Weak Controls Burn Hamiltonians: Residents Press for Tighter Regulation of the Recycling Industry

By Lukasik, Lynda | Alternatives Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Weak Controls Burn Hamiltonians: Residents Press for Tighter Regulation of the Recycling Industry


Lukasik, Lynda, Alternatives Journal


A huge plastics blaze at a recycling facility in Hamilton has ignited calls for a full inquiry into regulation of Ontario's burgeoning recycling industry.

The Plastimet fire, which burned for four days in July, consumed 400 tonnes of defective polyvinyl chloride (PVC) car parts before it was finally brought under control. The smoldering plastic created a menacing plume of heavy black smoke that showered most of the city with toxic fallout.

Many local residents suffered immediate health effects, including eye and throat irritation caused by hydrochloric acid, which formed when chemicals from the fire combined with water from fire hoses. As well, over 100 firefighters involved in battling the blaze have since reported health problems ranging from headaches to nausea and vomiting.

Local residents and firefighters now worry about potential long-term health effects from exposure to dioxins, furans and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) formed by the burning plastic.

The Plastimet site was left littered with fire debris and soil laced with levels of dioxins as high as 64,000 parts per trillion TEQ.(1) The Ontario Ministry of Environment (MOE) has since completed a cleanup of the fire debris, but has yet to develop a plan for dealing with the contaminated soil on the site. In addition, the water used in fighting the blaze - approximately 91 million litres - was allowed to flow freely from the site and into the city's storm sewer system, which feeds either into the regional sewage treatment plant or directly into Hamilton Harbour.

Surrounding vegetation was also sprinkled with toxic particulates, leading to a warning from Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth health officials for parents not to let their children play on their lawns for fear of exposure to dioxins.

A city-wide ban on eating garden vegetables was also imposed, but lifted within days of its announcement, with the explanation that the washing action of rain combined with the natural breakdown of the toxic chemicals had eliminated the threat of contamination.

Hamilton residents have been critical of apparent official confusion during the fire. Particularly intense controversies surround regional health authorities' decision not to evacuate nearby residents from the area until after the fire had burned for two days, and the lack of information on materials at the site, which resulted in a failure to take special "toxic fire" precautions to minimize firefighters' exposure to contaminants.(2)

Critics are also wondering about the adequacy of provincial and local regulatory controls.

At public meetings and in letters to newspapers, many Hamiltonians have been asking why the operator of the site, Plastimet Incorporated, was not subject to provincial waste management site regulations and not shut down for fire code violations long before the blaze occurred. Although the facility had only been operational since March 1996, there had already been two fires at the site.

While the cause of these fires was never determined, firefighters reported concerns about easy access through the building's north end, which had collapsed from a fire predating Plastimet's occupation of the site.

After an October 1996 site inspection, the Hamilton Fire Department served the company with a lengthy Notice of Violation of the Ontario Fire Code, with a list of required actions.

By April 1997 the company had addressed many items, but was still out of compliance on four of the costliest requirements, including installation of a sprinkler system, and construction of a two-hour fire separation between the occupied portion of the building and the fire damaged northern portion of the building.

Negotiations between the company and the Hamilton Fire Department over these four outstanding orders were still ongoing when the big fire broke out.

At a large public meeting just weeks after the fire, Hamilton Fire Chief Wes Shoemaker was asked why he did not fine or shut down Plastimet for not complying with crucial orders. …

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