Dirty Dirt: The legacy of contaminated sites
Have you ever driven by a vacant site in town and wondered why it was empty? Maybe the buildings have been torn down but nothing’s going on. Or the property is for sale in a great location, but nobody’s buying. Quite possibly, it’s a contaminated site.
Properties become contaminated in many ways. Some of the obvious ones include dumping fuel, spills around fuel-storage tanks, leachate from garbage, and contamination from batteries or other industrial waste.
But soil and groundwater may also be contaminated by historical practices that are no longer in vogue. For example, photography studios and laundry facilities used to dump their used chemicals down the drain. Some of these chemicals could eat through concrete, and ended up in the soil or groundwater beneath the storefront. Another example is the historical method of changing oil in vehicles and machinery by draining it into a hole in the ground. Or the good-old-days method of filling in a gully, watercourse or large hole by dumping whatever was at hand into it. Wood waste, demolition debris, old cars, household garbage and appliances were all common fillers. At one site I investigated, we even found an airplane.
Fortunately, these out-of-sight, out-of-mind practices aren’t acceptable anymore. We now know that these old ways not only degrade soil and groundwater, but result in expensive clean-up efforts, too.
Often when a site requires assessment or remediation, someone comments that “We didn’t have to do this in the old days.” That’s true, as the first rendition of contaminated-site regulations in BC didn’t appear until the 1980s. At that time, the BC government was struggling to clean up land along Vancouver’s False Creek in preparation for Expo ’86. Industrial use had contaminated the soil and groundwater. Figuring out what to do was challenging and resulted in the creation of the BC Contaminated Site Regulations (CSR).
The BC CSR are now considered the most stringent contaminated-site regulations in Canada, and are continually updated to reflect changes in science and political will. New regulations come out regularly. Examples of recent changes include a requirement to consider that groundwater everywhere may be used for drinking water. These changes provide additional protection to our environment and are generally welcomed.
Reclamation or remediation? The assessment of a potentially contaminated site often includes collecting soil and groundwater samples. Test holes are dug or boreholes drilled to collect soil samples, while wells are installed to collect groundwater samples. Clean-up efforts are then directed by the results of sample analysis. However, clean-up or remediation work can be a bit mysterious.
To start with, reclamation and remediation are often confused. In the environmental industry, reclamation describes returning disturbed areas to their original state, while remediation is considered the removal of contaminants. So where reclamation work may entail planting indigenous species at a former mining site, thereby ‘reclaiming’ the land, remediation involves biological, chemical or physical activities to remove contaminants.
Some of the more interesting remediation methods include taking advantage of naturally occurring bacteria that live in soil. These bacteria eat hydrocarbon (fuel) contamination and use it as energy while releasing oxygen and water as by-products. Other remediation methods are a bit more mundane, such as taking contaminated soil elsewhere for treatment or storage. Regardless of methodology, remediation can be expensive, and deciding who will pay for it can be challenging.
Environmental liability is a simple concept that describes who is obligated to pay for damage to the environment, but it can be very complex in reality. When a property changes hands, the environmental liability may or may not go with it; therefore, selling or purchasing a contaminated site can be tricky business. Even when a property is ideally located, its value may be affected by the condition of the soil and groundwater. If the property value is less than or is significantly affected by the cost of potential remediation, it may not be saleable. This is one cause of some of the vacant properties in northwest BC towns.
But it’s not all bad news. Properties regularly change hands where the seller maintains the environmental liability and cleans up the property, while the new owner operates a business. Or contamination may be identified and remediated prior to a property sale.
Creative options Thinking outside the box may unearth other options, too. In Terrace, a non-profit society and a large corporation are co-operating to dress up a vacant contaminated site in the centre of town. Until the mid-1990s the property at the corner of Lakelse Avenue and Emerson Street in downtown Terrace operated as an Esso gas station and garage. After the business closed in 1998, the structures were removed and soil and groundwater were assessed. But then, year after year, the property sat vacant.
At the urging of local residents, the Greater Terrace Beautification Society (GTBS)—a group of volunteers committed to promoting the beautification of the Terrace area—decided to see what they could do about it. In 2007, GTBS contacted the owner of the site, Devon Estates Ltd., the real-estate arm of the Canadian company Imperial Oil Ltd. Negotiations began with the City of Terrace and Devon Estates regarding lease arrangements, liability concerns, public use, safety, development plans and fencing. Kerry Giesbrecht, a long-time volunteer with GTBS, comments, “Negotiations were extensive and there were times when we weren’t sure whether we would come to an agreement. But we were always hopeful that we could make a deal, because we knew how much it meant to our community.”
In 2009, GTBS finally signed a three-year agreement with Devon Estates and work on the property could begin. Giesbrecht continues, “We were really lucky to find a great landscape architect in Houston, BC. She produced two plans for the site that not only reflected our vision, but worked within the constraints of our lease agreement.”
Following public input and fund-raising events, one design was selected and local contractors were hired. It took three years and countless volunteer hours to re-develop the site. By February 2012, over $64,000 had been spent on fill material, pavers, cedar planters, trees and plants, fencing, signage and the whimsical umbrella features which now define this unique green space. Fourteen years after the site became vacant, a new five-year lease agreement was signed by GTBS, just in time for the official opening of Brolly Square on May 5th, 2012.
Reviewing the GTBS experience, it’s easy to understand why there are vacant sites in the Northwest. Brolly Square is a success story, but it took enormous volunteer time and effort to make it happen. Many other contaminated sites are simply not valuable enough to ensure their timely clean-up or development for an alternative use. However, with updated regulations, new remediation technologies and more out-of-the-box thinking, more vacant sites could return to productive use sooner rather than later. A few more Brolly Squares in BC’s Northwest would be welcome.