Illegal dumping, unauthorized activities and mining, oil and gas developments have left behind countless contaminated sites in harbours, industrial areas and First Nations communities across Canada.
The sites range from small areas of soil polluted by spilled fuel or leaking batteries to large abandoned mine sites and other properties spoiled by heavy metals and substances dangerous to human health.
The federal government, however, has been tackling the problem with a great degree of success. A Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan (FCSAP) has so far restored nearly 17,000 sites across the country.
There were 23,710 sites on the list of properties when the program was launched in 2005. Today, that number has been whittled down to 6,865 active or suspected sites — a 70 per cent decrease in 15 years.
“Activities over the last century have left an environmental legacy that includes uncontrolled dump sites, abandoned mines, contaminated military installations, leaking fuel tanks and other hazards to human health and the environment,” said Veronica Petro, spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada.
“The federal government established the Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan in 2005 to address legacy contaminated sites located on federal land and to respond to the need for a co-ordinated approach identified by the auditor general and the commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.”
The idea originated in 1989 when the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, comprised of environment ministers from the federal, provincial and territorial governments, and the federal government negotiated a National Contaminated Sites Remediation Program with all the provinces and territories. The program helped remediate orphaned, high-risk contaminated sites for which a responsible party could not be found, or where the property owner was unable or unwilling to finance remediation.
Years later, the federal government formally established the present-day action plan as a co-ordinated approach to the problem. So far, more than $4.54 billion has been spent on the plan. The government recently renewed the plan for another 15 years and will be investing another $1.16 billion between 2020 and 2024.
With the new funding, it is estimated that 242 sites will be assessed, and remediation activities will be undertaken on 1,316 sites. Of these, remediation activities will be carried out on about 475 sites in First Nations communities. The investment is expected to support 6,400 new and existing jobs over five years.
The FCSAP funds 85 per cent of total remediation costs for projects under $90 million, with responsible departments, agencies and consolidated Crown corporations funding the balance. Remediation projects with total cost estimates of more than $90 million may be funded entirely by FCSAP.
Remediation of B.C.’s Victoria Harbour was recently completed under the program. In all, 3,000 tonnes of contaminated sediment were removed from the harbour and 75,000 tonnes of contaminated soil, or 52 barge loads, weighing the equivalent of 700 blue whales, were removed from Laurel Point Park.
“The successful completion of the Victoria Middle Harbour remediation project was achieved due to the ongoing collaboration and support of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, the City of Victoria, neighbouring businesses and residents of Victoria,” said Transport Canada spokesperson Alexandre Desjardins.
“This important work improves the overall health of the harbour and ecosystem, ensuring residents, tourists and marine species can enjoy a clean Victoria harbour for generations to come.”
Desjardins said Transport Canada has been conducting environmental investigations and remediation projects in Victoria Harbour for several decades and takes environmental stewardship of the harbour seriously.
“Transport Canada recognizes the ongoing industrial, commercial and recreational needs associated with the area and we are working to develop a comprehensive plan that manages the environmental health of Victoria Harbour by seeking to limit recontamination, while encouraging ongoing harbour activity,” he stated.
Gabrielle Boivin, spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, said Indigenous Services Canada has about 2,000 contaminated sites in its active inventory although not all sites are in close proximity to residents in the 3,194 First Nations communities across the country.
The relatively high number of contaminated sites identified in First Nations communities is due to a number of reasons, she said, as there are several ways reserve lands can become polluted.
“Notably, many First Nations communities, in particular northern and remote communities, can be highly dependent on diesel and heating fuel for heating, transportation, and electricity,” she said. “Due to the remoteness of some communities, significant fuel storage capacity is required. The improper storage, transfer and handling of these fuels can result in the contamination of land.”
Other factors such as inadequate waste management support or disposal practices, unauthorized industrial development, illegal dumping and other activities can contribute to contamination, she said.
In addition to First Nations communities, the federal government is also responsible for the management of a portfolio of contaminated sites in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
“The contamination of these properties is primarily the result of private-sector mining and oil and gas activities and government military activity that occurred more than 50 years ago, when environmental impacts were not fully understood,” explained Boivin. “Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada inherited these sites as manager of public lands and owner of last resort in the territories.”