A putrid smell fills the air and lungs of those living near the shut-down recycling centre.
Characterized by its pungent “rotten egg” odour, hydrogen sulphide (H2S) is not only malodorous. It is also a toxic and potentially harmful gas.
An ambient air quality study report obtained by The Eastern Door raises questions about the extensiveness of H2S concentrations emitted at the now-closed G&R Recycling site and its potential threat to human health.
At the request of a federal government department, consulting firm Golder Associates Ltd. was contracted to conduct a study into the legacy of the recycling centre’s operations.
Completed in March 2021, the study’s results provided information used by the firm to make recommendations on odour mitigation measures.
“It’s very important to consider that when you do an analysis of hydrogen sulphide emissions in March – and as long as there is a snow cover – the emissions will always be lower,” explained André Bélisle, president of the Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA), an environmental group that advocates for clean air and the implementation of concrete solutions to atmospheric pollution in Quebec.
“If studies aren’t done other than in the winter, you only get half of the picture – and not the most representative illustration at that.”
The ambient air quality assessment was carried out by the firm to investigate the presence of strong smells that had been repeatedly reported by Kanehsata’kehró:non, nearby residents and the provincial Ministry of Environment alike.
In the first pages of the report, an error regarding nearby potential receptors wrongly denotes the closest residence as being 350 kilometres away. In reality, surrounding homes are as near as 350 metres from the site.
During surface emission surveys performed on March 16 and 18, a concentration range of 33 to 457 parts per billion (ppb) for H2S was recorded at different piles of debris at the site.
In the report’s observations, the presence of a foul smell was noted, along with “odours that appear to come from water leaching from the nearby pile.”
“The report says that hydrogen sulphide is an irritant gas that can be toxic, but it can also be deadly. It is all a question of concentration,” pointed out Bélisle.
When measuring the concentration of the gas in ambient air for a one-hour period, the Regional Public Health Department established a recommended threshold of 30 ppb. The highest H2S surface emission recorded by Golders was over 15 times the concentration limit set by the health agency.
“Depending on various factors, (gas) emissions can be moved by the wind, and if the wind happens to bring emissions into a house, a school, a church or anything else that is located nearby, it can be dangerous,” said the AQLPA president.
The report includes average concentrations calculated over one-hour periods at a location downstream from G&R selected by the firm based on the dominant wind direction of the sector, and the maximum H2S concentration obtained when taking measurements.
With temperatures varying between zero and 11 degrees Celsius, the maximum H2S concentration recorded downstream was of 4.08 ppb.
In its conclusion, Golders wrote that the H2S concentration for the ambient air monitoring varied between 0 and 17 ppb – falling below the selected action threshold of 30 ppb.
“The favorable conditions for odor monitoring are likely low wind, low air pressure, high ambient temperatures, and no precipitation, which explains the low concentrations measured,” reads the report.
Altogether, Bélisle found the results raised questions that deserve further investigation.
“What is true and known is that H2S is a gas that damages people’s health at very small concentrations. And when it increases, it can be deadly,” he said. “We can’t treat this dangerous gas lightly.”
Concentrations should also always be assessed with varying factors in mind, added Bélisle.
Since the authorization permit for G&R was revoked by the Environment Ministry in October 2020, the site’s owners told The Eastern Doorthat they had been working alongside the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) and governments to address the environmental situation described by experts as concerning.
“Although there could have been better and more extensive research into the situation, the goal right now for our community is (to mitigate) the smell,” said MCK grand chief Victor Akwirente Bonspille.
As further studies of the site are underway, Bonspille confirmed discussions with departments and ministries of all levels are also continuing.
Meanwhile, a Quebec non-profit dedicated to the protection of waterways is calling for the decontamination of the G&R site with a petition issued on November 18. The plea made by Eau Secours is aimed at the federal government.
“The site is located on the edge of the Lake of Two Mountains, and we are especially concerned about the preservation of the quality of this lake because it serves nearly two million people as a source of drinking water before leaking into the St. Lawrence River,” said the organization’s executive director Rébecca Pétrin.
An investigation published by The Eastern Door in September revealed that governments recorded the presence of substances such as p-Cresol, PCBs and some metals in streams passing through the site and leaking into the Lake of Two Mountains.
“The fact that the site is on an Indigenous territory means that it is the responsibility of the federal government, which is why our petition targets them,” said Pétrin.
“The matter of (environmental) racism that we are denouncing in the petition is because we are convinced that if this site was elsewhere in Quebec – not in an Indigenous community – the Quebec Ministry of Environment would have put an end to their activities.”
In addition to experts pointing at the contamination of waters as potentially threatening to human health, these same concerns prevail for Kanehsata’kehró:non and residents concerned about emissions released at the site.
“Usually, the first symptoms are headache, eye irritation and heartache. Then it progresses to dizziness and fainting,” said AQLPA’s Bélisle. “We know that when the maximum threshold is exceeded, there is a possibility for health impacts – then, when the point is reached where we stop smelling H2S, that’s when it can really become dangerous.”
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.