By Nikki Jamieson
Sometimes, underneath that vacant lot lurks a potential health hazard, but the issue of who takes care of it gets passed around.
During a visit from Bow River MP Martin Shields to Vauxhall town council during their regular meeting on Aug. 15, Vauxhall Mayor Margaret Plumtree asked if anything was being done federally to reclaim brownfields in the country.
The term brownfield refers to a piece of underused property that has been contaminated through past use, typically associated with activities such as former gas stations, dry cleaners and rail yards, that are located within an urban district.
Vauxhall council had one such property in mind when they made their inquiry, and it’s located right as you drive into town.
“My concern with ours, is we know very little about it,” said Plumtree. “As soon as you come into town on 2nd Avenue there, right where theres a restaurant, then theres a brownfield, then theres residential.
“I don’t even know if the gas tanks are still under there, right? Could they be leaking? Is that a problem to our restaurant, to our residents? It’s definitely not a cost we can occur for it.”
The issue of brownfields is treated on a provincial basis. In Alberta, brownfields and other contaminated sites are regulated under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and enforced by Alberta Environment. AE tends to consider a substance release into an environment as the likely cause of a contaminated site, with the person(s) responsible including the previous or current owner of said substance, in charge/managing the substance or a principal/agent of the former two people. Quite often, it is the land owner who is ultimately responsible for the clean up or reclamation of the brownfield.
As the town does not own that land, but rather a gas company, they are not responsible for it. However, Shields did caution them about that changing.
“As long as you don’t agree to buy it or take it,” said Shields. “Don’t ever do that. Make sure if somebody offers it for a dollar, you don’t take it.”
Plumtree said an offer to sell it to the town went before the previous council, and while the idea was entertained, they did not go for it.
“They were told, ‘We’ll pay you to look after it, put some shrubs on there, you know. Don’t dig in the ground, just place it on there and make it a nice little seating area’,” said Plumtree. “Yeah, that’s great and all, until whatever is under there (leeches out).”
Shields is a member of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, and remarked that while “there are lots of people who want to save the world, but brownfields they don’t want to pay attention to”.
“There are millions of acres in the country that need to be fixed. What happened in the 50s and 60s with military bases, for example, there is lots of acreage out there that is in bad, bad shape,” said Shields. “They want to save things, but they don’t want to fix those, and they need to be fixed.”
Shields said he’ll keep an ear out for any discussion about brownfields in parliament, and recommended that council writes a letter to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, adding that if he delivers it, they’ll get an answer.