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Monique Keiran: After 150 years of pollution, harbours slowly becoming safe again

There is still work to be done to eliminate pollution from long-ago garbage dumping, chemical and fuel spills, draining of industrial waste and crappy residential sewage and stormwater systems
The latest round of monitoring by OceanWise's PollutionTracker reveals that Victoria Harbour harbours some of the most dangerous pollutants known. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The word “harbour” has several related definitions. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a harbour as “a place of security and comfort: Refuge” and “a part of a body of water protected and deep enough to furnish anchorage.”

But other nuances apply. The verb “to harbour” can mean “to provide shelter” or “to be home or habitat to.” It can also mean “to hold especially persistently in mind.”

All these distinctions are valid for the Victoria area’s harbours.

For thousands of years, these havens provided habitat for diverse and healthy communities of shellfish, seaweed, herring and salmon, as well as birds, deer, elk, cougar and bear. They also safe places for local First Nations people to live, travel, harvest and hunt.

More recently, our harbours sheltered naval, commercial and private vessels, and provided recreation, transport, and other opportunities for a growing city and burgeoning industries.

But as our harbours provided security and safety, they also came to hold and hide unsafe elements, belying their role as safe waters.

The latest round of monitoring by OceanWise’s PollutionTracker reveals that Victoria Harbour harbours some of the most dangerous pollutants known.

The project samples and tests sediments and shellfish from the seafloor at key sites along B.C.’s coast for contaminants. Almost without exception, the highest levels of PCBs, dioxins, furans, flame retardants, stain and water repellents, plasticizers, detergents, lead, mercury, pesticides, and microplastics found in the coastal sediments from 2018 to 2020 occurred in Victoria Harbour, where the perilous contaminants lurk in seafloor sand, silt and mud.

Every time an anchor drags, a cable trails, a boat’s wake slaps, waves churn and a critter burrows, the toxin-holding sediments agitate, releasing clouds of contaminants and silt to drift through the water column.

Many of the pollutants are legacy chemicals from long-ago material and garbage dumping, chemical and fuel spills, draining of industrial waste into creeks and ravines that led into harbour waters, and crappy residential sewage and stormwater systems.

But past practices and poor urban design aren’t solely to blame. The sediments also contain high levels of pesticides that became widely used only since the late-1990s.

That is entirely on us.

Seafloor pollutants make cleaning up our harbours costly and time consuming.

It took a four decades and $500 million to remediate the site of a decommissioned coal gasification plant at Rock Bay, until then, one of Canada’s most contaminated bodies of water.

For 90 years, operators dumped the plant’s waste in the surrounding area, and the coal-tar chemicals continued seeping into land and nearby waters for decades after. A total of 140,000 tonnes of contaminated soil was removed from the site. Another 88,000 tonnes of sediments and foreshore was also removed. Rock Bay itself was drained and dredged.

A similar project is underway in Esquimalt Harbour. The place where a harbour seal pup was born in July is one of several locations at CFB Esquimalt where, over the last five years, contaminated material has been excavated from the seabed and shoreline and replaced with clean substrate. Work has been completed at 12 sites, and another four contaminated sites will be addressed in the coming years.

Likewise, the return of the Olympia oyster to Gorge Waterway and Portage Inlet indicates those waters are also returning to their former healthy function as wildlife habitat. The Olympia oyster was once abundant from Alaska to Panama, but by the 1920s, it was locally extinct, a victim of overfishing, its own tastiness, and waters contaminated with sewage, chemicals and sediment that poisoned and suffocated the oyster beds.

Surveys in 2009 revealed the oyster was again thriving in the Gorge. It return is in large part due to community-level clean-up efforts that had begun in the 1990s, as well as to improved infrastructure in the surrounding areas.

Whether or not the pollutants within the Gorge’s underlying sediments are ever removed, at least some of the major contaminant contributors have been addressed.

After 150 years of abuse and pollution, our harbours are returning to being the refuges to wildlife they once were. Our harbours are extensive, however, and in areas not yet remediated, they are not safe waters.

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