The Port Hope Project and Port Granby projects, a $1.3-billion combined federal investment for a multi-year cleanup of low-level radioactive waste in the Lake Ontario communities, were set to enter their largest construction phase as the coronavirus pandemic began.
But that quickly ground to a halt due to worker safety and emergency orders to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“We had a lot of work happening already in the waterfront. We were about to hit a major milestone with the dredging of thousands of tons of contaminated sediment from Port Hope’s harbour. We are also testing 5,000 properties for the presence or absence of low-level radioactive waste, which were about to start construction,” said Bill Daly, Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI) communications manager for Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL).
“All of this came to an abrupt halt when this really hit. We were definitely impacted. We were able to move some of our operation to remote work, but this is a construction project. There is no denying it, we were definitely impacted there.”
While no construction is happening right now, a minimal number of staff members remain at the worksites in the community in order to keep everything secure.
“We have a skeleton crew of people working out there. All have been screened, and they practise social distancing,” Daly said. “The rest of the work we can do is remote work, so we can plan and we’ve been intensely focused on how we can get back to work while maintaining safety of our staff and residents.
“The Port Hope Area Initiative is definitely experiencing a delay this year.”
When crews are allowed to return to the sites and construction is allowed to begin again, Daly said it will be a gradual approach and that work can’t just be ramped back up to full speed again.
“We had entire neighbourhoods lined up to be cleaned up just two weeks ago. Many property owners were expecting this to happen and all of this has been pushed off with an uncertainty of when we can get back,” he said.
“This particular project is unlike other construction projects. It is a radiological contamination removal project, which means there are so many layers of oversight — radiation protection, environment — which means more people need to be involved at the scene. Even as we move back, we need to find a way to do it in a safe and measured way.”
“We have many residents in town where we literally have to be in the bedrooms, basements and backyards of their homes and have many people on multiple occasions to get this work done. People may not be comfortable with that. We have a big challenge here of making sure we can do this work in a safe way and give confidence to people who may be social distancing in their homes,” he added.
While shovels may not be in the ground now, administrative staff are still meeting daily through virtual platforms to continue the planning process, which includes how construction might look once some restrictions are lifted.
“We’ll have to do one section of the community at a time. We typically have multiple projects happening, and it’s very complex to co-ordinate. In this case, we’ll find the lowest-risk area and we’ll work in that area first. We’ll learn some lessons and slowly move back,” Daly said.
Daly said there have been discussions with Atomic Energy of Canada, a Crown corporation that oversees the project, to get contractors back to work again in the planning process.
But all decisions are being made with public health directives.
To date, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 with any CNL staff.
During the pandemic, CNL has provided personal protective equipment to agencies in Northumberland County and has been working with the local food banks and the Salvation Army to give storage for groceries.
Some staff members have also volunteered to deliver food to those in need.
Any groups or agencies interested working with the PHAI or CNL to help support the community can go to phai.ca or call 905-885-8830.
While the office is closed, property owners can also still contact the PHAI during the pandemic.