Industrial pollution is hampering the development of the Mill Market site
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In 2019, the City of Sault Ste. Marie and the Bawating Urban Indigenous Committee (BUIC) have begun a process to assess the suitability of the southern part of the ‘gateway’ site for residential housing, roughly where the Mill Market is currently located. .
The proposed $40 million development would have transformed the brownfield site into 120 mixed-use housing, a green space, a cultural space, a friendship center, an interpretive center and a daycare center, all for local Indigenous communities.
Shortly after the results of a preliminary environmental assessment were presented, the proposal for an urban indigenous hub in Bawating collapsed. New records received through freedom of information requests from the city reveal that a significant level of environmental contamination was responsible, primarily due to the site that once housed two of the settling ponds. used from Algoma Steel.
After signing a memorandum of understanding, BUIC engaged an environmental consulting firm, Pinchin, to conduct a “Phase I” assessment. According to Pinchin, its mission was “to assess potential issues of environmental concern in relation to the potential acquisition and redevelopment of the site”. Pinchin’s assessment included “a review of readily available historical and regulatory documents, site reconnaissance, interviews, [and] an assessment of information and reports.
Its assessment had some limitations, however, including a lack of access to city directories (due to the pandemic) that could establish a more complete picture of historic activities on site and nearby. Pinchin also said further analysis was needed if a formal record of site condition (required for brownfield redevelopment) was the desired outcome of the assessment. Pinchin has assumed the accuracy of all data it has collected.
Historical records analyzed by Pinchin included a series of previous environmental assessments conducted between 1997 and 2006. A 2006 environmental assessment “identified silt, sand, gravel and miscellaneous debris (i.e. bricks , concrete, wood, slag and metal) the site.” Additionally, “backfill materials were noted to be extensive throughout the property.”
Aerial photographs and historical documents show that the site for decades housed two of Algoma Steel’s sewage settling ponds, just east of Mill Market. Pinchin advised, “These historic on-site tailings ponds have resulted in subterranean impacts to the site.”
Another 2006 environmental assessment noted, “Previous subsurface surveys have identified soil and groundwater impacted by PHCs, VOCs, metals, cyanide, and ammonia. The report also notes that Algoma Steel decommissioned settling ponds in the early 2000s, removed contaminated soils and “backfilled [the basins] with blast furnace slag and clay.
Pinchin’s summarized its analysis of historical records this way: “Reported concentrations for certain contaminants [metals/inorganics, petroleum hydrocarbons (PHCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)] in soil and groundwater were above applicable site-wide standards due to historical on- and off-site operations. Historic on-site operations include Algoma Steel’s sewage settling ponds along the eastern portion of the property and the massive importation of fill material of unknown quality on the majority of the subject lands.
In addition to the contamination attributed to Algoma Steel, other industrial sites previously nearby are highlighted as potential sources of contamination.
In Pinchin’s words, the following sources “may have caused underground impacts to the site:” The Algoma Central and Hudson Bay Railway, Abitibi Power and Paper Co. Ltd., Traders Metal Co., and Chromium Mining and Smelting Limited.
After completing its environmental assessment, Pinchin presented its preliminary analysis to BUIC.
Email correspondence between Sault Ste. Marie’s Deputy General Manager, Community Development and Business Services, Tom Vair, and General Manager of Ontario Native Housing Services, Justin Marchand, show the proposal fell apart soon after.
Although the latter secured funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to assist with later stages of redevelopment, the significant costs associated with remediation for residential purposes halted the project.
Pinchin’s presentation to BUIC recommended a “Phase II” environmental assessment that would include collecting new soil and water samples. A previous assessment (included in Pinchin’s analysis) estimated the total amount of soil requiring treatment or removal at over 93,000 cubic meters.
Pinchin said that’s roughly equivalent to 37 Olympic swimming pools. He also mentioned that small landfills in Ontario typically contain around 40,000 cubic meters. Details related to the cost estimates of the required corrective actions were not disclosed.
Marchand issued a brief statement in response to questions about BUIC’s decision: “Following Phase 1 [environmental assessment], we were not comfortable with the development of this site for residential purposes. Our communities and the people we serve deserve safe homes that include security and freedom from environmental hazards.
Emails between the city and Marchand show that the proposal collected a letter from an attorney representing machine shop owner Tony Porco. Although the emails do not reveal details of the letter, the proposal’s stakeholders appear to have discussed a collective response and possible legal strategy. Multiple efforts to reach Porco for comment were unsuccessful.
In addition to soil contamination, Pinchin’s analysis raised the possibility that the Mill Market building contained “materials containing asbestos”.
Questioned by email, Vair confirmed that this was the case and described the necessary precautions: “We carry out regular inspections, reports and ensure that asbestos is not disturbed. This is communicated to the Mill Market Board every year.
Vair did not respond to questions about whether site contamination and the presence of asbestos were potential motivations for the Mill Market’s impending move.
An urban planner from Sault Ste. Marie, Thomas Green, conducted research on some of the city’s brownfields as part of his graduate studies at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson).
As he learned during the research process, brownfield redevelopment is difficult due to remediation costs, long lead times, risk perceptions, and a general lack of experience among developers.
Most successful redevelopment projects are driven by financial incentives from the private sector. Where there is a lack of available land and pressure to build, brownfields can be attractive options. However, small towns will sometimes need additional financial support from the government, Green explains in his article.
Although “municipalities have minimal tools to facilitate brownfield development,” according to Green, there are some options.
For example, a community improvement plan can create additional financial incentives for brownfield redevelopment. Importantly, Green says brownfield redevelopment can yield high returns for municipalities because they typically don’t require the construction and maintenance of new public infrastructure. Imposing development charges to compensate for projects that require additional construction and maintenance can also “more accurately capture long-term costs to municipalities and ratepayers.”
Earlier this year, the city began a process of exploring the development of residential housing as a municipal project on the site. In March, city council unanimously passed a motion — drafted by Mayor Christian Provenzano — asking city staff to examine the feasibility of a high-density residential development in conjunction with the Sault Ste. Marie Housing Corp.
[email protected] Find his blog on www.daxdorazio.com.