Turmoil, taxes and toxic waste plague contaminated site

City officials have for years been trying to use tax incentives to coax successive owners of 350 Wentworth Street N to clean up the 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)

City officials have for years been trying to use tax incentives to coax successive owners of 350 Wentworth Street N to clean up the site.

The offers of a break on tax interest have so far failed to ensure a compete clean-up the property where hundreds of barrels of waste were found this week hidden behind a basement wall. The discovery comes a year after an environmental cleanup was supposed to have been completed.

"It's been a very complicated property since day one," said Larry Friday, Hamilton's director of taxation.

Changing ownership

The building has changed hands three times in the past couple of decades, and each time the owners have ended up in tax trouble — in some cases owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes, fees and interest.

The property was originally a Currie Products tar facility, which went out of business in the late 1990s.

Greg Hart of Protective Barriers Inc. bought the building in 2005, and there were environmental problems on the site at that time, Friday said.

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

Hart ended up in tax trouble to the tune of round $300,000 plus about $500,000 in penalties and interest, Friday said. So the city cut a deal — Hart would still have to pay the taxes he owed, but the penalties and interest would be written off if he spent the equivalent amount cleaning up the site on Wentworth Street.

In 2007, Hart found a buyer for the facility before any cleanup took place, Friday said. Sandhu Sukinder King in Trust took over the site and agreed to do the cleanup under the same terms with the city.

But once more, the cleanup didn't happen. In 2008, the building was sold to Harry Tamber, the current owner.

The city offered Tamber the same deal. No cleanup measures were taken until 2010, Friday says, when lower-city activist Matt Jelly publicized the lingering environmental troubles on the property.

Since then, Tamber has reportedly spent more than $1 million cleaning up barrels surrounding the building, Friday says — but he won't be seeing tax breaks from the city any time soon, he added.

"Nothing has been finished in terms of giving them a break in the penalty of interest," Friday said. "We still need to see that he did spend the million dollars to do the cleanup properly."

Reached by phone, Tamber told CBC Hamilton he had "no comment on any issues" surrounding the property.

Geoffrey Knapper, district manager for the Ministry of Environment, says the ministry does know where the waste from the 2010 cleanup went and that it was disposed of properly, but the ministry still hasn't seen a final report stating that everything was completed.

The project was finished in 2012, and it's uncommon for the reports not to be delivered to the ministry immediately, he said.

"All I'll say is we usually expect those reports in a timely fashion," Knapper said.

Tamber also has other issues with the building aside from the cleanup — his taxes among them.

"He has a serious tax issue still," Friday said.

Hidden barrels

Ministry of the Environment officials are still determining the contents of the barrels found hidden on the property this week, which appear to have been at the site "quite a while," Knapper said.

The ministry's next step is to figure just what the material is. More information is expected 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 around the building.

"It's a lot easier to go after the guy that's holding the key today versus trying to go back and prosecute somebody who has washed his hands of things long ago," Friday said. "I don't think anybody is going to win here, to be quite honest with you."

"Right now, it looks like everyone's a loser on this one."