Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

The site of the former Thane Smelter, located in the Town of Georgina, lies next to a Provincially Significant Wetland that at one time hosted a variety of wildlife, including great blue herons, writes John Hicks.


The site of the former Thane Smelter, located in the Town of Georgina, lies next to a Provincially Significant Wetland that at one time hosted a variety of wildlife, including great blue herons, writes John Hicks.

Now, its buildings demolished and its dross and slag regraded away from Warden Avenue, the 20-acre site has impacted the surrounding ecosystem with contaminated soils, groundwater and surface water pollution.

The ever-creeping toe of sediment currently terminates 200 metres below the high slopes of aluminum dross and slowly advances downslope with every major rainfall event, threatening the health of the Maskinonge River only 650 metres away, and ultimately the future health of Lake Simcoe.

Only a heavy cattail wetland holds back the talus of waste from reaching the river and polluting Lake Simcoe. In time, and with the assistance of some heavy regional storms, it will ultimately percolate through this cattail plant barrier, either as surface or ground water, to contaminate the lake.The smelter operation was built on Warden Avenue, just north of Ravenshoe Road, by Thane Development Ltd. to process scrap aluminum and dross (the hardened scum from melted metal). It became fully operational in 1974.

Sodium chloride (rock salt) was used as a flux to assist in the melting and recovery of aluminum, and has now become a large part of the contamination problem, raising the chloride content in the soil and present flume of groundwater.

In fact, the chloride content in the smelter leachate (the solution issuing from the aluminum salt and other metals) is a 'yellow canary,' betraying the limit reached by other contaminants as the sediment flows downslope. In addition to aluminum and dross, 10 or more metals in concentrations exceeding the Provincial Water Quality Objectives have been found by XCG Consultants Ltd., a Kitchener-based environmental engineering specialist that completed a site assessment in June 2008. These include arsenic, chromium, copper, iron, lead, silver, vanadium, zinc, phosphorus, and phenols, all resulting from the melting of metals present in household refuse, industrial scrap, piping and plastic compounds present in the scrap, tossed into the the cauldron.

During the early years of operation, a groundswell of objections arose from the surrounding property owners harassed by fumes from the smelting operation, and later from the bagging facility that was installed to collect and bag particulates from the furnace stack exhaust. The owner installed a precipitator to collect the airborne dust in the stack, but in fact, it released much dust and particulates from the bag house into the surrounding atmosphere.

Very early in the history of the smelter, Earle Kirby, a Georgina resident, organized a movement to curtail the smelter operation. Named GASP (Georgina Against Smelter Pollution), it carried out a lengthy crusade against Thane resulting in several fines and closures. Kirby spent the last six years of his life fighting violations in procedure involving dross stockpiling, smoke, dust and hours of operation. He kept an excellent record of their poor track record. Later on, another group called "Save the Maskinonge" took up the cause with letters to the town, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and local MPPs. This group kept up the objections to the site’s condition and exposed the smelter’s ongoing violation of procedures.

Significant amounts of salt, slag, and unprocessed aluminum dross remained on the site when Thane ceased operating in 1997. In 2003, the rusty, derelict buildings were demolished, and the entire operational and waste site regraded by the Town of Georgina at a cost of $300,000, distributing the slag piles, dross and contamination over the entire area. The landscape improvement resulting from re-grading seemed to rectify the site’s visual quality but effectively mixed the toxic ingredients into a medley of slag, earth, and dross, which unfortunately makes the extraction of specific toxicants more difficult.

Some of the concentrated waste products still exist in pockets that can be seen in eroded fissures extending six feet down in the dross overburden. The property was fenced, closed to the public and left to sit untouched up to the present. The only alteration to the landform has been from heavy rainfalls cutting deep eroded fissures into the dross, carrying sediment downslope towards the Maskinonge River.

The MOE issued an order to the smelter’s owner in July 2007 requiring a full assessment of the on-site and adjoining property impacts, along with options for remedial measures to improve conditions. The ministry retained XCG Consultants Ltd. to undertake the study required by the order. The analysis was completed in June 2008.

The ministry then presented the findings to the public in January 2009, when interested residents and stakeholders were asked to join a Public Liaison Committee to find options for the rehabilitation of the site.

This group has met for the past two years, acting as an advisory committee to the MOE. Initially three options were presented to the committee which all appeared prohibitive, considering the cost and hardship to the Town of Georgina. The three options ranged from complete extraction of the slag and all the waste to a simple engineered cover, as follows:
A) complete excavation and removal of slag and impacted soil at a cost of $3.9-million (involved trucking it elsewhere)
B) complete entombment with a liner, cover, and leachate
collection system at a cost of $2.7-million (involved leaving the slag & soil on the site)
C) an engineered composite cover and surface water control for slag wastes at a cost of $1.5-million (again, leaving the slag and soil on the site) Operations B) and C) are accompanied by on-going, annual operating costs in the $30,000 range.Later on in December 2011, another environmental services consultant (Golden Environmental) added a fourth option to the clean-up operation — that of an in-situ remediation of slag piles and ground water, which was deemed hazardous because it would solubilize some contaminated metals (put them into solution), thus allowing them to migrate off-site to contaminate adjoining property. At this point the committee was stuck with an unsolvable problem.

Finally, in January 2012, a soil remediation company proposed removal of all the smelter wastes and impacted soils from the Thane site, and re-grading the property, while also operating a soil remediation facility to treat fuel-impregnated soil from service stations and other petroleum industries. In operating a soil remediation service they could recover the cost of the initial excavation and removal of the site’s over-all wastes, but only by replacing it with an equally offensive industry. This would be an accepted solution in a less environmentally sensitive area, but the aspect of adding pollution-laden soil containing more volatile components than slag wastes (gasoline, diesel fuel, oils, etc.) dissuaded the committee entirely, since a wetland resource lay at the property doorstep.
Knowing that the public likely would be enraged by the substitution of perhaps a worse scenario than they faced with the present smelter, the committee hesitated to recommend such an alternative. Many other options were looked at by the public liaison committee amounting to 10 possible industrial or clean-up options — all were carefully examined and rejected in respect to the environment, the cost, or the authenticity of the proponent.

The smelter site remains today an unsolvable enigma, a riddle of costs, responsibilities and rehabilitation effort. It seems that the smelter problem is a low-priority concern to the MOE in terms of a brownfield site rehabilitation effort.

It sits, waiting for the eventual hundred-year storm to wash out its wastes into the Maskinonge River, and then out into the waters of Cooks Bay and Lake Simcoe. Only then will we realize the tragedy of not acting swiftly, and efficiently, to rid our municipality of this scourge.

John Hicks is a senior landscape architect with 30 years of expertise in land use planning. He is vice chair of York Environmental Stewardship and a member of the Public Liaison Committee involved with the Thane Smelter. He lives in the Town of Georgina where his home lies within a 14-acre forest and wildlife area. He practises what he preaches.

This story appears in the September-October issue of Lake Simcoe Living Magazine. Photography by John Hicks.

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