Lead, oil, salt: Calgary's push for control over potentially hundreds of contaminated sites

The City of Calgary is currently managing 34 contaminated sites within its borders, but it wants to greatly expand its authority to control and cleanup similar properties. It's not known just how many sites that could include.

Part of negotiations for new powers enshrined in a charter, city wants more say over land within its borders

A lone structure from its industrial past in the Inglewood Wildlands park. An oil refinery was once located on the site. There could be hundreds of contaminated sites in the city, but a hard number is hard to come by. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

It was March 1987 when the news first broke: Cucumbers were supposedly dying in a southeast Calgary greenhouse thanks to land left contaminated by an old oil refinery. Sheila Nichols can still remember hearing the reports on TV as she looked out her kitchen window at the glowing lights of the greenhouse and thought: "What about my infant daughter?"

Nichols lived in Lynnview Ridge, a then new development that became one of the best-known contaminated sites in Calgary, and one that's still being cleaned up all these years later. It's certainly not the only one.

The City of Calgary is currently managing 34 contaminated sites within its borders with $2.8 million set aside to fulfil its cleanup or monitoring obligations, according to documents obtained by CBC News. Additional funds help deal with landfills, and millions more have been set aside for Old Refinery Park, just below Lynnview Ridge. 

There are potentially hundreds more sites within the city that, at least theoretically, are monitored and catalogued by the province. Many are in private hands, while the federal government is responsible for 13.

"We only know ones we've found. It goes back to the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns," said Trent Parks, the leader of environmental risk and liability at the city's environmental safety management department.

"There may be more out there, we haven't come across them yet."

Trent Parks, the leader of environmental risk and liability at the city’s Environmental Safety Management department. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Parks points to the number of gas stations in the city and says there's at least that many contaminated sites waiting to be discovered thanks to the near-inevitability of leaking underground storage tanks.

One big challenge: Currently, the city has no control and no authority to inspect or clean up the contamination at sites it doesn't own and needs provincial approval for cleanup at sites it does.

But that's something officials insist needs to change as part of ongoing negotiations with the province for a new city charter for Calgary.

'Hollowed out department'

It turned out the cucumbers Nichols could see growing from her window likely weren't killed by the lead and oil liberally spread across the old Imperial Oil refinery on the edge of Ogden. But there was no doubt the land where she lived was contaminated.

The greenhouse scare started a long saga in Calgary that ended with an entire neighbourhood wiped off the map and a $27 million plan to clean up, or at least manage, the site in partnership with Imperial Oil. That work continues to this day.

That chunk of land was one of the first issues that Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra had to deal with when he was first elected in 2010, as two city departments argued over the future of the property. One year later, Lynnview Ridge tested his diplomatic skills when a negotiated cleanup plan between the city and Imperial Oil almost died after coming up against the provincial bureaucracy.

Carra said he presented the complex risk management plan — including treating groundwater, capping the soil and erecting a barrier to protect the Bow River — along with three eminently qualified staff from the city's environmental safety department to the "last man standing in a hollowed-out department" at Alberta Environment.

  • Find out which toxic chemicals might lurk in your neighbourhood by clicking on any pin in the interactive map below to find out details about that contaminated site. To find out more about what the different colours of the pins mean, click on the rectangular icon to the left of the map's title.

"He was like 65 years old. He was about to retire. He had a B.Sc. behind his name. And he looked at this report and was like, 'I don't have the ability to decide whether this is the right way to go or not and I don't have the dollars to hire someone to tell me whether it's a good idea or not for a couple of years, so you're going to have to wait.'"

With an impatient multinational corporation waiting in the wings, delay wasn't an option.

That experience and Carra's resulting advocacy for the plan to a "revolving door of ministers" at the time is just one example of why Calgary wants a city charter to include powers over contaminated sites, he said.

"If we've got an administration that's full of super-competent professionals, why we would be waiting on another order of government who doesn't have the professional capacity to sign off on something? Doesn't make sense."

9,000 litres of fuel, years of waiting

Mayor Naheed Nenshi couldn't agree more. He says the former Gas Plus station in Bowness, which is under the control of the province, is the prime example of why cities need more authority over contaminated sites.

That station leaked an estimated 9,000 litres of fuel from its underground storage tank and cleanup is just getting underway after seven years of waiting.

The site sat in limbo for years as the owners stalled on cleanup, according to the province. Changes to the Environmental Protection Enhancement Act in 2014 finally allowed the government to move in and clean up the site itself.

The province is footing the bill but still says it will try to make the owners pay.

"You know, we have the expertise, we understand urban environmental issues and we have the ability to clean it up. We did not have the authority to clean it up. We didn't even have the authority to enter the land," he said of Gas Plus.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city didn't even have authority to enter the site of a former Gas Plus station in Bowness. (CBC)

Nenshi says Alberta Environment lacks the ability, but holds all the authority -— something he says "doesn't serve citizens well."

"The point of the city charter discussions is to recognize that the two cities, Calgary and Edmonton, have very sophisticated city governments, we have a lot of expertise, we know what we're doing, but oftentimes the authority is not aligned with the ability."

Creosote, lead, salt and more

Parks says there are a number of ways the city discovers contaminated sites, including screening properties the city has owned for a long time and testing land when something like an interchange is built or when land is being bought or sold.

Likewise, the province relies on property owners to notify it of contamination and to remediate the problem.

The city sites include a portion of Lynnview Ridge, the Manchester works yard — where a large city fuel spill occurred — and a former illegal battery disposal operation in the northeast. There are also less problematic properties including city road depots with salt contamination.

The site of the former Gas Plus station in Bowness. It has been seven years since an estimated 9,000 litres of fuel leaked into the ground. Remediation is just starting. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

In the West Village, where the creosote in the soil made headlines after the owners of the Calgary Flames pitched their CalgaryNext project, the city earmarked a mere $50,000 for the site pending decisions from city council and stressed the province should ultimately be responsible for a cleanup that's estimated will cost as much as $300 million.

An additional 11 sites remain on the books with no dollar figures attached for various reasons. For some, the monitoring has simply ended and no further action is required. Others, including Eau Claire, are in a holding pattern depending on what the landowners intend to do.

The city's five closed and three current landfills, which are handled differently, cost the city approximately $4.2 million each year for environmental-related monitoring and maintenance.

Province unable or unwilling to provide information

Alberta Environment and Parks, the ministry ultimately responsible for tracking all contaminated sites and enforcing cleanup in the province, was either unwilling or unable to provide clarity on how many sites it's aware of in the city of Calgary.

After several months and repeated requests for information, the ministry said there were 1,766 sites.

But CBC News had to inform a spokesperson that figure only applied to locations that had undergone an environmental site assessment. Information regarding how many of those areas are actually contaminated was either not known or not shared.

Approximately 200 sites are "examined and evaluated each year" in Calgary, according to spokesperson Brent Wittmeier.

Treatment to remove hydrocarbons from the water in the Inglewood Wildlands, once the home of an oil refinery, continues decades after cleanup started. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

In 2009, the province introduced "remediation certificates" to formally mark completion of a contamination cleanup, according to Alberta Environment. Since then, 10 sites in Calgary have received certificates while others have been remediated but not yet certified.

Several requests to speak with someone at the ministry with knowledge of contaminated sites went unanswered.

A municipal affairs spokesperson said proposals in the city charter negotiations include enforcement abilities for the city when it comes to contaminated sites, as well as establishing bylaws relating to environmental issues, including contamination, climate change, mature trees and biodiversity.

New powers would be rare

It might seem strange that a city or province is unaware of environmental and health liabilities lurking within its borders, or that a municipality lacks the power to do anything about them, but that's pretty standard, says Christopher De Sousa, the director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University in Toronto.

He said a lot of municipalities and government agencies are just starting to inventory industrial and contaminated sites, "but if they don't own it, they're not including it in that inventory."

"I would say a lot of jurisdictions are hesitant, historically, to inventory brownfields," he said of industrial sites when asked if it's normally difficult to come up with hard numbers.  

"The reason being, if a government identifies a site as potentially contaminated and they don't own it, have they affected the value of that site?"

Lynnview Ridge was wiped off the map once residents became aware of contamination left by a former oil refinery. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

De Sousa is only aware of one city in North America — New York — that has the authority to approve cleanup of contaminated sites.

He said it can benefit a city to have more authority over the sites if they're willing to look at it intelligently and strategically.

"If there's a will, there's a way. If there's a market, there's a way. If a landfill's been closed a long time, I mean, some of the best parks that I've been on are old landfills," he said.

"There are ways to manage risk, and if done strategically and well, anything is possible."

'Petrochemical taint' versus sprawl

It's that question of risk that intrigues Carra. He distinguishes between the risk of doing something on land that may contain contamination versus the risk of essentially not building on urban soil.

He cites not developing near the rail corridor for fear of an explosion and letting sprawl continue unimpeded as examples of what can happen when "old-school risk" carries the day.

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra says the issue of Lynnview Ridge is one of the reasons the city needs new powers to deal with contaminated sites. (CBC)

"Think about the environmental costs of not developing our inner city. If your job is to be a protector of the environment, taking this old-school approach to risk is ridiculous. It's especially ridiculous when you consider … the actual health impacts, worst-case scenario, of that particular petrochemical taint flowing through the groundwater," he says.

The health impacts of contaminants found within a city can vary — from the learning disabilities in children linked to lead contamination and the cancer-causing effects of prolonged hydrocarbon exposure, to salt or low levels of methane gas exposure.

"Any time there's a risk, we manage it," said Parks. "It could be just a small tank that's leaking and we have to go out and the risk management plan or the remedial action plan takes us a couple days and it's all cleaned up to scratch, or there's… the former refinery. Obviously they're a little more involved."

Fear factor

For those who have had to fight over contaminated land, it's hard to trust that the right steps will be taken, no matter who's in charge. And that those particular petrochemical taints Carra referred to are taken seriously enough.

Nichols is understandably skeptical, the result of her own experience trying to get to the truth of what happened on the land surrounding her home all those years ago.

When she bought the house — developed by a company called New West — she said she was told the area had just been for storage. What she didn't know: that storage included oil tanks that held leaded gasoline and often leaked. The city just wanted to reassure her everything was fine, she said. And Imperial just wanted everything to go away.

A chain-link fence blocks access to the ridge where houses once stood in Lynnview Ridge. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

"They didn't want to hear about it again, they didn't want their name tied to it. New West went bankrupt so they got out from under it," she said.

Nichols isn't sure, all these years later, whether everything was blown out of proportion or not. Alberta Health tested her home three times and found nothing of concern based on their guidelines. There are no confirmed cases of anyone dying or falling ill from the contamination. But there was legitimate fear.

"When you're the one living there and you've lost faith and trust in what you're being told, how do you know the fact that, if your child has ADD, that it wasn't caused by that?" she said.

"How do you know the fact that, if somebody develops cancer, that they wouldn't have developed it if they lived somewhere else? There's no knowing.

"I mean, there is a fear component to these things, but that I think is the greatest challenge for all of this heavy industry: when you start redeveloping land can you actually say it's safe for people to live on?"

The city charters

The city is banking on the fact that it has the expertise to answer those questions and to build the city it wants without having to go cap in hand to the province. It's also hoping it can do so without the delays that have long plagued some of the sites located within its borders.

The city charters for Calgary and Edmonton are expected to be released in July, outlining expanded powers for the two centres on everything from contaminated sites to affordable housing to municipal tribunals for bylaw offences.

Parks, for one, is confident in the city's abilities, at least at its current level of responsibility.

"I'm comfortable with the way the city is managing their contaminated sites. I mean, I've got to say that that's kind of my responsibility," he said.

"We've got a really good handle on what we do."


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.