup of Thunder Bay Harbour. Many local residents will be aware of “the blob,” an area of creosote contamination cleaned up by 2005. Some people will be aware of a serious problem with mercury contamination in the northern portion of the harbour which has yet to see cleanup. Others will be aware of projects like the McKellar embayments, an effort to establish wetland aquatic habitat adjacent to the Lakehead Region Conservation Authority Mission Island Marsh Conservation Area. Aesthetics however, does not initially come to mind when talking about Great Lakes Cleanup.

Members of the Public Advisory Committee to the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan (RAP), or harbour cleanup plan, see things differently. They contend that Thunder Bay has a success story on its hands. So, just what is “aesthetics” and how could this be a Great Lakes Environmental problem, let alone a success story.

What is “Degradation of Aesthetics?”

Abitibi plume
This 1977 photo of a fine papers mill in the Current River area of Thunder Bay shows a plume extending into Thunder Bay Harbour.

Degraded aesthetics is actually more serious than one might initially think. Remedial Action Plans across the Great Lakes, including places like the Detroit River, Toronto Harbour and Duluth Harbour, define degraded aesthetics as including, “slicks, scums, odours, foam, unnatural deposits, colour or turbidity.” If you are thinking that you haven’t seen anything like that out on Lake Superior, look back in time. Degraded aesthetics became a major concern on the Great Lakes due to conditions prevailing in earlier decades. The Cuyahoga River, Chicago River and Rouge River, all flowing to the Great Lakes, each caught fire prior to the outset of substantive Great Lakes cleanup in the eighties. Not once, but several times. Yes, slicks, scums, odours and foam were very much a reality. Thunder Bay was not nearly as bad, but photographs included with this article clearly demonstrate degraded harbour aesthetics.

What’s the baseline?

Thunder Bay Harbour historical
This photo, taken in 1938, shows log booms in almost every section of Thunder Bay harbour, demonstrating the extent of industrialization in earlier decades.

In Thunder Bay, a 1991 report setting out environmental issues and challenges for the Thunder Bay Area of Concern states that, “Degraded water quality has impaired river and harbour front aesthetics, thereby affecting recreational use of associated lands and water resources.” (p. 36, Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan Stage 1 Report, 1991). Additionally, a major 2004 report for the RAP notes that, “Extensive industrialization along the waterfront has impaired the aesthetic value of the Area Of Concern. Oil slicks and creosote deposits have made the harbour less attractive to recreational boaters, fishermen, and the public.” (Page 18, Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan Stage 2 Report, 2004)

In order to understand the dramatic improvement in harbour aesthetics, a baseline is necessary. As substantial programs for Great Lakes Cleanup got underway in the late eighties, Thunder Bay Harbour was very heavily industrialized, with four active pulp and paper mills. Today there is one. Moreover, environmental regulations have improved dramatically, along with vastly improved industrial and municipal effluent treatment. The net result is that since implementation of the RAP, aesthetic degradation (slicks, scums, foams, odours, etc.) has virtually disappeared.

While degraded harbour aesthetics is focused primarily on water quality, another factor contributing to improved aesthetics is work to improve fish and wildlife habitat around the harbour. Some of these projects, like the habitat work completed as part of creosote cleanup, resulted in several hundred meters of greenery along the shoreline.

In dealing with aesthetics, The RAP Public Advisory Committee developed a set of criteria, whereby it could determine whether the problem of degraded aesthetics had been addressed, or otherwise. These criteria state that the waters of Thunder Bay Harbour should be, “devoid of any substance which produces a persistent objectionable deposit, unnatural colour or turbidity, or unnatural odour (e.g. oil slick, surface scum).”

Link to further photos demonstrating historical aesthetic conditions in Thunder Bay Harbour.

Link to a December, 2015 Infosuperior article about aesthetics

What’s the Evidence?

Anecdotal evidence from people who have used the harbour over many years, suggests a complete turnaround in conditions. One word sums up conditions Thunder Bay Rowing Club members experienced in the lower Kaministiquia River in earlier decades – “disgusting.” Sailors from the Thunder Bay Yacht Club, many of whom grew up regularly sailing Thunder Bay’s waters, also note that slicks, scums and foam were once regular occurrences but are no longer found in the harbour.

Debris spills into the harbour.
Wood, bark and debris spill into Thunder Bay Harbour from a wood preserving facility in this photo from the eighties.

Anecdotal evidence is far from sufficient to document improved conditions however and several surveys of the harbour have been taken by the Remedial Action Plan over the last few years. These detailed surveys were not simply snapshots of conditions on a given day, rather they took place over a period of months across the entire harbour, including the lower Kaministiquia River. The level of detail can be seen in this draft report.

Public Advisory Committee members have also toured the harbour to take a closer look, from the Resolute Forest Products outfall in the Kam River and across the entire breadth of the harbour on Lake Superior. All reports note that slicks, scums and odours, are no longer present.

Foundations for Success

A very long list of substantive actions provide the foundation for improved harbour water quality, which is an integral component of improved aesthetics. With this list of completed actions in hand, the Remedial Action Plan Public Advisory Committee, along with agencies supporting the RAP, like Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, will now ask that “degraded aesthetics” be removed from the list of concerns associated with Thunder Bay. This request will now go forward to agencies involved in implementing Great Lakes cleanup through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Perfection has definitely not been achieved in Thunder Bay Harbour and many environmental challenges remain. Improvement in water quality and aesthetics however, is clear. Industry, government and the public, have all contributed to this success.

A list of actions which have resulted in improved harbour aesthetics follows below:

1991 – Bowater Pulp and Paper Mill upgraded their treatment technology to improve the quality of wastewater discharged to the Kaministiquia River. Cost – approximately $68 million. Proponent: Bowater Inc. (now Resolute Forest Products Inc.) – (Stage 2 Report, p. 27 – FWH-7)

1992 – Redesign Waterfront Park to protect and enhance shoreline of the Kaministiquia River including scenic overlook, promenade and additional 500m. of park at a cost of $1.5 million   Proponent: Environment Canada/Great Lakes Cleanup Fund (EC/GLCUF) through Lake Superior Programs Office (LSPO) (Stage 2 Report, p. 26 – FWH-4)

1993 – Island creation and habitat rehabilitation at the mouth of McVicar Creek at a cost of $595,000 – Proponent: EC/GLCUF, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), Ontario Ministry of the Environment (OMOE), Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) through LSPO (Stage 2 Report, p. 25 – FWH-3)

1994 – Creation of embayments in the McKellar River to restore productive littoral habitat at a cost of $607,800 – Proponent: EC/GLCUF, OMNR, OMOE, OMNR through LSPO (Stage 2 Report, p. 26 – FWH-5)

1995 – Installation of secondary effluent treatment completed at Abitibi–Consolidated Inc. – Proponent: Abitibi–Consolidated Inc. (Stage 2 Report, p. 33 – PS-8)

1997 – Smurfit-Stone Container Canada Inc. upgraded its treatment technology to improve the quality of wastewater discharged to Lake Superior. The cost of this upgrade is unknown – Proponent: Smurfit-Stone Container Canada Inc., (Stage 2 Report, p. 32 – PS-4)

1999 – The City of Thunder Bay adopted the Pollution Prevention Control Plan to reduce urban pollutant loadings to receiving waters and to protect water resources. Proponent: City of Thunder Bay, Canada-Ontario Infrastructure Agreement (Stage 2 Report, p. 36 – PS-7)

2002 – Northern Wood Preservers, Canadian National Railway Co., Abitibi-Consolidated Inc., Environment Canada and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment completed the Northern Wood Preservers Alternative Remediation Concept (NOWPARC). The project cleaned up contaminated sediment and improved fish and wildlife habitat, costing $25 million. Proponent: Abitibi-Price Inc., Canadian National Railway Inc., Northern Sawmills Inc., OMOE, EC/GLCUF  (Stage 2 Report, p. 28 – NPS-1)

For several years, prior to release of the 2004 Stage 2 Report for Thunder Bay, community waterfront cleanup events were held each spring along the Thunder Bay waterfront and rivers flowing into Thunder Bay harbour. Proponent: City of Thunder Bay, Lake Superior Binational Program (Stage 2 Report, p. 40 – ES-1)

2005 – The City of Thunder Bay upgraded to secondary treatment at the Water Pollution Control Plant to improve wastewater quality discharged to Lake Superior. The cost of this project was $73.6 million. Proponent: City of Thunder Bay, OMOE, EC/GLSF (Stage 2 Report, p. 32 – PS-6)

2012 – A Thunder Bay PAC harbour tour, focusing on aesthetics, was taken in September, 2012. The tugboat “Glenelda” carried PAC members to all areas of the harbour, including the lower Kaministiquia River as far upstream as the Resolute Forest Products outfall. PAC members filled out a survey of Thunder Bay aesthetics during the tour. These surveys are appended to this document.

2015 – A survey of aesthetics was taken by Lakehead University over 20 weeks in the lower Kaministiquia River and across the entire harbour.

2016  – A survey of aesthetics was taken across the ice-free season and included the lower Kaministiquia River and across the entire harbour. A draft report on summer 2015 monitoring activity is accessible here.



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