On October 3, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced the federal government was launching the second phase of its 15-year plan to clean up nearly 22,000 contaminated sites across the country.
Kent admitted at a press conference in Ottawa that, “past practices have had harmful effects on the environment,” and that the government is committed to restoring contaminated areas for the safety of the environment and public.
With that announcement, the government pledged $1 billion over the next three years to clean up 1,100 high-priority sites and assess another 1,650. Kent added the remediation process will create 7,300 jobs.
Under the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan (FCSAP), Ottawa is responsible for the remediation of tainted land on Native reserves, national parks, crown land and orphaned property that has fallen under its control. Environment Canada says this includes “toxic waste sites, abandoned mines, contaminated military installations, leaking fuel storage depots.”
The federal government’s definition of a contaminated site is “one at which substances occur at concentrations above background (normally occurring) levels and pose or are likely to pose an immediate or long-term hazard to human health or the environment.”
Most sites identified by the program are along the St. Lawrence River and coastal B.C. There are only four high-priority sites in Alberta, the closest of which is on the Stoney Reserve west of Calgary. FCSAP describes two sites — the former Stoney Indian Park Store gas station, and a sawmill that used to operate nearby, consisting of an estimated 12,000 cubic metres of contaminated soil.
Stoney tribal manager Heather Carnahan could not be reached for comment, but an administration representative says he’s unaware of any communication with the federal government on the nature of the sites or remediation plans. He speculates contamination at the gas station may have been caused by an underground petroleum storage tank.
Chantal Patenaude of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada says the contamination of both sites occurred before 1998, and their remediation depends on when funding is available.
Alberta appears pristine on the FCSAP map of high-priority remediation sites, such as the two identified on the Stoney reserve, but this is not the only federal program keeping track of pollution.
The National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) gathers information from every facility releasing contaminants, such as paper mills, waste treatment plants, hospitals, military bases and oil and gas facilities.
According to the NPRI’s data, Alberta accounts for 41 per cent of the country’s polluters, with 3,311 reporting facilities in 2010. Eighty per cent of those Alberta facilities are oil and gas producers. However, none are on federal land, and therefore not encompassed by the FCSAP program.
Also, while FCSAP’s 22,000 sites, with a remediation price tag estimated by the federal Treasury Board to be $7.7 billion, sounds like a lot, it is only a fraction of Canada’s polluted landscape.
In 2007, a report commissioned by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment found the total remediation costs of soil and water contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs) alone to be almost $41 billion.
The report found that due to the scale and cost of contamination, “the estimated magnitude of remediation work associated with PHC contaminated sites is projected to exceed the current annual capacity of the remediation industry by more than 57 times.... The largest PHC contaminated site liabilities are in the provinces with large upstream oil and gas industries; those provinces also have relatively small remediation industries.”
It concludes that since the cost of restoring polluted land would often be higher than the value of the land itself, “there is no net monetizable benefit to the economy as a whole associated with the remediation of a contaminated site.”
The 2010 soil quality guidelines report, also commissioned by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, found that despite knowing many PHCs and related chemicals cause cancer, and that there are hundreds of different types of these compounds, little toxicological information exists for most of them. Because of this dearth of knowledge, the environmental and health risks of only nine types of PAHs were examined for the soil quality review.
FCSAP is not a new program. The concern around contaminated land under federal control was originally raised in 1989. Plans to address it were written in the 1990s. By 2002 only 45 sites had been fully restored. At that point, the auditor general began criticizing the government for failing to do enough about its polluted property. Further auditor general reports in 2009 and again in this year’s spring report found government action had increased since 2006, but was still slow and disorganized.
“The system lacks standard closure reporting as well as clear and measurable expectations for what departments with custodial responsibilities for contaminated sites are to accomplish,” writes the auditor general’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Scott Vaughan. “There is no consolidated Government of Canada report showing progress in terms of total sites remediated, which sites remain contaminated, what it will cost to remediate them, and what the potential consequences are of not taking action”
The extra $1 billion is apt to help, however, the disorganization will continue for the time being. In researching this story, Fast Forward Weekly was passed from one federal department to another as government representatives claimed someone else was responsible for the program.
“I am not the right contact for these two sites,” said Nicole Casault, the manager for Contaminated Sites & Environmental Compliance. Eugenia Escamilla-Duarte of Lands Environment Operations for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development echoed Casault, though both were listed by FCSAP as contacts.
“Isabelle, can you respond to Ms. Thompson’s email and perhaps direct her to a contact at [Environment Canada]?” asked Nick Haas, environmental co-ordinator at the National Research Council.
“For your general site remediation questions, it would probably be best to contact the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan secretariat, which is housed at Environment Canada. For the questions specific to the Stoney site, then it would be best to contact the department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada,” said environment officer Isabelle Le-Clerc Morin. Karine Turpin, the analyst for the contaminated sites program at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development has not yet responded.