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Gardeners concerned about contaminated Saint John soil after September fire at American Iron & Metal

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Before long gardeners will be getting their outdoor plots ready for another year of growing fresh fruits and vegetables, but in Saint John, N.B., there is a little bit of extra caution heading into the season.

A fire in September 2023 at American Iron & Metal’s port property covered the city in thick toxic smoke for more than 24 hours, contaminating the soil and forcing many gardeners to trash their yield over health concerns.

The New Brunswick Department of Health did a thorough investigation on the risks to the soil in the months following the blaze, and found while there was some contamination to the soil from the fire, the event did not contaminant the soil to a level that would pose a health risk to the public.

After getting the all clear, gardeners are eager to start digging.

Lisa Morris is a coordinator for P.U.L.S.E. (People United in the Lower South End) and helps run the Rainbow Park Community Garden in the south end of the city, where she also gardens herself.

She says they are in the early stages of getting the area ready for gardeners and sorting who will get plots. She said it was only a few weeks ago she learned the Rainbow Park Community garden was safe for planting, after she was told in December further testing was required for the site.

“It still makes me question what was in the first one that made it not okay and how is it okay now,” admits Morris. “I’m definitely curious as to what is in our soil. Is it safe, is it healthy soil, or is it just okay and passable?”

She is thankful to not have to replace the soil at the gardens, which would have been difficult to do seeing as it is a community garden. Morris also notes while for some gardening is little more then a hobby, for others it is crucial in order to put food on the table given the high cost of groceries.

“There are large families, six, seven people that harvest and plant and rely on this garden,” she says. “With food insecurities this is one of our ways we help and support residents in the south end so we need to make sure that food they are bringing home is safe to eat.”

The soil concerns are shared by others. Harbour View High School has a massive garden on its property, but students aren’t sure if it is safe to plant in the soil that may have been contaminated. Karen Vickers is a teacher at the school and she attended Thursday’s meeting hosted by Liveable Saint John on the impacts AIM has had on the community, hoping for some direction she could relay to her students.

“They don’t feel they should be paying for the soil replenishment and I don’t blame them,” says Vickers. “It was the students who brought to my attention that any sort of residual bits of vegetables lying around afterwards, they weren’t even allow to putting those in the compost, that’s how strong the fear of contamination was.”

Amy Cleveland is a horticultural technician and master gardener at Cedaercrest Gardens, and admits she has had more questions on soil this year then most, including people concerned about contamination from the AIM fire as far as Quispamsis, N.B.

“If they’re still not 100 per cent sure, just simply remove the earth,” she advises residents who are concerned about their soil health. “Especially if you have raised beds or container gardens, and go ahead and fill them up with nice new fresh garden soil and plant away.”

She says it is good practice to top gardens with fresh soil every year to maximize the growth of produce. She also understands replacing soil can be expensive, and recommends other planting options if redoing the garden is out of the question.

“Grow in pots,” she says. “You can grow carrots, tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans, anything in little tiny containers around your deck or your patio.”

For more guidance on gardening in areas with industrial activity, the province has some safety tips on its fact sheet.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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