Research Focuses on Mercury Contamination in Thunder Bay Harbour
Thunder Bay’s “North Harbour” is both a place and an issue, and its been like that for many years. Those familiar with the situation use the term “North Harbour,” in reference to an area of mercury contaminated sediment near the mouth of the Current River mouth and the former shipyards. This contamination is adjacent to the remnants of a paper mill. Now demolished, the mill operated on the lakeshore under a number of different owners including Superior Fine Papers, Abitibi and Cascades. The contamination in question sits in the harbour waters and contains some 400,000 cubic meters of pulpy material contaminated with mercury covering an area of about 26 hectares/64 acres. This pulpy material has the consistency of porridge and is up to 4 meters thick. The concentrations of mercury in the material ranges between 2 and 11 parts per million. A substantial portion of the contaminated area also exceeds the provincial sediment quality guidelines severe effects level—defined as the level of contamination which is expected to be detrimental to most organisms living in the sediment.
Lakehead University graduate student Samuel Pegg, under the guidance of Dr. Rob Stewart of the Department of Geography and Environmental Science, has been taking a very close look at the North Harbour situation as he works towards his Master’s degree. Specifically, Samuel’s research is centered on how to approach communication in order to effect cleanup of large-scale Great Lakes contaminated sites. Sites include places like Hamilton Harbour, which became extremely polluted due to the steel industry and Thunder Bay’s North Harbour, where mercury pollution is a legacy of the pulp and paper industry. Samuel’s graduate research aims to identify communication strategies that encourage cooperation among diverse stakeholders. Samuel notes that other Great Lakes cleanup projects, like Hamilton Harbour, have reached costs as high as $140 million, and that in order for sufficient resources to be brought to bear, cooperation is essential.
The Waters of Lake Superior Should Not Be “Taken for Granted”
Before arriving at Lakehead University, Samuel spent much of his childhood in the dry deserts of Arizona, Samuel missed the connection to water that can seem implicit for those of us that are surrounded by lakes and rivers. Through his pursuit of a Masters in Environmental Studies from Lakehead University, Samuel has been afforded the opportunity to work on projects which help ensure that Lake Superior’s waters are not taken for granted. One of these projects is with the Remedial Action Plan office and the North Harbour.
To conduct his research, Samuel will endeavour to talk confidentially, one-on-one, with the full range of North Harbour stakeholders: Thunder Bay residents who are members of a public advisory committee working on environmental matters associated with the harbour, representatives of industries near the North Harbour site, elected officials and government agency representatives are all on Samuel’s list.
Samuel says he expects to encounter a wide range of views about cleanup as he proceeds with his research. Frustration at lack of progress is likely to be a common element but he’s hoping that many will suggest workable ideas to improve communication, and cooperation, bringing cleanup that much closer. Samuel will also be examining media reports, minutes of meetings associated with North Harbour and a range of documents associated with the situation. These include reports on environmental risk associated with the site and engineering reports outlining options for cleanup.
Samuel points out that “There are a number of sites across the Great Lakes requiring cleanup. Each of these sites has its own unique challenges,” and he is “working to identify communication strategies which reinforce cooperation amongst stakeholders.” While Samuel’s research is not yet complete, he did share some of the “lessons learned” to date:
I’ve learned that those familiar with the North Harbour situation are well versed in the negative aspects of the situation. They understand that having a harbour contaminated with mercury is bad. They also understand that cleanup costs, often using taxpayer dollars, will be high. Not only that, I’ve also been told that it’s nearly impossible to attract investment to a contaminated area like this, until it’s cleaned up. People I’ve talked to as part of my research are concerned because waterfront properties go “dormant” at old, polluted sites. People also mention the eroding municipal tax base due to these abandoned sites. The lack of public access to the Lake Superior waterfront also comes up again and again.
Opportunities and Benefits
What people I talk to in my research rarely discuss are the benefits of cleanup. Focusing on the positive can be an effective communication strategy. The potential benefits of cleanup need to be clearly stated, in easily understood terms. Things like increased potential to attract investment, increased municipal taxes, expanded public access to the waterfront, the potential to incorporate improved fish and wildlife habitat, even recreational opportunities like a kayak launch, a boating facility or an area to walk along the waterfront and watch birds.
In the North Harbour situation, the adjacent former mill site covers a huge area of waterfront and has stunning views out over Lake Superior. Cleanup could be carried out so that increased public access is incorporated as a feature in the overall solution. A cleanup project might mean that Thunder Bay residents could finally visit the Current River shoreline for the first time in decades.”
Community “Buy-in” Critical
In short, Samuel says he’s talking about opportunities, “Direct stakeholders like adjacent landowners and even the public need to be made aware of these opportunities. Great Lakes cleanups tend to be very large, expensive projects. A communication strategy to gain community “buy-in” is critical. Buy-in doesn’t come about by talking about negatives.”
At the conclusion of research, Samuel will be laying out findings in a thesis but says one other thing he’s heard on successive occasions is the idea of value for money spent.
“Private industry has contributed substantially to Great Lakes cleanup projects over the years but, in the case of Thunder Bay, some of the funds for North Harbour cleanup will likely come through taxpayer dollars. People tell me they want to see “co-benefits.” Many people say that contributing tens of millions in taxpayer dollars only to find they can’t even visit the waterfront is a “non-starter.” A communication strategy should turn this equation on its head and promote the co-benefits of cleanup, like enhanced waterfront access and recreational opportunities. Indigenous groups should also be included in the dialogue leading to cleanup. As a potential co-benefit could being increased cooperation on other issues of shared interest.
Strong Interest in Research Results
Great Lakes cleanups are complex, challenging efforts, often carried out by multiple partners, sometimes proceeding with halting communication…or no communication at all. Over the next few months, Samuel will be finishing up interviews with people who can provide insight into preferred communication approaches. He’ll also be completing work to ferret out relevant information from media reports and other sources. Organizations involved in harbour cleanup have already been in touch with Samuel for his insights. Infosuperior will be following Samuel’s research closely and is one of several organizations interested in the conclusions and recommendations Samuel has to offer. We’ll keep readers posted.