Old Grey Mayors Episode 33 - Revisiting the 1989’s Elmira Uniroyal Aquifer Contamination with Gerry

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Uniroyal and the Elmira water crisis. It's an oddly forgotten part of Waterloo Region history. In 1989, contaminants were discovered in the aquifer beneath the town of Elmira. The contaminant was linked to Uniroyal Chemical’s manufacturing plant and was identified as the carcinogen NDMA. It was in the town's only supply of drinking water. In this episode of Old Grey Men Gerry Thompson joins Rob for an insightful conversation on what happened when the contamination was found, and what happened next.

Gerry Thompson started in 1973 as a transportation planner with the Region of Waterloo. These were exciting times in the infancy of the Region. Over the years, Gerry tells of his progression to Director of Planning, Director of Facilities and Commissioner of Engineering, finally finishing his career as the CAO. He served through some exciting times and as he and Rob joke it becomes clear that exciting isn’t always good!

Gerry’s time at the Region saw him involved in the early stages of planning the ION, and planning the infrastructure needs for the Toyota Plant in Cambridge. He was part of the group that oversaw the Region’s growth into the dynamic and forward-thinking municipality that it is today.

In this episode, Rob and Gerry focus on the Uniroyal Chemical plant contamination of the aquifer under Elmira that placed the whole municipality in a crisis. In 1989 both Gerry and Regional Chairman Ken Seiling lived in Elmira. Scientists and workers from Uniroyal were their neighbours. They all got to experience living through the crisis personally and working towards solutions professionally. The community was united in their fear of the contaminated water, but many were also in fear of losing their jobs.

So, what happened? It’s a good story.

In 1989, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) was responsible for municipal water quality monitoring. As part of their job, they tested the water quarterly for a wide range of chemical and biological contaminants. This is particularly important as the Region of Waterloo is the largest municipality in Canada that is entirely dependent on groundwater for its water supply.

One day the phone rang at the Region. MOE was calling to say they had found dangerous levels of the carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance) NDMA in the drinking water for Elmira. The chemical was a known biproduct of manufacturing Agent Orange which had been produced at the Uniroyal plant in Elmira for many years during and after the Vietnam War.

The Region immediately began requesting information from MOE about how long contaminants in the water had there been but there weren’t any answers coming. It became clear within days that MOE was not equipped to deal with the crisis. The Region took over as the lead agency.

Politicians and first responders went door to door to advise people not to drink the well water and tap water. No one knew if NDMA could be absorbed through the skin. People were advised NOT to bathe. Large-scale bottled water distribution began. The army was contacted to begin planning if the town needed to be evacuated.

Almost immediately public meetings were held to keep residents informed of how they could safely live there. Drinking the water was out of the question. After some investigating, it became clear that bathing was safe, and no evacuation would be required.

In the meantime, Uniroyal admitted that they had been burying the MDNA in barrels in the fields adjacent to the factory. This was how they disposed of the substance. Over the years the barrels leaked, and the chemicals leached into the aquifer. Uniroyal armed itself with lawyers and denied they were responsible for the problems. The Region in the meantime armed itself with its own consultants and hired groundwater experts. 

In 1989 there had had never been any sort of aquifer pollution like this before, anywhere. The Region hired the best scientists to establish what level of MDNA was acceptable in water and to figure out how to stop the plume of chemicals from spreading even further and contaminating the rest of the Region’s water supply. As public pressure and costs mounted, several clean-up solutions provided the Town of Elmira with safe drinking water.

Uniroyal and the Region settled for $40 million after years of litigating. The money was used to pay for remediation costs. Long-term studies of the health of the citizens of Elmira are still undergoing to see whether cancer rates are higher in the town. Following the incident regulations were tightened but successive governments have since ‘cut red tape’.

This is a fantastic story with many twists and turns. To hear the first-hand account of it tune into Episode 33 of Old Grey Mayors today on your favourite podcast platform.