Steve Ryan trudges down St. Mary’s beach. On one side is a picturesque bay that opens into the ocean. On the other hand, something much less pleasant looms at the water’s edge.
“It’s turned into a disaster zone for the city,” said Ryan, mayor of the community of 309 people on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.
What does he mean by “disaster area”?
“We don’t really know, because we don’t know what we’re dealing with,” he says.
He’s talking about an abandoned fish sauce factory that hasn’t worked for about twenty years.
On this heart-pounding January afternoon, sub-zero temperatures drop further as the wind blows from the bay. But even in these frigid conditions, the acrid smell gets worse as you approach the dilapidated building. The air is so spicy you can actually taste it.
“The smell is just unbearable,” says Ryan.
It’s not an understatement. He says the worst times are late summer and early fall.
People in the community have complained for years about the rancid smell emanating from the building and the vats of decomposing product left inside – a mixture of capelin and pineapple juice. They are concerned about the possible health consequences.
Now UKTN News has uncovered old test results that have sparked new concerns in the community.
Environment Canada inspectors visited the site in late 2016 after receiving reports of sewage from the building flowing into the ocean.
They sent it to a lab in New Brunswick for testing. When they got the results, they immediately ordered a written directive under the Fisheries Act to make sure it didn’t re-enter the bay.
“All fish placed in the wastewater died within 15 minutes,” advises the management of November 18, 2016.
“The wastewater from the former fish plant sauce factory in St. Mary’s, NL, was acutely lethal and therefore a noxious substance under the Fisheries Act.”
A pipe was closed to prevent the sewage from running into the water.
Inspectors later went back to check and found no discharge – confirming that the directive issued under the Fisheries Act had been followed.
According to internal documents, Environment Canada has decided not to take any further enforcement action.
UKTN News recently obtained those test results through a request for access to information, nearly four years after the request was made.
The mayor says he was never informed of those findings. And he’s not happy about it.
“They never came to town to let us know how toxic this really is to fish and the environment,” Ryan said. “This is not right.”
The test results were also news to the local Liberal MP.
Avalon MP Ken McDonald said he raised the St. Mary’s sewage situation with top officials in the federal environmental department and was told everything was fine.
“They weren’t worried at all,” McDonald said.
McDonald now plans to go to the current environment minister to ask for help.
“I think someone fell on the job and actually left the people of St. Mary’s in a mess that they shouldn’t be in today,” he said.
In a statement, Environment Canada did not answer questions about what has been done to notify residents of the test results.
They said it is their responsibility to protect the fish – which they did when the pipe was closed to prevent the product from entering the water.
They say all other concerns should be directed to the county.
Previous attempts to enlist federal and provincial financial aid have been unsuccessful.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government says it rejected an earlier request for funding because it did not meet program criteria and no other applications are pending.
A waste management plan has been approved for the product, but cleanup is the owner’s responsibility.
That company was dissolved 17 years ago and the owner has not been heard from for years.
Muriel Whelan and Juliette (sister) Lee live near the former Atlantic Seafood Sauce Co. factory.
For years they have been concerned about what has been left there and about the stench that sometimes covers their houses.
Lee’s grandchildren had experience with N95 masks long before the pandemic, she says, donning them to play on the swings outside.
And she notes that there is a school about half a mile away from the abandoned building.
“Just up the hill there, our school kids are up there,” Lee said.
“We may not have a big shoal, but like I said, if this is poisonous – and when we were told today it’s supposed to be – well, if it kills fish, what does it do to the people who live here? ?”
Whelan is 73 and says she has nowhere to go.
“People say there are only a few families living near the factory. That’s not true, it’s more than two families, it’s our children and our grandchildren,” Whelan said in a French-language interview with Radio-Canada.
“They come here and tell us, ‘Mommy and Dad, how do you still live here?’ We have no choice. Our house was our future and we put all our money into it.”
And she doesn’t know why the long-running problem hasn’t been resolved.
“I can’t understand why the government, after being here so many times, looks at it and smells it and does nothing,” she said.
But the mayor hopes that government support will now come.
“We have our ocean here, it’s 50 feet away. If this product ends up in the ocean, what could it do?” Ryan said.
“We know what’s here now. Let’s just go clean it up. All levels of government. Let’s work together and get this done. Once and for all.”
Ryan says this is something his small town can’t accomplish on its own.
Read more from UKTN Newfoundland and Labrador