Many industries use potential soil contaminants in a wide range of manufacturing processes. Yet prevention is relatively easy, doesn’t require major investment and can be averted with properly trained personnel using the right equipment.
Admittedly, it is an extreme example but last July’s discovery of a small amount of loose yellow uranium in the soil under Cameco’s uranium hexafluoride conversion plant near Toronto added another chapter to an ongoing story. Cameco admitted at a public hearing in April that a leak from its plant reached a nearby harbour, groundwater was contaminated and the soil under its parking lot was contaminated, as well.
Yellow cake is nothing to fool around with but, fortunately, few companies deal with radioactive material. Yet many industries do use potential soil contaminants in a wide range of manufacturing processes. For example, in Ottawa in late April, the National Capital Commission closed a portion of Stanley Park near New Edinburgh when lead contamination was discovered in the soil, the site of a former landfill.
The problem with soil pollution is three fold.
First, it makes its way into the ecosystem and food chain when everything from small insects to large animals feed from plants growing in the contaminated soil.
Second, soil contamination can seep well beyond the original contamination site, leaking into ground water and adjacent surface areas.
Third, cleaning it up is incredibly expensive; Cameco is facing the possibility of regulators making it tear down its plant to clean the uranium-contaminated soil under the facility.
Yet preventing soil pollution is relatively easy, does not require a massive investment and can be averted with properly trained personnel using the right equipment.
There are numerous ways soil becomes polluted.
One is solid waste seepage and landfill leaking. Discharging industrial waste into the soil is another method. Applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are another cause of soil pollution.
But the most common chemicals causing soil to become contaminated are solvents, pesticides, heavy medals and petroleum by-products. Other pollutants include metals, organic chemicals, oils and tars, gases, biologically active materials and combustible materials. Problems from these substances arise most often from disposing of industrial waste in landfills or uncontrolled dumps.
Unlike yellow cake and other radioactive material, these components are widely used by industry. And every one of them can make workers sick as well as people living in surrounding areas.
There are simple ways to prevent soil contamination from industrial use of hazardous substances.
Organic waste matter requires proper containers and safe storage until it can be disposed of properly at a licensed and regulated treatment facility. Storage units come in countless sizes and many are designed for handling specific types of materials.
Inorganic matter such as paper, plastic, glass and metals should be reclaimed and recycled. While nearly every business has a “blue box” programme – indeed, most municipalities now require one – special recycling containers holding toxic materials need to be used and kept separate from bins full of soda cans and discarded photocopy paper. Their recycling requires special handling or the supposedly empty container can still contaminate the soil.
Industry is being held more accountable by government and consumers alike when it dumps industrial waste into the soil as well as into the air and water. That’s why prevention is cheap and easy; clean-up is hugely expensive and time consuming.