Environment and Climate Change Canada says, while it is leading an ongoing harbour cleanup in Hamilton, it's not a role the federal agency usually assumes.
That comes as proponents of cleaning up historical pollution in the harbour in Thunder Bay, Ont., try and sort out who is responsible for spearheading similar efforts in the northwestern Ontario city.
"If your question is, does it need a champion? It absolutely does," Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger said of the importance that an organization with jurisdiction over a polluted site push for a cleanup. "It needs one organization to keep pushing it along."
"If it continues to be work that is just secondary work for someone off the corner of their desk, then it's going to be a long, hard, arduous process."
Efforts to clean up historical industrial pollution at the Randle Reef site in Hamilton's harbour date back at least 15 years, said Eisenberger, who also used to be the chair of the board for the Hamilton Port Authority. For years, he said, the port effectively served the lead agency role, coordinating local stakeholders and senior levels of government to move the project forward.
Environment Canada took the reins well into the project's lifespan, according to Eisenberger and a spokesperson with the federal agency, and only after the involvement of the Hamilton port — who owns the harbour bed at Randle Reef.
In Thunder Bay, determining who should be that advocate has been difficult; the water lots where 400,000 cubic metres of mercury-contaminated pulp fibre sit in the harbour's north end are owned by Transport Canada but administered by the Thunder Bay Port Authority.
Transport Canada has told CBC News spearheading a cleanup is up to the port, while port officials say they've been told by Transport Canada to advise on — not lead — remediation efforts. The port has pointed to Environment Canada as the most appropriate lead agency, citing its role in Hamilton.
'No standard model'
Just because Environment Canada takes a leadership role in one project doesn't necessarily mean it will in all cases, a spokesperson with the agency said.
"There really is no standard model for remediating contaminated sites other than that governments try to apply, where possible, the polluter-pay principle," Jon Gee, Environment Canada's manager of the Great Lakes area of concern wrote in an email to CBC News.
In Thunder Bay, the industrial companies largely responsible for the legacy pollution no longer exist.
Environment Canada's lead role in Hamilton was the result of "a long negotiation between the Government of Canada and the other organizations," Gee wrote. "It is not a role that the Department usually undertakes."
The jurisdictional confusion in Thunder Bay has caught the attention of at least one legislator in the area. Officials with the office of Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu said she has met with members of the Thunder Bay Remedial Action Plan's public advisory committee and that she will also discuss the matter with the federal ministers of transport and the environment.
Gee said Environment Canada "remains committed" to working with government and other stakeholders on the project.
In Hamilton's case, funding for the $139 million Randle Reef project is being split among the federal and provincial governments, as well as Hamilton, Burlington, the Hamilton Port Authority and Stelco, a steel company based in Hamilton. It's expected to be complete in 2022.
In Thunder Bay, a number of remediation options were presented in 2014 to the public, with feedback going into a report. Environment Canada has said no preferred option was identified because there is no lead agency on the project. Cost estimates at the time ranged anywhere from $30 million to $90 million.