Recycling Coke Bottles and Newspapers…Why Not Our Land?

What is “Brownfield Redevelopment”?  Its hard to explain what this is without putting someone to sleep so I will try to jazz it up a bit…think about the crappiest piece of derelict property you remember as a kid that might have seen being used as an old wrecking yard, factory or gas station…now envision it in your present local downtown streets, maybe next to your favorite Starbucks or a friend’s apartment.  All that’s left is a dusty skeleton of its past, maybe a few old condemned buildings left behind, a fence put up along its perimeter hopefully keeping the vandals out, a couple weathered signs that stay “No Trespassing”, garbage littering the ground…This could be potential Brownfield Property.

What makes these properties concerning is that they could have serious environmental concerns associated with their historical operations, which may pose a health and safety risk to the public.  However, when dealt with correctly these derelict properties are valuable as they may potentially be reused for another generation of business.

Maybe that vacant ‘dive of a property’ next to your favorite watering hole is redeveloped into a luxury condo building or a new university residence or maybe a nursing home or park.  All of which would be an overall improvement to the property, an increase in the tax base for the municipality, and possibly an increase in the surrounding properties real estate value.

If these old properties are contaminated, then they need to be cleaned up before they are reused for certain applications (i.e., an old commercial property into a more sensitive land use such as residential).  The process in which these properties are determined to be clean or dirty, and how they get cleaned up is the real challenge as there is regulatory red tape and hoops to jump through.

In a nutshell, in our Province of Ontario you cannot redevelop these types of properties for certain land uses without firstly obtaining what’s called a Record of Site Condition (RSC).  To get an RSC you must comply with the requirements of Ontario Regulation 153/04 (as amended, http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/regs/english/elaws_regs_040153_e.htm).   Its not an easy or quick process.  In the simplest of scenarios it can be somewhat costly and take a few months at least.  If not planned for correctly, it could result in a significant delay in development plans.

The process starts with what is called a Phase One Environmental Site Assessment (ESA).  This process is generally a desktop review of the property with the objective of determining if there is any actual or perceived contamination to the soil, groundwater or sediment on-site.  For example, during a Phase One, the person assessing the site would (as a small portion of the process) review historical building records or aerial photographs that might indicate the presence and location of underground fuel storage tanks or a gas station canopy.  These types of issues would be deemed as Areas of Potential Environmental Concern (APECs) and warrant needing a Phase Two ESA before you can get your RSC.  Without getting too specific, the Phase One ESA is a very detailed and thorough process which follows a specific set of criteria that is defined by the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOE).

At the end of the Phase One ESA process, the assessor determines if any APECs exist.  If so, the project requires a Phase Two ESA to be completed prior to obtaining the RSC.  If no APECs are discovered during the course of the Phase One, the property owner can then file for an RSC within the MOE’s Brownfield Environmental Site Registry and becomes a public record.

If a Phase Two ESA is required to investigate the areas of concern (e.g., gas station underground storage tanks) some environmental testing is required.  The amount and type of testing is scripted by the MOE in the Regulation as well as what the assessor defines (the assessor is the person who is reviewing the condition of the property, also referred to as the Qualified Person (this needs to be a licensed Professional Engineer or Geoscientist)).  Phase Two activities may consist of a series of soil test pit excavations or boreholes using a drill rig with some groundwater monitoring wells.

Environmental soil and groundwater samples (and sometime sediment samples depending on where the property is located) are collected as part of the Phase Two process and analyzed at a laboratory for certain chemicals and parameters.  The lab data is then compared to criteria defined by the MOE.  This criteria is established by the MOE using toxicological human health and ecological information.  If the lab data analyzed from the samples collected from the property are greater than the established MOE criteria then there is so called ‘contamination’ on the property that needs to be dealt with prior to obtaining the RSC.  On the contrary, if all the samples collected during the Phase Two come back from the lab below the MOE criteria, the assessor has determined no further work is required to assess the property and the owner can file for RSC with the MOE.

There are a number of ways to deal with the contamination.  It can be dealt with through either various forms of remediation or through risk assessment, and in some cases a combination of both.  Once the contamination has been remediated or deemed safe to be left on-site through the use of a number of risk mitigation measures, and that all further sampling requirements have been met to satisfy the Regulation, an RSC can be obtained.  Once that RSC is obtained, the owner has satisfactorily met the requirements of Ontario Regulation 153/04, and can proceed with development of the brownfield property (barring all other municipal or regulatory requirements have been met).

There are a number of reasons why an RSC is or may be required.   I’ve only touched on one for the topic of this post (i.e., to redevelop a brownfield property for a certain use).  Phase One and Two projects and the work involved in obtaining an RSC are highly variable.  The objective of this post is only to provide a brief overview of the process only and is not intended to simplify or downplay this process.  It is recommended that significant consultation with all stakeholders is completed prior to taking on a brownfield redevelopment project (municipality, environmental consultant, property owner, MOE, etc.).

The costs and time to complete the process of obtaining an RSC can vary significantly from site to site.  Over the past few years I’ve seen the costs and timeframe to obtain an RSC under the most basic conditions be just below $10K and approximately 2-3 months from start to finish.  These projects are also known to range into the millions of dollars and extend over the course of a couple years.  These cases involve significant remedial efforts, risk assessment and lengthy review consultation periods with the MOE.

Although the work required to satisfy the provincial requirements for developing brownfield property can be onerous and costly if not planned and budgeted for correctly, these laws are in place for good reasons:

  • To ensure these properties are assessed correctly and fairly in order to adequately restore and evaluate the environment;
  • To bring new life to old, used and abused urban areas worth recycling for another generation and limiting urban sprawl; and
  • For the utmost reason, to protect human health and our ecosystem for the people who use these properties and for our future generations.

I encourage the development of brownfield property.  I think its an exceptional idea.  We recycle anything from our coke bottles to newspaper….why not our land?

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