Air monitoring at sites now responsibility of Environment Canada

By Tanya Collier MacDonald
Cape Breton Post
Tues., Oct. 7, 2003

An air monitoring program designed to detect harmful gases during work at the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens sites is now the responsibility of Environment Canada.

Originally contracted to the environmental firm AMEC, constant reading irregularities of toluene throughout the summer now blamed on contamination or tampering has forced the change, said Walter van Veen, project management consultant for work at the toxic sites. "We're going to rely entirely on Environment Canada's equipment and lab for VOC (volatile organic compound) testing," he said.

The Environmental Technology Centre in Ottawa deals primarily with the measurement of air pollutants in ambient air, air pollutants emitted from mobile and stationary sources, the analysis of a wide variety of organic and inorganic compounds and the provision of technical research and development for that work. It has previous experience with Sydney's air sampling program as well, said Environment Canada spokesperson Kelly Cowper.

Air sampling problems began in July when alarmingly high levels of toluene were detected in several of AMEC's air monitoring units located in Whitney Pier, Sydney and Sydney River, said van Veen. Exhaustive measures by project overseers Conestoga Rovers & Associates during the past months confirm the chemical is not present in Sydney's air shed and no pattern is evident. For example, one high reading would be downwind from the coke ovens site and the next would be upwind, he continued. "It was coming from all quadrants," he said. "It was a mystery."

To make certain the harmful material wasn't coming from the airshed, a portable gas chromatograph that resembles a miniature laboratory was used to sample the air at the coke ovens and surrounding industrial sites. "There was no evidence of unusual toluene," said van Veen.

Environment Canada was contacted to take air samples alongside AMEC's testing? Normal results were found in the Ottawa lab and abnormal results continued to appear in AMEC's samples, said van Veen. "We had labs disagreeing with each other," he said. "There was a huge difference. Something was unusual."

A challenge for investigators is the measurement used to detect harmful gases in the air. van Veen described the microscopic measurement as similar to a trip to the moon measured in feet with the first foot the detection level.

But, as the mystery continued to unfold, investigators began to focus their attention on a valve used on AMEC canisters to control the rate of air flow into the unit. Hits of toluene were detected in the gear, said van Veen.

The volatile organic compound is defined as a colourless, flammable liquid obtained from coal tar and petroleum and used in aviation fuel and other high octane fuels, in dye-stuffs, explosives and as a solvent for gums and lacquers. It's also known as methylbenzene. At extremely high levels, the substance can cause tumours in humans and is linked to cardiac dysrhythmia.

About 50 gases, 14 PAHs and about 50 heavy metals are included in an ongoing air monitoring program due to work at the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens sites.