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Planners see gold in brownfields
New tax revenue can make cleanup effort worthwhile
By Albert Warson
The Globe and Mail

Abandoned, derelict and badly contaminated industrial sites known as brownfields -- there are an estimated 30,000 of them across Canada -- are beginning to appeal to the pluckiest of developers and municipalities.

Drawing pollution out of the ground before starting a real estate project makes for a long, complicated and high-stakes venture. But the rewards in new tax revenues and urban renewal possibilities make the effort worthwhile.

In Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's riding, for example, the Quebec government, the city of Shawinigan and the Canadian subsidiary of a major paint and chemical manufacturer teamed up for the $24.8-million cleanup of a severely contaminated industrial brownfield site, drenched for nearly 50 years with a witch's brew of chemicals. Soon it will be home to a new Wal-Mart store and a Canadian Tire gas bar.

Quebec is the only province that contributes to the cost of "remediating" or cleaning up brownfield sites. It agreed to provide a so-called Revi-Sols grant, to be administered by the city of Shawinigan, toward accelerated remediation of ICI Canada Inc.'s polluted 7.9-hectare site -- a project the company had already started on its own. ICI is a subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries of Canada Ltd., in turn owned by Imperial Chemical Industries PLC. The London-based chemical company manufactures paints, specialty chemicals, fragrances, food additives, starches and adhesives, among other products -- ringing up international sales last year of £6.1-billion ($13.5-billion). Revi-Sols grants, which generally cover up to 50 per cent of the cost of remediation, were limited to Montreal and Quebec City when they were initiated in 1998, then broadened in 2000 to include other provincial cities and towns.

Both Quebec and Shawinigan will benefit from the province's largesse. Wal-Mart Canada Corp. of Toronto has invested $20-million to acquire about one-fifth of the remediated site. Its 100,000-square-foot store, opening this fall, will provide property taxes for the city and more than 250 income tax-paying employees.

Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. has acquired another part of the cleaned-up site to build a gas bar. Some of the land will remain for sale and redevelopment after all the soil and water contamination is removed, according to Richard Kenno, ICI Canada's principal environmental consultant, based in Toronto.

For its efforts, ICI received one of nine Brownie awards -- in the "technological solutions/green design" category -- given out last month by the Toronto-based Canadian Urban Institute at its annual brownfields conference.

ICI's mercury-cell chloralkali plant on the Shawinigan site was in operation from 1939 to 1979, overlapping with a chlorinated solvents plant that was active from 1936 to 1985. More than 650,000 litres of solvents trapped in the soil under the water table have so far been pumped out and recycled or disposed of, with more to come. Tens of thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil were also excavated and removed.

The company built a containment wall and a water treatment and discharge plant on the site. ICI says those cleanup measures meet, and in some spots on the site exceed provincial Ministry of the Environment criteria for commercial land use.

"We decommissioned and demolished these plants, and remediated the soil on the site of the chloralkali plant from 1979 to the early 1990s," Mr. Kenno says. "The solvent plant soil remediation started in the late 1980s and is ongoing."

He explains that the chloralkali plant mainly manufactured chlorine, which most people regard as a benign purifying agent in swimming pools, but which becomes a contaminant when accumulated in soil.

ICI had already spent about $16-million on remediation between 1979 and 2001 before receiving the provincial grant, he says.

The province has so far provided $2.4-million and Mr. Kenno expects that will be doubled by the end of the next year, with ICI spending another $4-million for a total of about $20-million the company will have invested by the time the soil has been decontaminated.

"We had cleaned up the site to the point where everything was under control, but we wanted to carry out an accelerated remediation because pumping the contaminated water out of the soil would otherwise have taken up to 60 years.

"We looked at that [Revi-Sols] program, and we needed to have a redevelopment tied in with remediation. You had to show there was some economic merit. At that time there was a lot of interest in the area, which had become hot, with businesses springing up, and we were getting a lot of queries about availability of sites on the land," Mr. Kenno says.

The Wal-Mart store development, he says, represents a positive payback on the province's $8.1-million accelerated remediation grant.

"The Quebec government will not give you money unless there is a reasonable economic payback," he says. "It has to help the community."

Among other Brownie Awards winners this year were:

Planning & Engineering Initiatives Ltd. of Kitchener, Ont., jointly with the City of Brantford, Ont., in the "sustainability in community building" category for developing a strategy to redevelop a 20-hectare brownfield site in the city.

Frank Le Claire, director of technical services, Manitoba Government Services. Mr. Le Claire was named "Brownfielder of the Year," for shepherding a public-private partnership that will transform a downtown Winnipeg city block with five abandoned 1880s-era buildings into a heritage neighbourhood that will include a 220,000-square-foot high-tech learning centre for Red River College. That campus on Princess Street in the city's historic Exchange District, to be completed in November, was also named "best project over all."

The City of Toronto's corporate services facilities and real estate department and the Toronto Police Service, in the "heritage/adaptive reuse project," for a new 51 Division police station. It sits on a once-contaminated site at Front and Parliament Streets downtown, partly incorporating an abandoned gas purification plant, which was restored and renovated.

The City of Toronto, in the "policy and program development" category, for "leveraging brownfield redevelopment through community partnerships." The municipal economic development office facilitated industrial tax grants to encourage new clean manufacturing and other industrial development on a vacant 28-hectare brownfield site near the lakeshore in the former city of Etobicoke, Ont.

The one-day conference and awards ceremony was staged in the 200,000-square-foot former Kaufman Footwear manufacturing plant in downtown Kitchener. It is on a brownfield site undergoing remediation and scheduled redevelopment into office space, residential lofts and retail space next year -- once all the naptha contamination is removed.

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