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Environmental Monitoring

Significant resources have been committed to environmental monitoring in Wood Buffalo following the wildfire to ensure the health and safety of residents.

Timeline

Samples of ash, air and soil were taken from all areas that were affected, in multiple phases of testing (Phases 1-3).

Phase 1 

Taking place between May and June 2016, Phase 1 testing focused on air and ash in the following sequence of events:

  • From May 12-15, Alberta Environment and Parks tested structural ash to see if it could be safely disposed of in landfills
  • From May 24-26 and June 2-4, the Municipality collected additional ash samples
  • From May 25-29 and June 6, the Municipality conducted air sampling, specifically for asbestos.

The test results of this phase showed no health or safety concerns for returning residents.

Phase 2

Taking place between June 2-16, 2016, Phase 2 analyzed the quality of the top layers of soil in burned and unburned areas. The test results of this phase showed no health or safety concerns in any soil samples.

Phase 3

Following Phase 2, the Municipality committed to a third round of testing to resample the burned and unburned areas to verify if there were any migration of containments of concern during the remediation efforts.

Phase 3 sampling will begin in January 2017 and completed in early February. We expect to receive the results in April 2017, which will be available for viewing here.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about ongoing environmental monitoring following the 2016 wildfire.

How was ash from destroyed structures tested?

Phase 1 testing included sampling ash and debris resulting from the fire to assess potential contaminants of concern in burned urban and forested areas. Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) sampling was conducted between May 12 and May 15, 2016, to determine if ash and debris could be disposed of safely in landfills. Additional samples were collected by the RMWB between May 24 and May 26, and between June 2 and June 4, 2016. In total, 136 ash samples were collected and analyzed for:

  • Petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs
  • Inorganics and general chemistry (including pH)
  • Metals
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Dioxins and furans
  • Asbestos (bulk) in ash
  • Asbestos (fibrous) in air

How was soil tested after the wildfire?

Phase 2 soil-sample testing consisted of an assessment of unburned soil from urban gardens and burned soil in residential areas. Soil was analyzed for:

  • Petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs)
  • Inorganics and general chemistry (including pH)
  • Metals
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Dioxins and furans

The results of this testing is available through the Government of Alberta’s Environmental Monitoring in Fort McMurray web page.

What were the results of Phase 1 ash-sample testing?

An assessment of ash sample results indicated that the ash had a high pH value, meaning that it was caustic and could cause skin and respiratory irritation and burns. Heavy metals like arsenic, hexavalent chromium and lead, as well as other chemicals were present in ash at concentrations above health-based soil screening values.

Ash in less affected areas had a similar chemical composition to ash in parts of Fort McMurray more heavily damaged by the fire, showing levels of contaminants typical of fires that contain man-made items such as vehicle tires and home building materials.

The level of risk from the contaminants was related to the volume of ash and level of damage in the neighbourhoods. It was due to the extremely high volume of ash and debris that residents of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways were unable to return home and additional precautions were required.

To further minimize the risk of ash being blown into other neighbourhoods, the ash and debris was sprayed with a tackifier to minimize ash movement if disturbed by wind or clean-up. A second round of tackifier was applied following sifting. Mobile air monitoring showed no evidence of ash migrating to non-impacted areas from the most affected areas.

What were the results of Phase 2 soil-sample testing?

In total, 62 soil samples and 136 ash samples were collected. The results were compared against established Alberta ecological and human health guidelines (Alberta Tier 1) and against human health guidelines (Alberta Tier 2). None of the soil samples in any area – burned or unburned – showed an exceedance of human health guidelines. Ash samples showed that the ash was caustic and had concentrations of heavy metals and other chemicals typical of fires that contained man-made items. To minimize the risk of blowing ash, tackifier was sprayed, and some residents had a delayed re-entry to allow for the clean-up of ash.

There are cases where there were exceedances of ecological guidelines but these have no impact on human health. The results of this testing is available through the Government of Alberta’s Environmental Monitoring in Fort McMurray web page.

What will Phase 3 soil sample-testing consist of?

This testing is assessing the levels of contaminants of potential concern for human and ecological health following remedial activities post-wildfire, including demolition and debris removal. This will allow us to understand if there was any contaminant migration during the cleanup of our community.

Where will Phase 3 testing be done?

The testing will be completed in close proximity to areas tested in Phase 1, meaning areas across our region will be tested. There were 246 samples collected on public land.

Why is the Municipality conducting this testing?

This testing allows the Municipality to understand the extent the soil quality may impact human and ecological health and will help support the decisions being made for future remediation or redevelopment in areas of Fort McMurray affected by the wildfire.

When is the sampling going to be completed for Phase 3?

Sampling will began in January and will be completed in early February

When can we expect to see the results of Phase 3? Where will they be posted?

We expect to receive the results in March 2017. The results will be posted on the Government of Alberta website.

How can I compare my private soil-sample results to those completed by the Municipality?

All soil sample results, whether completed publicly or privately, should be tested at minimum against the Alberta Tier 2 standards for ecological and human health guidelines.

The data from ash and soil monitoring is available through the Government of Alberta’s webpage for environmental monitoring in Fort McMurray.

More Information

For questions, call the PULSE Line.

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