The Hamilton Port Authority is throwing up red flags over liability and ownership costs for the proposed containment facility that will be used to cap Hamilton's turgid Randle Reef.

The port was scheduled to take ownership of the site and use it as a pier once it had been capped as part of the $138.9 million project between the federal and provincial governments, the City of Hamilton, the City of Burlington, U.S. Steel, Halton Region and the port.

But  the authority recently sent a letter to Environment Canada raising concerns about the liability costs of that long term ownership should something go wrong. The letter has led to new negotiations with Environment Canada, just months after all the goups involved celebrated the fact all funding was in place and the long delayed project could at last go ahead.

 This is the second wrench the port has thrown into the containment plan since then — back in January, a decision to lower green space provisions on top of the new site drew the ire of some environmental groups.

"While our concerns are purely precautionary, we feel they are important," said Larissa Fenn, public relations manager for the Hamilton Port Authority (HPA). She would not elaborate on those concerns, or answer when asked if the HPA is still prepared to participate in cleanup efforts if the federal government doesn't assume all of the long-term liability responsibilities. Repeated requests to speak with HPA president and CEO Bruce Wood were denied.

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The Randle Reef project calls for the construction of a 7.5-hectare containment facility in Hamilton Harbour - but that's all on hold until someone can be found to build it under cost. (Kevin Gamble/CBC, Google Maps)

Randle Reef is an underwater mass of coal tar contamination just offshore from U.S. Steel. It is estimated to be the largest coal tar contamination site in Canada. The cleanup project will see the highest concentration of coal tar — about 130,000 cubic metres — put into what is essentially a big steel box called an engineered containment facility. The surrounding contamination — some 500,000 cubic metres — will be dredged into the containment facility.

The federal government's $46.3-million contribution to the project was announced with much fanfare back in December, but repeated requests to speak to Roger Santiago, Environment Canada's expert on Randle Reef for this story, were denied.

Environment Canada  issued a statement to CBC Hamilton saying it "is working with each of the project funding partners to negotiate agreements that reflect the roles and responsibilities of the parties. We remain committed to working with the Port Authority and all of our partners to advance the Randle Reef Project."

Representatives from Hamilton's Bay Area Restoriation Council, a community watchdog over the harbour cleanup, told CBC Hamilton they had not seen the letter in question.

'Who picks up the tab?'

"The port strongly pushed for this kind of solution because it gave them a pier," said Jim Howlett, the director of the Hamilton Conservation Authority. "But the problem is still bubbling under the surface."

"Now the port is discovering that if they own it, they're liable for it."

Brian McCarry, an environmental toxicology and organic chemistry professor at McMaster University, told CBC Hamilton that questions of liability are common in environmental projects like Randle Reef.

"The issue — as always with any environmental problem — is if everything goes south, who picks up the tab?" McCarry asked. "No one has a good handle on what the costs could be, but we're talking big money."

"That's why no one wants to take on the responsibility."

No sudden leaks

But the proposed facility that will house and trap the contaminated sediment isn't something that should cause too many headaches once it has been built, says John Hall, coordinator of the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan.

"It's not the sort of thing that suddenly springs a leak," he said.

But Hall says that jockeying over ownership and liability could push the project back and cause delays, which is troublesome when "everyone in the community wants to move forward with construction," he said.

"I don't think it threatens a project of this size, but it could be a bump in the road," Hall said.