They live near a former wood treatment plant. Now they anxiously await results of a cancer investigation

Dume Bera wades through waist-high weeds as he steps into his backyard for the first time in years.

His children watch from inside the house, behind windows that are always shut tight. No one in Bera’s household ever touches the soil.

A married father of three, the 43-year-old Bera is afraid of the contaminated soil found near his northeast Edmonton home and what it means for the health of his family. 

“I worry. I worry every day about my sons,” he says as walks along an overgrown fenceline affixed with a warning sign.  

“We were hoping the government would help us, but they have abandoned us.”

Bera’s home overlooks a former Domtar wood treatment plant, which is now slated to become a new neighbourhood.

Remediation work on the former creosote plant — now an empty field north of Yellowhead Trail and south of Hermitage Road — was approved this month by Alberta Environment.

Despite the completed cleanup, people living near the site continue to wait for answers about what the industrial history of their neighbourhood means for their future health.

An epidemiological investigation into elevated rates of cancer found among nearby residents is now more than three years overdue, with no timeline for completion.

Reports suggest the area where Bera’s home now stands was once used for the storage of raw, untreated wood. But testing in his backyard found dangerous concentrations of toxic chemicals.

‘Losing hope’

Bera said crews cleaning up the site offered to excavate part of his yard. But he didn’t want his family in the home when the soil was dug up; his yard remains untouched.

He said his children often struggle to breathe, and frequent hospital visits have left him wondering if the soil is making them sick.

“I am losing hope,” he said. “They said they would help us … but they abandoned my family.”

An aerial view of the site of the former Domtar plant. Years after contamination prompted public warnings about the risk to residents, the site is now slated for redevelopment. (David Bajer/CBC)

The delay of the health study is the latest frustration for area residents in a decades-long battle over contamination found on the brownfield site.

The plant operated from 1924 until 1987, using toxic preservatives such as creosote to treat railway ties, telephone poles and other wood products. Chemical waste seeped deep into the soil.

Domtar officials declined an interview request. The company no longer owns the land. Cherokee Canada Inc., the new owner, declined comment but has long maintained the site is safe.

In 2018, more than 100 area residents received letters warning them that their homes were near contaminated lands.

Fences were put up, along with signs warning that the soil was toxic with hazardous levels of dioxins, furans and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

The following year, the province announced a cancer study after an initial assessment identified elevated cancer rates in people who lived near the former plant.

An association was found between a longer length of residency and certain types of cancer — breast and endometrial cancer in women, and lung cancer in men.

Soil testing also showed more than 180 samples from nearly 1,500 specimens had levels of toxins exceeding health guidelines.

The province promised a more thorough investigation into why residents were at an elevated risk and if contamination from the plant was to blame.

WATCH | Edmontonians living near former Domtar plant call for accountability:

Residents near former wood treatment plant anxious for answers

Featured VideoYears after dangerous industrial contamination was discovered on the site of a former Domtar plant in Edmonton, the lands are now poised for redevelopment. But with remediation complete, an investigation into elevated rates of cancer in the area remains incomplete.

Alberta Health, Alberta Health Services and the Public Health Agency of Canada launched the study. Federal epidemiologists were dispatched to Edmonton in 2019 to begin the work.

Results of the study were to be made public by spring 2020. What progress has been made to date remains unclear.

In a statement, Alberta Health blamed the ongoing delays on the COVID-19 pandemic. It said an epidemiologist at the University of Alberta will analyze the research before results are subjected to scientific peer review.

“We remain committed to completing the epidemiological study and will release the findings publicly when they are ready,” an Alberta Health spokesperson said.

A "keep out" sign on a blue fence.
Fencing around the former Domtar site in northeast Edmonton warned residents of the risk of soil contamination. (Dave Bajer/CBC Edmonton)

After the Domtar plant closed, there was some remediation, including excavation work in nearby backyards. But millions of tonnes of contaminated earth remained.

Cherokee, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in redeveloping brownfield sites, purchased the plant lands in 2010 and planned to turn the area into a residential development. 

Some homes, including Bera’s, were built to the west of the main plant property but Cherokee was soon locked in a regulatory fight to continue the build.

In 2016, following an investigation into the construction of a 900-metre-long berm on site, the province ordered Domtar and Cherokee to immediately remove all contaminated material.

The berm – 40 metres wide and four metres tall – was constructed with contaminated soil, according to site inspection reports. 

Cherokee and Domtar appealed the order on grounds that a cleanup, estimated to cost $52 million, was unnecessary.

Alberta’s Environmental Appeals Board sided with the companies. The board ruled that removing all contaminated soil from the site would put pose a higher risk to human health — that it would be safer to bury some of the polluted soil deeper in the ground.

In 2019, Shannon Phillips, Alberta’s environment minister at the time, accepted the recommendations and quashed the previous orders.

Phillips issued a new ministerial order and new environmental protection orders outlining remediation plans, including timelines for dust control and health risk assessments.

In the fall of 2022, remediation began on four parcels, including a city-owned greenbelt and the now-empty plant lands that are slated for infill development.

A map of Edmonton's Domtar site.
A map shows the former site of the Domtar creosote plant. (CBC)

Alberta Environment signed off this month on the cleanup of the lands slated for infill development. Excavation of contaminated soils has been completed and deemed acceptable, the ministry said.

More than 95,000 tonnes of soil with the highest levels of contamination was trucked away. Soil with low levels of contamination was used to backfill an excavation site where there are no plans for future residential development.

The province said risk management and long-term monitoring plans, completed last year, will manage the risk of residual contamination and ensure polluted soil buried on site is not disturbed.

Groundwater samples will be taken from 32 wells each year. Soil vapour samples will be collected twice annually.

If the sampling indicates “unexpected concentrations” of contaminants, corrective actions will be taken, the province said. It said monitoring reports will be provided to community members on request.

“Management of contamination below the recreational areas of the bermed soils and the greenbelt areas is considered possible without causing adverse effect,” the province said.

Decisions about how and when the land can be redeveloped now rest with the City of Edmonton. The city said it has has received an application for rezoning of the former Domtar lands to residential, parks and public utility development. 

City officials said a team with expertise in contaminated sites would typically be involved in reviewing development proposals for properties with a known history of contamination. However, in this case, Alberta Environment was solely responsible for ensuring remediation was completed, the city said. 

Remediation has also wrapped up on a city-owned greenbelt in the Overlanders neighbourhood that was formerly the site of a series of wastewater ditches for the plant.

In August, an environmental protection order for the greenbelt was rescinded.

Fences that had kept residents out for years came down in early November.

A woman with brown hair, dressed in a red jacket, stands in an overgrown field.
Coreen Sheridan, an 18-year resident of the neighbourhood, says residents near the Domtar lands deserve clear and consistent reporting on the environmental monitoring being done in the area. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

Coreen Sheridan, whose home of 18 years backs onto the property, said communication about remediation has been sporadic and the greenbelt was opened to public access without notice.

She once fed her family from a vegetable garden on the lot; her children played there.

Sheridan said she was relieved to see the fences come down but wants a clearer picture of the health risks her family may have faced.

“My husband fought cancer twice since those fences went up,” she said. “Is it because of where we’ve lived that he got this? I don’t know that there’s ever going to be evidence or proof, whether it is or it isn’t.”

In a statement to CBC, Alberta Health Services said risk to public health from the greenbelt is now considered low.

Sheridan said she has lost confidence in Cherokee, the province and the city. She said residents deserve more transparency around testing, and for the results of the cancer study to be made public.

“They told us that it was such a hazard, that we were living right next to this horrible zone that you can’t go into,” she said. 

“Now, all of a sudden, they’ve determined this is safe? But they haven’t communicated that to us. They haven’t told us what they found or reassured us that it is a safe place.”

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