The long-awaited cleanup of Hamilton's Randle Reef is officially underway.

On Friday morning, the Harbour Queen party boat at Pier 8 was boarded by politicians, scientists and journalists for a short tour of the construction zone around the contaminated area in Hamilton Harbour. 

'It will have a huge, positive influence on what took generations of neglect and abuse to create, and that is the image of Hamilton as a dirty, unworthy place.'

- Chris McLaughlin, executive director,  Bay Area Restoration Counci

Catherine McKenna, federal minister of environment and climate change; Glen Murray, provincial minister of environment and climate change; Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger; and Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring were among the dignitaries on board.

The event wasn't intended to be a funding announcement or used to introduce any new information about the project. It was held to celebrate the cooperation between the various stakeholders and to show the community the long-awaited cleanup project is actually happening.

It also allowed dignitaries to view the site in question. The project is estimated to cost $139 million.

"This is a boat tour to celebrate a construction site. A very, very significant construction site," Chris McLaughlin, executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council, said.

Changing the mindset of the community

When the project is done, it will have a huge impact on the area, and not just on the environmental side, he said.

"The psychology of the community has been heavily influenced over generations by the reputation that Hamilton and Hamilton Harbour have gained through the declining environmental quality here.

"Over time, it will have a huge, positive influence on what took generations of neglect and abuse to create, and that is the image of Hamilton as a dirty, unworthy place," he said.

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, speaks on a tour of the new Randle Reef construction zone in Hamilton Harbour. (Chris Seto/CBC)

McKenna referred to Hamilton as her hometown and spoke of how the city evolved around the harbour. She said the Randle Reef cleanup project will generate millions in economic benefits including job creation, business development and tourism.

"The environment and the economy go hand-in-hand," she said. By revitalizing sites like Randle Reef, it's good for future generations, good for the environment and good for the economy, she said.

Cleaning the country's most contaminated site on the the Canadian side of the great lakes would also lead to the removal of Hamilton harbour from the list of "areas of concern" under the Canada United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, she said.

"I would love to be able to jump off the boat and go swimming here," she said pointing out to the water. "Maybe one day soon I'll be able to do that."

Three phases

Jon Gee, the project manager and federal spokesperson of the cleanup project, said the first phase of the construction began in March and is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. This phase involves building walls around the heart of the contamination. 

Randle Reef is an area of contaminated sediment, approximately 60 hectares in size. It contains 695,000 cubic metres of toxic contaminants–enough to fill FirstOntario Centre three times over, Gee said.

When the first phase is finished, there will be a double steel-walled barrier surrounding the most heavily contaminated sediment—a box that will contain the most toxic coal tar and heavy metal materials. The size of this "engineered containment facility" will hold roughly 6.2 hectares. 

Phase two will involve dredging the contaminated sediments from the surrounding areas and placing them inside the enclosure. This stage will begin in 2018 and finish up by late 2019.

Randle Reef plans

The design plan for constructing a containment area in Randle Reef. The walls are expected to be completed in 2017. (Chris Seto/CBC)

The final phase of the project involves removing the water from the containment area and placing an impermeable cap on the facility, sealing in the contaminants.

Once the facility is sealed, Gee said the container will be paved and then turned over to the port authority to be put to use.

Maybe the new structure can be operated as a port and generate a bit of income, he said. This way, if it can be used to make money, the ongoing maintenance costs of the structure will be covered.

"It's a 200 year design life span, but it's maintainable in perpetuity," he said, speaking about the containment facility.

This final stage of the project is expected to begin in 2020 and be completed in 2022.