Discovered in 1984, cleanup of gas contamination at mall could take another 15 years by Bill Kaufmann, February 12, 2020, Calgary Herald
Bankrupt Sears Canada and energy giant Suncor have been ordered to clean up hydrocarbon pollution seeping from a former gas station into a residential neighbourhood and toward the Bow River.
But while concerned residents who said they’ve been living with uncertainty over the contamination for decades had hoped the process would take five to 10 years, provincial officials are giving the work a 15-year timeline.
“Sears consultants put a plan together indicating it’d take 15 years, and that looked reasonable,” said Gilber Van Nes of the Environmental Appeals Board.
“We’ve asked them to look at options to accelerate that but it’s not likely to take less than 15 years.”
A predecessor company of Sears Canada operated the service station at the North Hill mall site from 1958 to 1984, with a forerunner firm of Suncor running it until it was decommissioned in 1994.
Gasoline contamination in the soil was discovered in 1984 and it was determined a hydrocarbon plume had migrated into the mall to the west and into the ground in the Hounsfield Heights neighbourhood to the south, which slopes toward the Bow River.
An environmental assessment showed the gas station’s tank began to leak between the 1970s and early 1980s.
Van Nes said it will take 18 months to determine the extent and contours of the contamination in the wider area before remediation can begin in earnest, a process tagged at a cost of $26 million.
Despite its bankruptcy, he said a remediation fund has been set aside by Sears, with any remaining costs to be picked up by Suncor.
“They’re going to focus on cleaning up Hounsfield Heights first,” said Van Nes.
“At least there’s now a good plan in place, it’s been vetted and there should be a clear plan going forward.”
Twenty-year Hounsfield Heights resident Dwight Jack said he’s generally happy with the order, though the 15-year time table is overly lengthy.
“We’re actually quite happy with the results — the panel dealt with the parties responsible…companies can’t just go broke and abdicate their responsibilities,” he said.
“Obviously, we would have liked them to accelerate it to a five-year program —it has been 20 years, so it’s another 15,” he said.
Nobody in the neighbourhood has smelled any hydrocarbons on their property, but “there have been some readings that are above acceptable levels and it’s pooling, it’s moving and you can’t know when it’ll come up,” added Finch.
He said directives ordering the companies to communicate thoroughly with residents during the process is also vital.
Gavin Fitch, the lawyer who represents residents, echoed Jack.
“There’s a little bit of disappointment with the 15-year time frame,” said Fitch. “But we’re pleased that the recommendation of Priority 1 was the cleanup of the neighbourhood . . . we’re very satisfied we got a fair hearing, that the board heard our concerns.”
The environmental appeal board held three days of hearings into the issue in December, during which a consultant said if the contamination was left alone, it could take 75 years to fully degrade.
Property owners told the hearing that concerns over the potential health effects of the ground pollution caused uncertainty and stress.
Some of them have also voiced skepticism over Sears’ previous commitment to remediation, noting the company’s collapse in 2017 heightened fears a cleanup could be abandoned.
The environmental order calls for stepped-up use of vapour extraction methods and possibly chemical injections that isolate the hydrocarbons.
Those methods, which avoid the large-scale removal of soil from residents’ properties, have already been used in the neighbourhood.
Fitch said the fact the extent of the contamination isn’t yet known is a major irritant among those living in the area.
“That after all the years we’ve had we don’t actually know the full extent of the contamination is frustrating,” he said.
“It’s a very good thing in our view that they’ve got 18 months to finish that delineation.”