Ministry heading to court to keep control of Hamilton toxic site

The Ministry of Environment will need extra time to clean up hundreds of barrels of waste that had been hidden behind a false wall in a lower city industrial site.
The Ministry of Environment has blocked off 350 Wentworth St. N. after hundreds of barrels were found behind a concrete wall in the basement. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The Ministry of Environment is heading to court to ensure it gets extra time to clean up hundreds of barrels of waste that had been hidden behind a false wall in a lower city industrial site.

The owners of 350 Wentworth St. N. called in the Ministry of Environment (MOE) on Tuesday to test "unknown waste" found concealed in the basement of the building. Geoffrey Knapper, district manager for the MOE, told CBC Hamilton Wednesday that the ministry has secured the property for 48 hours but is looking to extend it because of the extent of the cleanup.

They will need a court order to do so, "and we expect they will grant it," Knapper said.

Investigators have only seen the barrels through a small hole in the wall, but estimate there are "hundreds" of them, Knapper said.

They are still determining the contents of the barrels, which had been there "quite a while," he added. The ministry's next step is to figure just what the material is, and they should have more information in a week or so.

A question that hasn't yet been answered is how the barrels were missed during previous investigations surrounding hidden waste in and arround the building.

The ministry closed the site, which is a former coal tar plant, on Tuesday afternoon. Inspectors called in the fire department and public health officials to deal with any potential public safety concerns for nearby residents.

"At this time, the barrels are secured in an area and obviously behind a wall," so "we don't have any concerns about that," Knapper said.

The property, which has had several owners, has gained ministry attention in previous years. In 2010, there was a large mandatory and voluntary clean up of toxic materials on the lot. A million-dollar grow-op was also found on the second floor of the building that year, but the owners weren't believed to have been involved.

When reached by phone, current owner Harry Tamber said he had "no comment on any issues" surrounding the situation, but said he plans to sit down with the ministry to find a solution.

Ward 3 Coun. Bernie Morelli says he and the city are 'included to the point they can be" in insuring that the site is cleaned up properly, noting that the MOE will take point in the cleanup efforts.

Morelli says it's a "surprise and not a surprise" that more barrels were found in the property, considering the number of agencies that had been through there before, attempting to bring the place up to standard.

"When you start to bury stuff behind brick walls … that is very frustrating," Morelli said. "We have to find ways to encourage people to be vigilant and bring these sorts of things to us."

Matt Jelly, a lower-city activist who has followed environmental efforts at the site, said the latest discovery is surprising, but not shocking.

"We don't have a good way to hold owners accountable when they leave this stuff behind."

With files from Samantha Craggs