Green space, green speak, or just a brownfield?

“I’d like to see the town clean up the contaminated site on Main and Broadway, rather than pretty it up and put park benches on it.”


Recently, across the street from the former Rainbow Alley and future home of the Town of Smithers 2013 Legacy Project, an Interior News reporter asked me, “How should Smithers celebrate its centennial?”

A series of articles concerning the aforementioned eyesore irked me to respond, “I’d like to see the town clean up the contaminated site on Main and Broadway, rather than pretty it up and put park benches on it.”

When it comes to hydrocarbon contamination and brownfield sites, I am no armchair critic.

Since 2003, I have been involved in a legal dispute concerning potential hydrocarbon contamination of my property with three levels of bureaucracy.

I have also been caught in the middle of a situation including two of the four potential sources of hydrocarbon contamination (spilled fuel) with identified off-site migration of contamination from their sites.

This has impeded the sale of my property which was previously listed for sale in 2002.

In 2009, I received an apology from the B.C. Minister of Environment for delays in responding to me and thanking me for my observations and “endorsement” of our recent brownfields strategy and an independent remediation process in British Columbia, which by their admission “is in need of expanded guidance.”

I have determined the ministry is not there to protect me from the polluters, but them from me.

A 2004 Vancouver Sun article reported that of the 70 per cent its employees surveyed, only one in four believed ministry decisions were based on science rather than politics.

I agree.

The regulatory board no longer acts as a public watchdog, but on a complaint-driven basis operating under a process of systematic frustration designed to wear down individuals who have legitimate concerns.

Dealing with the oil companies is like fighting an uphill battle wearing downhill skis.

The vehicle used to circumvent the intent of the legislation is the independent remediation process, which allows them to create a circle of unaccountability, which is essentially self-regulation.

The “responsible person” (polluter) hires an “independent consultant” who conducts an “investigation” which is controlled by the “responsible person” who is paying them to write a report full of disclaimers, reviewed by a “rostered professional,” prior to being rubber-stamped by the “regulatory board” following a “cursory review.”

Apparently, in environmental science, you get what you pay for.

The Town of Smithers has been equally frustrating.

In a 2008 letter regarding off-site migration of contaminants towards my home, a town official said his office does not have any records of an non-aqueous phase plumes (NAPL’s) emanating from two of the sites across their street from me.

Documents obtained under Freedom of Information, including migration notices issues to them and numerous reports prepared on behalf of the oil companies by their consultants demonstrate this statement is false.

Cash-strapped municipalities may not have the resources to deal effectively with hydrocarbon contamination, and often rely on information or opinions supplied by the “responsible person.”

I do not believe this relieves them of their due diligence.

There appears to be a marriage of convenience involving local zoning authorities, government regulatory boards and polluters in what can only be described as a dirty land-laundering scheme.

When a property is redeveloped without being remediated, eyebrows should be raised.

The municipality gets devalued property for little or nothing, the regulatory board gets off the book, and the responsible person unloads themselves of their responsibility.

If this is the “triple bottom line outcome” referred to in the recent Brownfield Renewal Strategy, I’m not sure if it’s a win-win-win or a whitewash.

If it is based solely on economic rather than environmental priorities, I withdraw my support for the strategy.

Every town has a hydrocarbon contamination problem to some degree.

Ours is unique.

Located in a drained swamp at the base of a 9,000-foot mountain, we have been the regional fuel distribution centre for the transportation, mining, forestry and agricultural industries for nearly a century.

Due to our unique history and geology, I believe we possess a hydrocarbon contamination problem disproportionate to our size.

We experience fluctuating groundwater levels and contaminants do not get trapped in bedrock as they do in other places.

Breakdown of contaminants depends on microbial activity and exposure to air.

The preferred form of remediation under the independent remediation process is Monitored Natural Attenuation, where you drill holes in the ground, check the levels periodically, and hope that it will eventually go away naturally.

This may not be working as expected, and might explain the overabundance of vacant lots and chain-link fences that blight our community.

In 2002, problems in the roadways that front my home were identified as the “waterline investigation project,” not the Blair Wind project.

This may affect the public at large.

Town of Smithers utilities, some of which are known to be impacted, may be creating contamination pathways that are not being adequately investigated.

I would suggest to Town Council rather than worrying about green “carbon footprint” for the future, they deal with the black oily one from our past.

How do I think Smithers should celebrate its centennial?

Before building the bandstand to toot your own horn, clean up the mess you are standing on.

Blair Wind