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Global News Investigates: Test reveals calcium chloride exceeds Edmonton bylaws; councillors not briefed

WATCH ABOVE: New documents uncovered by Global News show a lab test of calcium chloride reveals the anti-icing agent exceeded stormwater and combined sewer bylaws set by the City of Edmonton. Julia Wong has the details.

New documents uncovered by Global News show a lab test of calcium chloride reveals the anti-icing agent exceeded stormwater and combined sewer bylaws set by the City of Edmonton.

The information, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, is raising questions about possible environmental impacts as well as why this information was not made available to councillors.

An email sent Nov. 29, 2018 from an EPCOR environmental manager to the city includes validated laboratory results for a sample of calcium chloride taken from an application tank.

READ MORE: City of Edmonton says what calcium chloride may do to your vehicle is your responsibility

“The material that is applied exceeds the bylaw limits in a number of categories,” writes the environmental manager.

“It is high in nutrients ammonia and phosphorus, high in BOD [biological oxygen demand] and COD [chemical oxygen demand], high on multiple metals and has a pH below the lower allowable limit. Ammonia also exceeds the waste control regulation limit, classifying this as a hazardous waste.”
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The lab data shows the BOD was more than 500 times the allowable limit, COD was more than 700 times the allowable limit, ammonia was more than 1,000 times the allowable limit and phosphorus was 32 times the allowable limit for stormwater systems set by the drainage bylaw.

READ MORE: City wants to keep using calcium chloride on Edmonton roads; chemical engineer disputes reports

The environmental manager states that what is in the application tanks and what makes it to the storm system are two different things, but there appear to be questions about potential implications.

LISTEN BELOW: Councillor Tim Cartmell joins the Ryan Jespersen Show to discuss the city’s use of calcium chloride as an anti-icing agent

He wonders if water from snowmelt will dilute the brine and change what enters the system, but adds “the raw material releases to the collection system storm and sanitary are regulatory exceedances.”

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According to the drainage bylaw, those responsible for surpassing the limits must report it then remediate the situation.

Questions raised

Karen Bartlett, a professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia, said the sample represents one data point but there are questions about the substances that exceeded the bylaw limits.

“BOD, COD and total phosphorus – the reason those three are of interest is because they give us a dynamic picture of the water, the discharge that’s going into the water. All three of those indicate that there’s going to be oxygen taken out of the receiving water,” she said.

Bartlett said in the case of BOD and COD, chemical reactions that haven’t completed yet will use up oxygen while phosphorus, which acts as a fertilizer, can contribute to algae blooms that also deplete oxygen from the water.

“Why that’s important is because other things need to live in the water and those can be fish or other plethora of organizations that would normally be in the water,” she explained.

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“Plus, it is implications for the aesthetics of the water. If we picture a pond that’s dead, sometimes the reason why that water is so disgusting looking is because it’s depleted of oxygen. It can’t support life.”

Bartlett said bylaws are protective mechanisms.

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“It’s a way of saying if we keep the level low enough that we can still discharge, but we don’t do irreparable harm to the receiving body,” she said.

Watch below: The City of Edmonton is facing a lawsuit over its use of calcium chloride. 

Lawsuit filed against City of Edmonton over its use of calcium chloride
Lawsuit filed against City of Edmonton over its use of calcium chloride

Fe de Leon, a researcher and paralegal at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, acknowledges the data is information from one day but said the exceedances could be a signal there are going to be impacts to the environment.

“Now you won’t see them unless you monitor other indicators. It could be toxicity to the aquatic environment. It may have some implications for quality of drinking water,” de Leon said.

She said that the lab data should be taken seriously.

“There’s a trust put to the city and its contractors to do the right thing,” de Leon said.

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Anthony Merante, a specialist in freshwater conservation from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said the lab data raises questions about what the environmental impacts, including those on wildlife, of calcium chloride may be. The WWF has been monitoring the impacts of sodium chloride, or road salt, magnesium chloride and calcium chloride on the waterways around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for years.

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“It’s really important, when you’re going to be using any sort of chemical to mitigate public safety, when it comes to winter to make sure that it is then balancing that aquatic ecosystem health perspective,” he said.

“I would love to see these kinds of solutions be tested long-term and short-term for the effects of the wildlife you have in the North Saskatchewan River as it flows through Edmonton, on your wetlands that are adjacent to the city and any sort of body of water that would be affected by runoff.”

Merante echoed EPCOR’s environmental manager in saying the brine solution would be diluted after being sprayed onto the road.

“It’s going to be mixed with snowmelt and ice melt and rain so that value is going to get very diluted by the time it hits a freshwater ecosystem. By the time it heads [into] any sort of water intake area, that’s really the point where you want to see that reading,” he said.

However, Merante said Edmonton should look at the GTA for lessons learned.

“Here we are in 2019 realizing that our chloride levels are far too high, very unhealthy in a lot of our streams. It would have been very paramount to take that into consideration early on in these applications,” Merante said, adding Edmonton has the opportunity to get ahead of the situation by implementing best practices.

Data important for councillors to see

Bartlett said while the lab data looks at one point in time, it is important for elected officials to see.

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“It is absolutely important for our elected officials to have access to these kinds of data. They also need to have a sheet of information that accompanies it that allows them to understand what the numbers mean,” she said, adding it would be important to have further data.

“This one particular piece of data isn’t going to break the North Saskatchewan River but if we don’t understand what could potentially happen…it could have huge implications. The more we educate our elected officials then the better the decision-making they can make.”

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READ MORE: Lawsuit filed against City of Edmonton over its use of calcium chloride

De Leon agrees that councillors should have been made aware of the results.

“I think there’s an implication from an economics perspective as well as impact to the environment when it comes to the use of road salt and the budget that’s associated with that,” she said.

“You’re collecting this data. Make sure that’s part of the conversation that needs to be shared with the public and to the councillors.”

Merante said the WWF is a science-based organization that believes policy and decisions should be based on science.

“I think it’s very important for politicians and elected officials to see data, to see science, to see proper reports and evaluations so they can make a decision that’s not only good for their constituents but also good for the environment,” he said.

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Merante said that the lab data is helpful but more information, such as real-time monitoring, would provide a more comprehensive picture.

Councillor speaks out

Global News showed the lab data to Councillor Tim Cartmell, who said he had never seen it before.

“Seeing those results and seeing the quantity of those elements in those places could be cause for concern without context,” Cartmell said.

READ MORE: Edmonton councillor seeks inquiry after calcium chloride memo fails to reach city council

Cartmell said the drainage bylaws are written in reference to federal and provincial environmental standards.

“Those bylaws are there for a reason. They are there to make sure things do not enter our wastewater and our storm sewer systems and result in detrimental effects to our river and to our stormwater retention ponds,” he said.

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“Speaking only for myself, this is one more aspect of this pilot project that potentially has negative consequences.”

Cartmell had concerns about why the information was not made public. A similar situation took place earlier this year when Global News obtained a memo about the impacts of calcium chloride on concrete and asphalt that was also not shared with councillors.

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“I would like to understand why administration reached the conclusion this information did not need to be shared with council. I believe that should have been brought forward in a fully transparent airing of what was considered as part of this pilot project.”

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City responds

The city declined a request for an interview, instead sending a statement that reads in part:

“The sampling being referred to was a raw, non-diluted sample collected by EPCOR directly from an application tank, not an outfall (e.g., the sample was not reflective of the quality of stormwater discharged into the North Saskatchewan River).

“All of the scientific findings related to the impact of the snow and ice program are available at edmonton.ca/snowandicepilot.

“We look forward to the council discussion on Sept. 24 and are committed to implementing the direction of council based on their upcoming decision.”

The city did not respond to email inquiries about why the information was not shared with councillors. EPCOR referred inquiries to the city, saying its role was to sample and provide the data.

Got a tip? Email reporter Julia Wong in confidence at Julia.wong@globalnews.ca.