WEB EXCLUSIVE: Running on Empty

Abandoned gas station sites have long been “the poster child of brownfields,” says Alan McCammon, manager of remediation assurance and brownfields for British Columbia’s Ministry of the Environment (MOE).

Environmental consultants estimate that approximately 90 per cent of gas stations built prior to 1970 are contaminated. Given that cleanup costs for gas stations can range from $100,000 to several million dollars, and land values (particularly in rural areas) can be as low as $25,000 per hectare, the sites are often left to languish, fenced and full of weeds, for decades.

“Many owners prefer to keep their heads down and just pay the property tax,” rather than go through the expense of cleaning them up, says Barbara Daly, brownfields co-ordinator for the City of Edmonton.

Typically the provincial ministries of the environment have the authority to regulate gas station clean up, as opposed to the feds, says McCammon. There are, he says, pros and cons to that system. “Presumably you get a made-in-your-province approach, but for multinational companies like big oil retailers, they have to puzzle through a different set of rules across the provinces,” says McCammon. “It’s a conundrum for them.”

The regulatory approach

British Columbia boasts some of the strictest legislation in the country regarding gas station cleanup. B.C.’s MOE tracks service centre sites closely. When a service station is shutting down, or when the owner needs a municipal permit for demolition, development, or rezoning, the MOE gets notification. “That’s one powerful trigger that we have in the law,” says McCammon.

The MOE follows up with a letter to the station owner requiring an environmental risk assessment. Owners of high-risk sites must take steps to clean them up, but “if it’s not high risk, we don’t pursue it,” says McCammon. Given the MOE’s limited resources, “we can only afford to chase, prod, push, direct and manage files that are in the high-risk category.”

Last year the B.C. MOE upped the ante even further. The original legislation dealing with service stations dated from the 1990s and imposed no time frame on owners to get risk assessments done. Not surprisingly, most simply ignored the requirement unless land values were high enough to warrant remediation and redevelopment.

Now, the MOE stipulates that risk assessments must be launched within a year of a service station closing. In the case of ongoing concerns, service station owners seeking municipal approvals are blocked until they’ve reached specified milestones in the assessment and cleanup of the property.

Flaws in the system

Such processes may work well with service centres owned by the big oil companies, but as Markham-based petroleum industry consultant Al Durand points out, smaller ‘ma-and-pa’ service station owners often don’t have the money to remediate. “The MOE can write all the orders they want, if people don’t have the ability to pay, it’s not going to happen,” he says.

Even worse, regulators face the possibility that if they push too hard for cleanup, owners of unused sites will simply quit paying their taxes, forcing the local government to take ownership of the site. Says Durand: “They’ve just inherited a huge liability.”

Redevelopment of those sites can be a hard sell as well. “You can see why,” says McCammon. “We have rules on liability that are totally conservative from the position of the public purse. We’re going to go through the land title from the beginning of history and we’re going to find someone who has had a finger on this site who is going to pay for the cleanup.”

Faced with the possibility of future liabilities, developers aren’t chomping at the bit to acquire and redevelop a former contaminated property. Says McCammon: “That’s the downside of having that spelled out so clearly.”

Extending a carrot

The City of Edmonton’s approach to managing abandoned gas station sites has focused more on extending a carrot than on wielding a stick. After years of phone calls to councillors about the problem, the city developed a targeted Service Station Task Force in 2010.

First, the team inventoried the city’s abandoned gas station sites, tracking them down through business licenses, tax rolls and various planning records. They came up with a list of 50. But when Daly (the brownfields co-ordinator) tried to find out what was preventing the owners from moving forward with assessment and cleanup, they ignored her calls. The prevailing attitude, she says: “Keep your head down. Don’t call that lady from the city back.”

Undaunted, Daly hired a communications consultant who had better luck and compiled a summary report detailing barriers to cleanup, the sorts of incentives that would be most likely to work and the services and information needed. That became the basis for the city’s strategy.

Daly became the single point of contact, offering service station owners support tailored to their specific property, with “no surprises.” She reaches out to various city departments as needed, acting as a liaison and ensuring that “the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.” And she tries to work with developers and environmental consultants who may be able to persuade service station owners to move forward.

Daly can also direct interested owners to a potent tool: a City of Edmonton grant program offering up to $5,000 for a Phase 1 environmental assessment; $80,000 for a Phase 2 assessment; and up to $200,000 for remediation expenses.

How successful has the task force been? Of the original 50 stations in Edmonton, 25 have been sold and redeveloped, 12 are in long-term remediation and the rest “I have spotty information on,” says Daly. A few more have come out of the woodwork that weren’t on the original list.

“You can’t necessarily give the city full credit,” says Daly. “It could have been just good timing or the sudden attention. But our grant program has helped five projects so far and we have at least that many in the application stage, so there’s lots of uptake.”

The state of the technology

René de Vries, a Toronto-based environmental geoscientist and president of Canadian Projects Group Inc., has been dealing with contaminated service station sites for 25 years. The remediation of choice was, and still is, excavation of contaminated soil and landfilling, which he estimates occurs in about 90 per cent of these projects. The reasons are simple, says de Vries: a) it’s certain; b) it often fits well with construction plans that require excavation; and c) it’s cheap.

Certainly other solutions are available, including bioremediation, vapour barriers, hard and soft caps and vapour extraction processes to name just a few. But “we can still dig and dump soil, including transportation, in Ontario for $40 per tonne,” says de Vries. “And to come up with any alternative for that price, be it in situ or ex situ, is very difficult.”

In jurisdictions that have mandated that contaminated soil can’t be disposed of in landfills (Quebec for one), you at least see “extensive recycling of soil going on,” says de Vries. In fact, Quebec alone lays claim to 27 soil washing facilities, but most provinces have no such stipulation.

About four years ago, de Vries implemented a soil washing pilot project at the behest of Waterfront Toronto. But he admits, the price tag was about $50 to $70 per tonne of soil. “It requires an owner or developer to have an altruistic view,” he says. “You won’t find that many altrui
stic companies. It’s always the buck that rules.”

In praise of risk assessment

In Durand’s opinion, the single most valuable and cost-effective tool when dealing with hydrocarbons is the risk assessment, which has become much more widely used over the past few decades.

While Ontario is still finessing its approach, other provinces have a long history. “Atlantic Canada has been using the RBCA (Risk Based Protective Action) approach for a very long time,” says Durand. Given their lower land values, “they didn’t have redevelopment going on so they needed a tool to assess the sites and redevelop them cost-effectively.”

Risk assessment methods have greatly improved over the last decade, Durand contends, and include modelling tools that predict what will happen to a site over time. “The mechanisms that are available now in order to do risk assessments are becoming more predictable and also accepted by financial institutions and regulators,” he says. “They want definitive answers.”

Camilla Cornell is a Toronto-based environmental, business and technology writer.

This article originally appeared in Environmental Consultant. www.enviro-consultant.ca

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