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Snapshot of the Canadian Brownfields Programs

As reported by Don Proctor in The Daily Commercial News, the federal government has an important role to play in supporting brownfield development, suggests a recent report authored by third-year undergraduate Ryerson University students working on behalf of the Canadian Brownfields Network (CBN).

“There is a sense among industry professionals and academics that the industry as a whole has not progressed as much as it should,” said one of the students, David Sturgeon, at the CBN’s annual conference held recently at the downtown Toronto university campus.

Map of Brownfield Sites in Regina, Saskatchewan

The students conducted a broad snapshot of federal brownfield programs, highlighting cleanup and best practices.

Sturgeon said the student team organized a three-tier rating scoresheet for each province’s progress on brownfields. B.C., Ontario and Quebec got the highest marks. Quebec is a leader because of its incentives-based cleanup programs. One initiative offers 70 per cent funding for onsite remediation work.

Quebec also has an accessible and up-to-date brownfield site inventory, which is a step ahead of other provinces, Sturgeon told delegates.

While the country’s three most populous provinces scored high, the students ranked Alberta lower down, closer to the middle tier.

“It (the Alberta government) has made quite a bit of progress towards cleanup in the last couple of decades,” Sturgeon said. “But where they struggle is helping developers to act sooner than later on idle or vacant contaminated sites.”

The student team was led by Chris De Sousa, the vice-president of the CBN and a professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University. De Sousa said the study compiled extensive information on brownfields from federal, provincial and territorial governments. Also reviewed were provincial stakeholder groups and comparisons were made with the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Reanne Ridsdale, a Ryerson PhD student, conducted research into actual practice versus the objectives outlined in the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), founded in the late 1980s. For a survey of about 6,500 brownfield remediated sites across Canada, Ridsdale polled 80 participants, including environmental consultants, government officials, several lawyers and financiers.

Eighty-five per cent of those polled said brownfields were a medium to high priority in their organization.

She said 59 of the 80 respondents indicated Canada would benefit from a national fund for brownfield redevelopment. The top three developmental barriers indicated by respondents deal with remediation costs and lack of information available on site conditions, Ridsdale said.

The survey also supported the CBN as a national organization but some respondents were negative because the CBN does not receive federal funding so its scope is limited.

“We are a little bit eastern-centric,” which is probably because of the lack of funding, Ridsdale told delegates, adding the survey results will be published as part of a white paper this summer.

Angus Ross, chairman of L and A Concepts, chaired two government task forces on brownfields, including one that created the National Brownfield Redevelopment Strategy for Canada in 2003. The findings were not the last word on brownfields “but they did a tremendous job in kickstarting the entire brownfield file in Canada,” he said.

Ross, who was appointed by the federal government in 1996 to head the NRTEE and in 2004 to chair the CBN’s advisory panel, said brownfields became “a household word” in the early 2000s through media reports on the NRTEE.

“We got very immediate provincial and municipal buy-in,” he told delegates at the conference.

Hamilton Waterfront

Using GPS trackers to fight toxic soil dumping

As reported by the CBC News and the Montreal Gazette, the Province of Quebec and the City of Montreal are joining forces to try to crack down on a possible link between organized crime and the dumping of contaminated soil on agricultural land.

The solution? A GPS system that can track where toxic soil is — and isn’t — being dumped.

According to the province, there are about two million metric tonnes of contaminated soil to be disposed of every year.

Toxic soil is supposed to be dumped on designated sites at treatment centres. But the Sûreté du Québec has confirmed it believes members of organized crime have been dumping soil from contaminated excavation sites onto farmland.

Quebec Provincial police confirm they are investigating a possible link between organized crime and the dumping of contaminated soil.

“It’s a constant battle. The city and all municipalities have to be very vigilant about any types of possible corruption,” said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.

“What we are talking about today supports a solution, but again, we always have to be proactive.”

The new pilot project, called Traces Québec, is set to launch in May. Companies would have to register for the web platform, which can track in real time where soil is being transported — from the time it leaves a contaminated site to the time it’s disposed of.

Some environmentalists say they’re concerned about the impact the toxic soil has had on agricultural land where it’s been dumped. They’re also uncertain about how a computerized tracking system will put an end to corruption and collusion.

“Right now, there’s no environmental police force in Quebec so there have been investigations into these toxic soils being dumped but unfortunately nobody’s been held accountable yet,” said Alex Tyrrell, leader of the Quebec Green Party.

“There’s really a lack of a coherent strategy for how Quebec is going to decontaminate all of these different toxic sites all over the province. There’s no announcement of any new money.”

The city and the province say this is a first step at addressing the issue and more announcements will be on the way in the coming months.

The pilot project — a joint effort with the city of Montreal — will test a system, known as Traces Québec, that uses GPS and other technologies to track contaminated soil. The first test case will involve a city plan to turn a former municipal yard in Outremont into a 1.7-hectare park. Work is to start in the fall.  All bidders on the project will have to agree to use the Traces Québec system.

Using the system, an official cargo document is created that includes the soil’s origin and destination and its level of contamination. Trucks are equipped with GPS chips that allow officials to trace the route from pickup to drop-off.

Mayor Valérie Plante said the pilot project is “a concrete response to a concrete problem.”

She said she wants to protect construction workers and residents by ensuring contaminated soil is disposed of properly. The city also wants to make sure the money it spends on decontamination is going to companies that disposed of soil safely and legally.

“Municipalities have to be very vigilant about any types of possible corruption,” she said. “We know there are cracks in the system and some people have decided to use them and it’s not acceptable.”

Plante said Montreal will study the results of the pilot project before deciding whether to make the system mandatory on all city projects.

The Traces Québec system was developed by Réseau Environnement, a non-profit group that represents 2,700 environmental experts.

Pierre Lacroix, president of the group, said today some scofflaws dispose of contaminated soil illegally at a very low cost by producing false documents and colluding with other companies to circumvent laws.

He said the Traces Québec system was tested on a few construction sites to ensure it is robust and can’t be circumvented. “We will have the truck’s licence plate number, there will be GPS tracking, trucks will be weighed,” Lacroix said.

“If the truck, for example, doesn’t take the agreed-upon route, the software will send an alert and we’ll be able to say, ‘Why did you drive that extra kilometre and why did it take you an extra 15 minutes to reach your destination?’”

Organized crime can be creative in finding new ways to avoid detection and Lacroix admitted “no system is perfect.”

But he noted that “at the moment, it’s anything goes, there are no controls. Technology today can help take big, big, big steps” toward thwarting criminals.

With files from CBC reporter Sudha Krishnan

How the GPS tracking system will work