It’s been more than a year since hundreds of barrels filled with toxic waste were found hidden behind a wall in a north end industrial site — and a ministry-ordered cleanup is still languishing with no end in sight.

No cleanup efforts have even been started at 350 Wentworth St. N, but work at businesses operating on the site has resumed. The Ministry of Environment says it isn’t uncommon for a complicated case to take this long to get started, but one city councillor says this is just another example of a “toothless” environmental protection agency failing to help the city.

'It’s not the taxpayers of Ontario that should have to pay for the removal and disposal of this waste.' - Jennifer Hall, Ministry of Environment spokesperson

“And not only are we battling voluntary legislation that is toothless, we’re battling non-actions that should have been completed yesterday,” Coun. Sam Merulla said. “They should have the authority to clean it up and then attach the cost to the owner of the property. It’s not rocket science.”

But ministry spokesperson Jennifer Hall says the solution isn’t that simple. “We’re using the tools that we’re able to use under the environmental protection act,” she told CBC Hamilton. “Yes, things appear to be moving slowly, but this case is a unique one.”

A toxic legacy

The Ministry has ordered that past owners as far back as the 1980s clean up the site. But the owners are appealing the order, and say the onus isn’t on them. Preliminary test results on the substance in the barrels confirmed that it's waste products from coal tar processing.

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The toxic barrels found at the site were piled behind a false wall. (Ministry of Environment)

The property was originally a Currie Products tar facility, which went out of business in the late 1990s. John Currie, the former owner, died in Toronto last year at the age of 97.

Greg Hart of Protective Barriers Inc. bought the building in 2005, and there were environmental problems on the site at that time, says Larry Friday, Hamilton's director of taxation.

"He said Currie Tar Products was the true company that left this legacy, if you will," Friday said.

Harry Tamber is the current owner, and he told CBC Hamilton in a previous interview that the onus for cleaning up the waste shouldn't be on him as he isn't responsible for leaving it there. Tamber was the one who alerted the ministry to the barrels, which lead to this cleanup order. He didn't respond to media requests Friday, and no one answered the door at the site when a reporter knocked on the door.

No timeline for tribunal: MOE

Hall says that the barrels are “secure,” and MOE inspectors are “frequently” on site to inspect how they’re being stored. While the entire building was under a securement order for a time, that’s now been rescinded to just the basement where the barrels are sitting. “We don’t want to impede the economic interests of the property owner,” Hall said.

She says the MOE ‘s order is being carried out this way so the province isn’t on the hook for the cost.

“It’s not the taxpayers of Ontario that should have to pay for the removal and disposal of this waste,” she said.

Though there has been “some activity” in the case, there is no timeline for when the actual hearing about the environmental order and the appeals will be heard, Hall says.

"As long as it's not posing a threat to human health and the environment, we'll wait for the tribunal."