Environment Canada and the Hamilton Port Authority are launching a test project that will help them determine how to build a containment facility to clean up the heavily contaminated Randle Reef area of the harbour.

"The clean-up of Randle Reef is important for the future of this community and reflects the Government of Canada's commitment to clean water for Canadians," said Canada's Environment Minister, Peter Kent, in a statement about the plan.

'This test project will give us valuable information as we progress toward the construction phase.'—Bruce Wood, Hamilton Port Authority

"This test project is a significant step in moving the proposed Randle Reef sediment remediation project forward," he added.

Environment Canada and the Hamilton Port Authority hope to create a containment unit above Randle Reef, one of the worst coal-tar-contaminated sites in Canada. The area of Hamilton Harbour is approximately 60 hectares (120 football fields) in size, and contains approximately 675,000 cubic metres of heavily contaminated sediment. The industrial byproducts include heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Caroline Tremblay, spokeswoman for Environment Canada, said the engineering designs have not been made public yet, but added that the project calls for the construction of a 7.5-hectare containment facility in Hamilton Harbour. The proposed containment unit is essentially a huge steel box that will cover the most heavily contaminated areas of the reef.

The unit is intended to securely contain more than 630,000 cubic metres of contaminated sediment. The box would be placed over the most severely contaminated area, and then sedminents from the surrounding area would be dredged, dried and placed in the container as well. 

Once filled, the container would be capped and the Hamilton Port Authority would assume ownership, along with responsibility for monitoring and maintaining it, Tremblay said.

The project announced Monday will test the feasibility of the containment facility plan. To start, steel sheets will be hammered into the lakebed at a depth of 24 metres. Environment Canada says the field work is expected to take about two weeks.

The results will help engineers determine how much force is required to drive piles at the site so they can plan the construction of the containment facility.

"Like so many members of our community around the harbour, we are pleased to see the remediation of Randle Reef moving ahead. This test project will give us valuable information as we progress toward the construction phase," said Hamilton Port Authority president and CEO Bruce Wood.

Growing price tag

The clean-up of Randle Reef is considered a pivotal part of the renewal of Hamilton Harbour. It’s believed that removing the corrupted sediment will improve water quality as well as reduce contamination in fish and other aquatic organisms.

One of the issues has been determining who should foot the bill. According to Environment Canada, "Wastes have been deposited from a variety of sources over a period of 150 years and cannot be attributed to any one source."

The city has been trying to come up with a plan to clean the site for two decades — in the '90s, it was estimated the cleanup would only cost $15 million. That cost has gradually risen through the years — last year, it was pegged at $105 million. Environment Canada told CBC Hamilton on Dec. 11 that the estimated cost of the project is now $138.9 million.

Hamilton city council pledged an additional $6 million to Randle Reef remediation efforts in August, bringing the city's portion of the cleanup fund to $14 million.

The rest of the funding for the actual clean-up work still has to be finalized. Besides the City of Hamilton and Environment Canada, other partners in the cleanup include the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, the Hamilton Port Authority, U.S. Steel Canada, the City of Burlington, and the Regional Municipality of Halton.

Environment Canada said in an e-mail to CBC Hamilton that the next steps, "will involve finalizing funding arrangements, the negotiation of legal project implementation agreements between the partners to confirm the details of contributions, and roles and responsibilities. That would be followed by the tendering of the project. Assuming those agreements can be negotiated in a timely manner, work in the harbour would begin in 2014."

The ministry added, "Environment Canada will be following up with the Ontario Government and local partners on the next steps towards an implementation agreement among all funding parties. Once we have the implementation agreement in place, work in the harbour can begin."

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Randle Reef area of Hamilton Harbour (Kevin Gamble/CBC)