Imagine playing golf on what was once a municipal waste landfill. That’s exactly what people will do one day in the outskirts of Toronto atop what was once the Keele Valley landfill.
The area of brownfield redevelopment is growing in several ways. Due to various market forces, the remediation of contaminated land for reuse is becoming more common and, in some cases, more economical. Facilities such as closed landfills are also subject to redevelopment and reuse.
By providing some regulatory certainty in the brownfield area, the government satisfies the public’s demand to improve the state of the environment while at the same time requiring the private sector to shoulder much of the economic burden. While some government funds have been available for brownfield development in smaller centres, by and large the private sector has been left to its own devices to find ways to fund these redevelopments, especially in larger cities.
Despite the dearth of funding, some governments have attempted to encourage brownfield redevelopment by introducing supportive legislative or policy schemes to provide more regulatory certainty to those who wish to participate. For example, in Ontario, the government introduced Bill 56 to encourage and make brownfield redevelopment more palatable.
It’s important to note that in Ontario and many other jurisdictions owners of contaminated land are not absolved of liability for contamination by selling the property. The possibility always exists that the government will impose stricter regulation with respect to the acceptable level of contaminants in the soil that could be imposed retroactively on current or former owners of the property. Such liability has, in the past and in many current cases, created a development chill over significantly contaminated areas.
Bill 56 attempts to encourage development by providing protection from certain types of environmental liability for those who take certain actions to ensure that it is clear that the land is clean. The difficulty is that the cost of meeting the criteria under the legislation may well be very high and possibly comparable to the cost of remediating to near-pristine conditions.
Other factors that have had an effect on brownfield redevelopment include economic growth and the exuberance of the residential real estate market. Many sites are redeveloped in or near significant industrial or commercial centres where high property values justify the associated risks. Further, and importantly, The current low cost of borrowing money has made several projects economically viable.
Some recent high-profile brownfield redevelopments are as follows.
Reon Development Corporation of Toronto, Ontario acquired an old nuts and bolts factory from Stelco in the Toronto neighbourhood of Swansea. Reon undertook remedial activities with the goal to sell the 13-hectare site for residential development.
In Moncton, New Brunswick, crown corporation Canada Lands Company redeveloped a CN rail repair yard. The published cleanup cost of the 300-acre site was $12-million compared to apparent private sector estimates of approximately $50-million. The site was unused for over 85 years and was extensively contaminated. About 8,000 soil samples for organic and inorganic tests were taken at the site.
Since the Moncton site was remediated, a multi-purpose recreational complex including four ice surfaces and sixteen playing fields on 115 acres have been completed. In addition, a business park and a housing development are slated for development in the near future.
The City of Toronto-owned Keele Valley Landfill received approximately 28 million tonnes of waste over its 19-year operating life. The landfill, which closed at the end of 2002, occupied 99 hectares (250 acres) of a total site area of almost four times that size. Post closure activities at the site include final restoration and rehabilitiation in the form of landscaping and construction of storm-water control facilities. Monitoring of landfill gas, air and water quality will continue “in perpetuity” following the cleanup of the site and the removal of waste management equipment.
The landfill cap will comprise of a minimum one-metre layer of clay-like final cover below a 30-cm layer of topsoil, mulch, fertilizer and seed. Compost generated from the onsite composting facility will be used for the development of the final cover. As of mid-December 2002, 74 hectares had received final cover.
Once closed, the former landfill site will be leased by the City of Vaughan for a nominal sum and converted into passive parkland (trails and lookouts). A private developer is constructing a golf course along the southeastern portion of the site that is scheduled to open in the spring of 2004. The onsite landfill gas electricity generating facility will continue to operate for the remainder of a 20-year contract with the city.
While the low cost of borrowing money will likely ensure a healthy real estate market for the near future, the continued growth of the brownfield redevelopment sector is contingent on other factors as well. In the case of closed landfills and other such facilities the brownfield regulatory regime will not generally apply. That said, special efforts will need to be undertaken in cases such as the closure of the Keele Valley Landfill in order to ensure that the environment is protected and the public is informed.
In the case of sites subject to the new brownfield regulatory regimes, relief from certain types of liability will be needed in addition to government funding, especially in small communities, to encourage such redevelopment.
Certainly these communities hope that the National Round Table on the Environment’s recently proposed national brownfield redevelopment strategy will further prompt the transformation of brownfields into economically productive, environmentally healthy and socially vibrant centres of community life.
Written by Adam Chamberlain, LL.B. of Power Budd, the Canadian affiliate of Cameron McKenna, an international law and consulting firm. Adam sits on the board of directors of the Ontario Waste Management Association. E-mail Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org