Contamination of Kingston Pen land exceeds guidelines: Secret memos

Kingston PenitentiaryContaminants that cause cancer, neurological impairment and a host of other ailments have been found in soil around a closed federal prison in Kingston, Ontario at concentrations as high as 93 times federal guidelines, secret documents reveal. Copies of the documents, two briefing notes prepared by Corrections Canada for Public Safety Minster Steven Blaney, were obtained by Cancrime (read them in full after the jump). One briefing note, dated January 29, 2014, reported that “widespread soil contamination” was found around 179-year-old Kingston Penitentiary, which ceased to operate as a prison in September 2013. The note explains that lead, arsenic and hexavalent chromium – substances described in the note as “hazardous to human health” – were found “in exceedance of Federal and Provincial guidelines.” Corrections Canada, which will conduct an open house on the issue today (April 25) in Kingston, has revealed publicly only that areas around the prison show “preliminary evidence of possible soil contamination.” Information posted online at a website established by Corrections – the agency that manages the federal prison system – omits many details contained in the briefing notes, notably that the contaminants were found at levels far in excess of federal guidelines.

The January 29 briefing note, which was signed by Don Head, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, states that contamination was found in land leased to the City of Kingston for use by the public marina just west of the prison property and on land that is being considered for transfer to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The substances were found during a preliminary environmental site assessment of land outside the prison’s perimeter wall. The briefing note states that interior areas will be assessed later:

The assessment identified widespread soil contamination that is likely due to the institution’s historic use of coal. The contaminants of particular concern are lead (identified up to 93 times the federal guideline), arsenic (identified at up to 68 times the federal guideline) and hexavalent chromium (identified up to twice the federal guideline) as they are considered hazardous to human health and were identified above the federal guidelines in the surface and shallow soil.

The information posted online by Corrections Canada makes no mention of “exceedances” of guidelines but goes on at length about the prison’s historic use of coal for heating and cooking, beginning in the 1880s until 1965:

Unfortunately, we do not yet have a clear picture of the extent of the contamination. Further testing will be done over the spring and summer of 2014 and a detailed assessment will be completed. CSC and its partners are working as quickly as possible to complete this assessment and provide the findings to the public.

While the public may have to wait for details, Minister Steven Blaney’s office already has been provided with a detailed aerial photo/graphic (see below) of the penitentiary land, indicating eight hotspots along the south and west walls where samples exceeded federal guidelines for the protection of environmental and human health. The graphic was included with the confidential January 29 briefing note. At one of the hotspots, near the northwest corner of the prison, lead exists at 93 times the federal guideline, arsenic at three times the guideline, chromium at twice the guideline, copper at 840 times the guideline, antimony at eight times the guideline and zinc at 29 times the guideline. At one of the hotspots at the south end of the property, adjoining Lake Ontario, 12 contaminants are identified. Some of the contaminated areas along the west wall of the prison are publicly accessible because the land has been leased to the neighbouring civic marina. In some areas, boats are stored on the property. The January 29 briefing note to Blaney indicates that further testing is being done.

Based on the heterogeneous nature of the soil and the limited number of samples taken as part of the preliminary assessment it is difficult at this time to draw any conclusions on the extent of the contamination as well as the potential risk the contamination poses to human health and/or the environment.

The briefing note states that Corrections will hire an environmental consultant to “determine whether or not the contamination poses unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.” The work, expected to cost $100,000 “will assist CSC with determining whether immediate corrective action is required.”

In its online posting, Corrections says “safeguarding the health of the public, staff and others is CSC’s first priority in this process. Though it is too early to determine if there are any health concerns, CSC and its partners (City of Kingston, Department of Fisheries and Oceans) will fence off the site and restrict access as a precautionary measure. This will also ensure that testing can continue with minimal disruption.”

The January 29 briefing note indicates that there could be significant disruption:

The risk assessment is anticipated to have a negative impact on the City of Kingston’s revenue-generating abilities due to the need to temporarily restrict site access while the samples are taken and results are obtained. If the site is found to pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment, corrective actions will likely include some or all of the following options:

• Excavation and off-site disposal of contaminated soil
• On-site remediation of contaminated soil
• Installation of an engineered cap and/or completed paving of the site
• Restriction of site access
It is expected that all of these options will significantly impact the current use of the land and could have an effect on any potential future use.

Corrections has not revealed publicly what plans it might be considering for the future of the 10-hectare penitentiary site since it was emptied of prisoners last year. Kingston Penitentiary, which opened in 1835, was the country’s oldest operating prison. It held some of the country’s most notorious sex killers and child molesters.

The prison service also has been slow to share information with Kingston-area politicians about the contamination. A second briefing note for Blaney’s office was prepared by Corrections, dated April 10, 2014, outlining plans for a “communications strategy” that includes sending “courtesy heads-up” letters to the MP and MPP for the Kingston area. Those letters, attached to the briefing note, also omitted any of the details about the “exceedances” that are described in the Jan. 29 briefing note.

The federal Treasury Board also has posted information online about the Kingston Penitentiary contamination (west wall and south wall) but the postings are devoid of any of the details provided to the minister’s office.

Corrections Canada will hold an open house/public meeting today, Friday, April 25, 2014, beginning at 6 p.m. in the media room at the Portsmouth Olympic Harbour in Kingston to discuss the contamination around Kingston Penitentiary.

Below is the graphic/aerial map showing contamination hotspots around Kingston Penitentiary. The graphic was included in the confidential January 29, 2014 briefing note to Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney (click the image for a larger version, 900K)

Kingston Penitentiary contamination hotspots

Below is one document that contains two briefing notes, beginning with the three-page briefing note dated January 29, 2014 that includes the graphic above, followed by the briefing note dated April 10, 2014, which includes draft letters to the MP and MPP for the Kingston area:



Kingston Penitentiary
A view looking south toward Lake Ontario of the west wall of Kingston Penitentiary, where hotspots of contaminated soil were found (photo by Rob Tripp)
Kingston Penitentiary
The west wall of Kingston Penitentiary, next to a public marina, looking south toward Lake Ontario (photo by Rob Tripp)
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