LAURENCE BRISSON DUBREUIL, THE EASTERN DOOR
John Harding has never gotten used to the stink.
Every time he neared the G&R Recycling site and the waters that flow by its operations on Kanehsatake land, his nose filled with “the smell of opening a septic tank and sticking your head inside. That’s how bad it is,” said Harding. “And at every level, people knew what was going on.”
That stench signaled an ongoing hazard to the local environment and community, repeatedly documented, but knowingly allowed to persist by governing bodies.
This is the finding of an extensive investigation by The Eastern Door that draws on additional research by a coalition of organizations made up of Onkwehón:we and settler advocates working with ReconciliAction; Eau Secours, a non-profit dedicated to the protection of waterways; and waste management watchdog, Front commun québécois pour une gestion écologique des déchets (FCQGED).
The investigation reveals that over a five-year period, regulators repeatedly discovered that the recycling company was releasing contaminants, some toxic, into streams that run through its lot, trickling past agricultural land, down into the Lake of Two Mountains, which meets the Ottawa River.
“The government agencies that were and are still involved, all turned a blind eye at the time,” said Harding. “Today, they have a responsibility to make this right.”
G&R Recycling is a sorting centre for construction and demolition materials permitted to operate on the territory since 2016, until the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change revoked its operating permit in October of 2020.
Owned by community members Gary and Robert Gabriel, the company was on the receiving end of noncompliance orders and fines for nearly as long as it was in business.
The centre’s co-owner, Robert Gabriel, said G&R was originally meant to operate under the guidance of two non-band members who claimed to have the expertise and equipment needed to efficiently run a business in the industry of recycling.
Those partners were “thrown out” in 2017, said Gabriel, who is critical of their performance. But the problem persisted and the province wanted the owners to pay related fines and cleanup costs.
Government inspection reports obtained through access to information (ATI) requests revealed G&R repeatedly violated the terms of its license and breached provisions set forth in the Environment Quality Act.
A spokesperson with the department told The Eastern Door it had begun issuing fines to the company on October 26, 2017.
“After rigorous monitoring of the site and as soon as any deficiencies were noted, the department intervened on the site,” said Caroline Cloutier, spokesperson for the Quebec environment ministry, adding that the total amount payable by the offender is now $17,883.28.
“Subsequently, the notification of (revocation) ordinance no. 689 without notice in order to avoid serious or irreparable damage being caused to humans, ecosystems, other living species, the environment or property, was made in December 2019.”
Documents obtained by The Eastern Door tell a story of ongoing pollution, repeated warnings and demands by the provincial regulator.
January 16, 2017
The provincial ministry issued its first known order to the company following an inspection conducted on December 19, 2016. The notice stated that while the site was under construction, G&R violated conditions set out in Quebec’s Environment Quality Act.
September 12, 2017
The ministry issued a new order stating G&R had received materials, including fine residues, which are not permitted under the environment act or its authorization license.
A ministerial inspector also found that the company had exceeded the 27,800 cubic metres of residual materials it was allowed to store, and that it had failed to install the wastewater system required under its permit.
The notice states the company’s increase in production is susceptible to an emission, deposit or rejection of contaminants in the environment, or a modification of the quality of environment.
November 6, 2019
While the recycling plant’s licence allowed it to hold roughly 27,800 cubic metres of residual materials in an authorized area on-site, an inspection on this day shows the company holding an approximate 400,219 cubic metres in materials – more than 14 times the allowable volume.
About 70 percent of the total storage of waste was located outside the authorized storage zone.
During the same inspection in November 2019, the ministerial inspector observed the presence of dark water with an intense odour on the site.
Water samples were collected at different points along the two streams that flow through the centre’s lot, both upstream and downstream.
Results of testing done by the ministry, obtained by The Eastern Door through ATI requests, indicate the presence of various metals, sulfur, other chemicals, and bacterias at levels that threaten aquatic life. The biochemical oxygen demand (BDO) levels further demonstrate that the toxic stew leaking into the streams also harmed healthy oxygen levels.
“BOD5, an indication of the amount of biodegradable organic matter, is quite high and exceeds chronic aquatic life quality criteria,” explained Lise Parent, biologist and professor of environment at Université du Québec’s TÉLUQ University.
“The higher the BOD5, the less oxygen there is in the environment, which can affect some species. In the very long term, species that need more oxygen will disappear, thus reducing biodiversity.”
The environment ministry’s aquatic water quality criteria for chronic concentrations of BDO5 is set at 3 mg/L. A water sample collected by the ministerial inspector downstream from G&R, in the Gratton stream flowing into the Lake of Two Mountains, showed a level of 37 mg/L on December 16, 2019.
December 16, 2019
An inspection report by the ministry states that the wastewater produced by the recycling centre continued to leak into water following their previous visit on November 6, 2019.
The report said that following the inspection, the department issued an order on December 6, 2019, for the company to stop allowing contaminated water from the site to leach into the environment.
Various inspection reports from 2020, viewed by The Eastern Door, indicated the company did not respect that order.
Samples collected at the site’s point of resurgence showed an ammoniacal nitrogen concentration 13,000 percent higher than the natural concentration upstream from the G&R site.
This form of nitrogen is known as toxic to aquatic life. The contaminant’s ammonia can also make it difficult to treat water intended for human consumption.
Sarah Dorner, professor in the Department of Civil, Geological and Mining Engineering at university Polytechnique Montréal, noted the presence of lead and zinc in the reports also posed “a concern for users of the water.”
April 28, 2020
In fact, the ministry was worried about how G&R’s contaminants might be affecting people in the area. A ministerial inspection report dated April 28, 2020, obtained through an ATI request, revealed that the inspector was informed that the “totality of residences located around the sorting centre draw their drinking water through surface water wells.”
Among these residences, at least one home is known to have a surface well collecting water from the Gratton stream a few dozen meters downstream from G&R.
Dorner told The Eastern Door it could be risky to drink from such wells.
“It’s never good to exceed chronic levels, but especially when it’s a continued source of contamination like this one where water always flows,” noted Dorner. “We can see that the site clearly contaminates the streams with metals, so if I was asked whether I would drink the water drawn from this source, I would say no.”
May 27, 2020
Michel Savard, a consultant with Quebec’s Health Department, sent an email calling for more drinking water testing after samples had been taken in the streams contaminated by the site the prior month.
Savard’s email to the environment ministry, obtained through an ATI request, stated additional testing would be “relevant to assess the number of wells that may be vulnerable to contaminants from the site under investigation.”
August 1, 2020
Richard Labonté, mayor of the neighbouring municipality of St. Placide, having been informed by a citizen about an unknown black substance in a stream flowing near the G&R plant and into the Lake of Two Mountains, alerted authorities.
“It was oily, blackish water, with a kind of greasy film on it,” recalled Labonté, who at the time requested an intervention by Urgence-Environnement, a department of the environment ministry.
“We found it aberrant to see the flow of water coming from a place where it was not treated,” said the mayor. “This is what was the hardest to understand: why the water was not treated before being returned to nature.”
August 12, 2020
An expert with the ministry affirmed that contaminants found in water samples obtained downstream from the site on April 28, 2020, corresponded to those found at G&R on November 6, 2019. In the closure order issued by the department in December 2019, it was noted that the release of contaminants at the site may be harmful to humans, ecosystems, other living species, the environment and property.
“The substances identified in the reports are preoccupying because the results show that concentrations of some pollutants exceed chronic toxicity criteria, and therefore could have long-term health effects on aquatic organisms,” explained Parent.
She noted the levels of substances from water sampling results collected throughout 2019 and 2020 were not high enough to immediately kill organisms, but could cause lasting impacts.
“There can be long-term effects on organisms, their reproduction, potential carcinogenic properties – these are all possible impacts where while they won’t die right away, but they may after some time of exposure.”
August 11, 2020
In an email viewed by The Eastern Door, an ecotoxicologist analyzed water sample results collected by the ministry on August 1, 2020.
The expert flagged the BDO result which indicated a concentration of 443 mg/L.
“The presence of a BOD 147 times greater than the (chronic aquatic water quality criteria) may have caused a decrease in oxygen in the stream at the time of the spill, which could have an impact on aquatic organisms,” the email reads.
Presented with the documents obtained by The Eastern Door and other organizations, Parent concludes the leakage from G&R Recycling caused “a definite impact on the environment” over five years’ time. Though the long-term effects are not clear.
“We don’t know what impact will actually have occurred on the entire ecosystem,” said Parent. “If we look at the presence of substances such as p-Cresol, PCBs and some metals, they can be bioaccumulated by organisms or adsorbed in sediments thus increasing their persistence in the environment. These are all fairly toxic substances which can stay in the habitat.”
Advocates call for more testing of waters near G&R Recycling, an immediate clean-up of the site, and stronger protections against what they call environmental racism.
“When it comes to taking on this issue, each level of government is passing the buck,” said ReconciliAction member, Louis Ramirez. “Not only are Indigenous Peoples confined to miniscule parcels of land, these (lands) systematically end up serving as repositories for Canadian society’s toxic waste, drawing concerns as far as the United Nations.”
Ramirez said that the provincial and federal government allowed the environmental disaster to unfold for years and now must fix it.
The matter will however rest in the hands of the G&R owners, explained the ministry’s spokesperson.
“The company can no longer operate its site. Nevertheless, it remains responsible for cleaning up the site,” said Cloutier. “The department continues to monitor this level and actively collaborates with its partners, including the federal government and the band council, in identifying solutions to resolve this issue.”
Robert Gabriel downplayed the effects of the pollution caused from his business.
“There were concerns about potential hazards, but at the same time, it wasn’t at the point where it was detrimental to life or anything like that,” he said.
Since the company’s authorization permit was revoked in October 2020, Gabriel said he and his business partners have been working to clean up the site.
“Of course it’s a concern,” he said, referring to the potential environmental threats revealed in this investigation. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any of that happening to the water table.”
Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Akwirente Bonspille, who was recently appointed in the community’s July 31 election, told The Eastern Door that he plans for the council and the local environment department to be involved in the rehabilitation efforts of the site.
“It was a hot topic before and it’s still a hot topic now,” confirmed newly elected council chief Teiawenniserate Tomlinson.
When the recycling company obtained a permit from the environment ministry in 2016, the council of chiefs and then grand chief, Serge Otsi Simon, signed off on an agreement lasting till the year 2044.
A ministerial report obtained by the coalition of organizations led by ReconciliAction showed that the ministry found that insufficient surface water sampling results made it impossible to determine the presence of either a medium or long-term risk on aquatic fauna.
Although the ministry noted results demonstrate that the nature of the wastewater discharged constitutes an emission of contaminants as defined by the Environmental Quality Act, it indicated that based on the results obtained to date, there had been no demonstrated “serious environmental damage” caused.
“Nevertheless, this emission of contaminants to the environment must be taken into consideration and action must be taken to stop it,” reads the report.
A ministry spokesperson told The Eastern Door it is investigating the potential environmental impacts resulting from the operations of G&R Recycling.
LAURENCE BRISSON DUBREUIL, THE EASTERN DOOR
For Harding and other Kanehsata’kehró:non, it is far too little, too late.
“What I don’t understand is why there was never an actual stop put to it,” said Harding.
“Water is a sacred thing for me, and this goes back thousands of years for us – back when our people were here, always in-tune with nature,” Harding said as he overlooked the calmly flowing water of the Ottawa River.
“Those are the springs that my relatives and ancestors have been drinking from. That’s important to me.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil is a multimedia journalist based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, Canada. She holds a BA in journalism, with a minor in law and society from Montreal's Concordia University.
Laurence began reporting with The Eastern Door in the fall of 2020, after completing a fellowship with the Institute for Investigative Journalism, a national investigative organization.
Among many things, Laurence is passionate about investigative reporting, human rights, and environmental issues.