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Star: Brownfields come clean



From the Star, condos section:

Brownfields come clean
Luxury condominium project will rise on a site that only five years ago was severely contaminated Windermere by the Lake is just one example of polluted land being rejuvenated, writes Theresa Boyle
Jun. 24, 2006. 01:00 AM

Environmental cleanup expert Bob Willes closely examines a handful of soil he has just picked up in a construction site in Toronto's west end and marvels at the quality of it.

"This is all clean now. It's been remediated," he exclaims, as he sifts the soil through his fingers.

Only five years ago, the soil suffered from extensive oil contamination. It was polluted with cutting oils, lubricating oils, fuel oils and other liquid petroleum products. It also contained large amounts of metal-contaminated fill.

The 4.8-hectare site in question was home to Stelco Swansea Works from 1885 to 1990. The fastener manufacturing plant churned out nuts, bolts and nails. It sat vacant for more than a decade before REON Development Corp. purchased it in 2001. The hulking structure was a blight on the shores of Lake Ontario, just southwest of High Park.

Today, a luxury condo development is rising on the site. Windermere by the Lake, by Cresford Developments, includes three condominium towers and 224 townhouses. People are now paying more than $400,000 for a townhouse on land that wasn't fit for habitation just a few short years ago.

"This was an unproductive, dilapidated, dank site that had environmental issues that were not being resolved, and now it's being converted into quite an attractive development," says Willes, chair of REON.

Big Ontario cities are seeing more brownfield redevelopments like this, as the provincial government clamps down on urban sprawl. As remediation technology has evolved, cleanup costs and liability risks have become more manageable. Where few developers would touch brownfields a decade ago, now the sites are being snapped up, mostly for condo, townhouse and mixed-use developments.

"It's the natural evolution of a city. Toronto, or York, in 1880 was a very different place than it is today. At that time, the whole world was going through the industrial revolution," explains Neil Rodgers, president of the Urban Development Institute.

"It was all about building factories, shipbuilding, you name it. There was no regard to what they were throwing away or what they were dumping into the lake," he adds.

Because transportation was focused on waterways back then, many brownfield sites are situated on lakefronts, including Toronto's waterfront.

The soaring cost of real estate is forcing urban planners to take a second look at derelict properties on what would otherwise be prime real estate.

After the plant was shut down, Stelco tried to sell it but couldn't find anyone with the financial resources needed to clean it up properly. That was imperative for the steel giant, because it would still be liable for damages as the original polluter of the site.

When REON came along, Stelco sold the plant for just over $1.

"It was a very small amount of money, but what Stelco really wanted was its liability managed," explains Willes, who has a doctorate in medical physiology and more than three decades of experience in toxicology and environmental risk assessment.

REON had to spend $10 million to $15 million to clean up the site. The company also had to provide Stelco with costly environmental insurance.

Brownfield remediation can take place on- or off-site. Off-site remediation is more expensive, but the process is faster. This is what happened in the case of Windermere by the Lake.

Contaminated soil was trucked away. The oil-laden soil was cleaned so it could then be re-used for landscaping. The soil with the metal contaminants was taken to industrial landfill sites. It took nine months to clean the site.

"We had to go down nine metres before we got to the bottom of the stuff," Willes explains.

As the soil was excavated, it was tested for contamination levels.

More than a century ago, the site was a wetland, as was all of Toronto's current waterfront. It was filled with blast furnace clinker, coal ash and demolition wastes.

"Typical of the time, they weren't terribly careful. They didn't give any consideration at all to what they filled it in with," Willes says.

"They just kept throwing things into this swamp until it was filled. Some gravel was put on the top layer and they built a factory out over the top of this thing."

Soil that is contaminated with oil can be bio-treated. This starts in a lab where micro-organisms that are naturally occurring in the polluted soil are cultured and grown in large numbers.

Meanwhile, a "bio-pile" is created by placing a waterproof membrane atop concrete. Layered on top of this is about a metre of polluted soil, straw, perforated piping and then more soil.

The micro-organisms are pumped into the bio-pile via the perforated pipes and they essentially digest organic materials such as oil and covert them into carbon dioxide and water.

"In the last five years, there has been tremendous progress made in this area. Now they can destroy some real difficult things, like PCBs and chlorinated organics," Willes says.

Soil contaminated with metal is tougher to treat because the metal cannot be broken down. An alternative to using it in industrial landfills is creating what is known as "soil cement." The metal is immobilized and the soil turned into a hard clay that can be used in roadbeds.

When the Stelco plant was torn down, much of the building was recycled. Bricks were cleaned and reused, and metal beams were recycled as scrap.

In 2001, the project was awarded the Canadian Urban Institute's prestigious "Brownie Award" for excellence in brownfield development. The CUI praised REON for its extensive community consultations on the project.

"The important thing is that the community ends up with something they like and something that fits in," Willes says.

Cresford Developments bought the site from REON in 2003 and began creation of Windermere by the Lake.

Governments at all levels are encouraging brownfield redevelopment so that unproductive land can bring economic benefits to communities. The Windermere site is once again producing tax revenue for the city. REON estimates that when the development is fully occupied later next year, the city will collect an extra $3 million in property taxes.

In 2003, the federal government's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy released a report on brownfields, entitled Cleaning up the Past, Building the Future.

It estimated there are up to 30,000 brownfields across Canada, including everything from old gas stations and dry-cleaning stores, to decommissioned refineries and railway yards.

The report called for public investments to address upfront costs, public policy to address liability, and increased community awareness and promotion of brownfield redevelopments.

Provincially, the Environment Protection Act has been amended several times in recent years to address brownfield redevelopments. The act sets standards for cleanups, demands that records of site condition be publicly available and requires a "qualified professional" certify the condition of the site.

Municipalities have also begun to offer tax incentives to clean up brownfields within community improvement plans.

"Brownfields represent an untapped opportunity to revitalize older neighbourhoods and generate wealth for communities," the report states.

Other notable brownfield redevelopments in the city include:

The Distillery District, formerly home to the Gooderham and Worts Distillery. The site was previously polluted with such contaminants as coal tar and heavy metals. It now boasts condominiums, art galleries, performing arts theatres, boutiques, restaurants and cafes.

CityPlace, an 18-hectare site west of the Rogers Centre, where Concord Adex is building 20 highrise condos on former Canadian National Railway lands, at a cost of $1.5 billion. Contaminants include heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Wave Lakeshore West, a condo development by Daniels Corp. on Lake Shore Blvd. and Islington Ave. on the site of a former Goodyear Tire Plant. A 13-storey condominium tower and condo townhouses are currently being built.

Liberty Village, near King St. W. and Strachan Ave. A vibrant neighbourhood of condos, lofts and townhouses has emerged from a collection of abandoned and underutilized industrial buildings. The site was once home to the Massey-Harris firm, which manufactured farm equipment, and an Inglis plant, which made everything from wartime artillery to washing machines.

As for concerns about health and safety, Willes says government involvement has helped consumers feel confident about buying homes on former brownfields.

"People now feel safe when they buy these, where 10 years ago, I'm not so sure people would have felt this way because there weren't any guidelines. There were no standards," he says.

It's best for all city dwellers  whether you live on a former brownfield or not  to have the sites remediated, he says.

"In truth, people should be more worked up about living next to a site before it was cleaned up," he says.