Contaminated brownfields: Time to clean up our ugly past

By Trevor Hutchinson

Contaminated brownfields: Time to clean up our ugly past
Photo: Sienna Frost.

We have all driven or walked past them — the empty lots, both big and small, that have sat undeveloped and seemingly abandoned or forgotten, in some cases for decades. Whether it’s a former gas station on the city’s busiest street, the site of a former brake pad factory or a long empty First World War munitions plant cum rubber processor, these sites — referred to commonly as ‘brownfields’ — lie dormant; they are victims of an earlier time.

We used to do things a lot differently in the past. Be it from a leaky gas station tank or the unsafe handling and disposal of chemicals used in manufacturing, we have been left with a sobering, expensive – and ugly – brownfields legacy.

Contributing Editor Trevor Hutchinson.

It is estimated that there are over 30,000 brownfield sites in Canadians cities and there are several throughout the City of Kawartha Lakes. A Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) registry lists 28 properties throughout the city where owners started the process of environmental inspection for possible development since 2004. Some of these sites have since been redeveloped but this number does not include known ‘legacy brownfields’ where development has never been proposed.

But beyond the devil’s brew of chemicals and petrochemicals that may lurk unseen in the ground below these sites there lies something equally as hard to see for some: opportunity. The Canadian Real Estate Association sums up the opportunity nicely: “Well-located brownfield sites often have a lot of development potential. Besides being closer to the city core than any new development could possibly be, these sites are usually already served by infrastructure such as utilities and roads – saving the need to build these from scratch. In fact, it’s estimated that every brownfield redevelopment saves an area four-and-a-half times larger from being developed in an outlying region.”


Successful brownfield remediation requires several components: public policy coordination, a stringent environmental process and of course, money.

Brownfields are mentioned in seven different sections in the City of Kawartha Lakes Official Plan (many of which is under appeal at the Land Planning Appeal Tribunal.) They are also mentioned in the City’s new Community Improvement Plan (CIP).

“The City is committed to providing leadership and working with developers and entrepreneurs to find new opportunities and partnerships in addressing the redevelopment of brownfields. In order to ensure that there will be no adverse effects from any proposed development, prior to development occurring on known or potentially contaminated sites, environmental site assessments and remediation of contaminated lands are required by the Province through the Environmental Protection Act and its regulations, and other legislation,” says Leah Barrie, policy planning supervisor at the City of Kawartha Lakes.

It may sound like bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo, but having a CIP in place is important: As Barrie explains, it allows “for the provision of municipal tax assistance under the Municipal Act within a CIP framework. Now that the CIP is in place, Council can choose to activate a tax assistance program at its discretion. Such programs are used to stimulate the cleanup of contaminated properties by offsetting the costs of remediation through the freezing or cancellation of the municipal portion of property taxes and, with the approval of the Ministry of Finance, the provincial portion of property taxes may be included.”

Bill Leedham is a licensed geo-scientist and the president and founder of Down 2 Earth Environmental Services. The former Fleming student is a MERP-registered ‘Qualified Person’ who also trains and mentors the next generation of geo-scientists. As Leedham explains, the environmental process of remediating a brownfield can be a long, arduous and expensive process. There are two phases in the environmental assessment process required to remediate land for reuse. Phase 1 is a ‘desktop’ review: the site is visually examined, the historical records studied and knowledgeable people on the site interviewed. A Phase 2 assessment can involve drilling bore holes, test wells, the installation of monitoring wells to investigate groundwater and the analysis of soil and water samples against published standards. And this is all before a cleanup of the site can even start — a process that might involve removal of contaminated material or clean-up onsite.

Photo: Sienna Frost.

When there is no contamination found, the process can take several months. “That’s kind of rare. Where there is contamination, the process of remediation can take anywhere from two to five years, even up to 10 years,” says Leedham.

Railways Lands

Mark Wilson is owner of MVW Construction that developed and owns the Railway Lands in Lindsay — a great local example of successful brownfield remediation on the site of the old Lindsay railway yards. Wilson estimates that it took ‘about a year’ to go from the required environmental studies to filing a record of site condition. But even the most arduous studies won’t always prepare a developer for what lies ahead when shovels go into the ground.

“The difficulty with site remediation costs is that they are difficult to determine.  Although detailed studies are required to determine the type and level of contamination, you really don’t know what you are going to get into until you are doing the work,” say Wilson.

In the Greater Toronto Area, the incredible land values can be an economic driver and justify the remediation. But as Leedham explains, this process can “run into the millions of dollars.”

“The cost is a real impediment to brownfield remediation outside the GTA because there would be no return on investment for the developer.”

And there’s the rub for municipalities like ours: We have prime sites on serviced land within town borders but in many cases — depending on the level of contamination — the economics just don’t work out for redevelopment. The risk and expense of remediation can make a project unfeasible.

Literally digging into the past — a past bereft of the environmental regulations we have today — is just downright expensive and risky. The City may now be able to help a developer through tax relief but that support will often not be enough to make redevelopment possible. And while the City might be officially committed to ‘providing leadership” that leadership just does not include money for brownfields’ remediation. There are currently no line items in the city budget to help developers with remediation or to account for future tax relief.

There is funding available through The Federation of Canadian Municipalities for brownfield remediation through their Green Municipal Fund. That fund was recently given a boost, although that additional funding was earmarked for energy conservation of public buildings (funding projects like solar power generation on the new affordable housing development at Queen and Lindsay streets.) The FCM also has a Leadership in Brownfield Renewal (LiBRe) network that connects municipal staff across the country on brownfield remediation but there is currently no CKL representation on that group.

In the recent past there was a provincial Brownfield Remediation Fund under the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government, but that funding was cancelled under the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government.

Ontario Green Party Leader Weighs In

Mike Schreiner, MPP for Guelph and the leader of the Ontario Green Party, thinks that fund should be reinstated. Schreiner was the only party leader that advocated for brownfields remediation to be a part of the most recent provincial budget. Schreiner sees brownfield remediation as a way to solve two problems: the sites themselves and the affordable housing crisis, stating “redeveloping brownfield sites would allow us to address the housing crisis without paving over our food security and drinking water.”

His argument is a persuasive one that appeals to people across the political spectrum. Rather than expand outward and pave farmland for future growth, we should be developing properties that are often on prime, municipally serviced land within the established boundaries of our towns.

There are strong economic reasons for taking this approach. When brownfields are remediated, the site goes from a dormant eyesore to something perpetually earning tax revenue. That improvement gets reflected in higher property values for neighbouring properties and the resultant tax in increases that brings. As Schreiner told The Advocate, “I would like to see the province reinstitute that [brownfield remediation] fund. It would eventually pay for itself. It will ultimately provide positive fiscal returns to the province and the municipality.”

Beyond the possible positive economic benefits of remediation, getting rid of brownfields makes for better communities. Remediation “increases the liveability and vibrancy of our communities,” adds Schreiner.

Leedham, for one, agrees with Schreiner. Leedham sees brownfield remediation as an exercise in community building stating, “It is an investment in our community. It is an investment in our overall environmental health.”

To be sure, the idea of giving private developers public money is going to rankle people across the political divide. People on the left might decry the government helping developers. Some on the right might balk at the up-front costs that some of this remediation requires.

Leedham describes helping developers with the costs of remediation as a win-win, saying “we all benefit when it is done properly. Communities that have done it well (like Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and Kingston) have realized the overall benefit to their community. It’s not just the cost, it’s the benefit.”

“It is short-sighted to say ‘We shouldn’t give developers money to remediate brownfields’,” adds Leedham. And it’s not like these historical problems are going to solve themselves. Left alone, these sites sit, possibly contaminating other properties or further affecting the water table.

As for possible future brownfield sites, we can take some consolation that overall, we do things a little better than in the past. Unlike over 100 years ago at the munitions factory or later commercial manufacturing, we now have regulations and mechanisms in place. As Barrie explains, “The MECP provides more oversight through environmental legislation, such as the Environmental Protection Act, to ensure that emissions are approved before facilities are operational.  This minimizes opportunities for further environmental degradation.”

Leedham adds that we also have comprehensive source water protection plans and the province can issue regulatory clean-up orders. Still though Leedham thinks we should be doing more to prevent future brownfield sites, citing that “pollution prevention is a lot cheaper than clean-up. Spill prevention is cheaper than spill clean-up. Every $1 spent on prevention can prevent $10 or a $100 or even a $1,000 dollars in clean-up down the road.”

It’s a matter of convincing governments that pollution prevention is cheaper in the long run according to Leeham, who advocates for more public awareness on this issue. He also thinks that current industrial owners should be incentivized to improve their prevention plans for the betterment of us all.

“We have to learn from our mistakes in the past and clean” those legacy sites up declares Leeham.

Failing to do so is tantamount to burdening a future generation with a problem that we have the ability to solve. We already have the technology and the social benefits can be transformative to our communities.

All we need is the political will to invest in our future by incentivizing developers to transform old problems into new solutions.

1 Comment

  1. D'Arcy McGee says:

    Excellent article on a scourge that impacts most communities in Ontario & Canada. Having worked in the oil industry for over three decades,I can attest to the enormous costs associated with the cleanup of these sites. One does wonder though, why the original owners were allowed to abandon these lands without remediation, but i guess that’s “water under the bridge” to quote Hazel McCallion

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