Alberta issues environmental protection order for decades-old gas leak at Sears North Hill

Alberta has issued an environmental protection order against Sears Canada and the company that's taken over the bankrupt department store's North Hill mall location, for failing to properly clean up an old gas leak that has since spread to neighbouring communities.

Leak dates back to 1970s and 1980s from Sears gas station

The North Hill Sears store in Calgary has closed, but officials are still dealing with an underground leak from the gas station that used to operate at that site. (CBC)

Alberta issued an environmental protection order Wednesday against Sears Canada and the company that's taken over the bankrupt department store's North Hill Mall location, for failing to properly clean up and monitor a decades-old underground gas leak that has since spread underneath neighbouring communities.

Liberal MLA David Swann said the decision is welcome news.

"They've done the right thing here," said Swann, the representative for Calgary-Mountain View.

"I give full credit to the Hounsfield Heights and Briar Hill community associations for keeping on top of this."

He said they want monitoring and cleanup of "this progressive movement of hydrocarbon through their community."

MLA David Swann says he's pleased the province has issued an environmental protection order for an underground gas leak associated with the now closed Sears operation at North Hill Mall. (Hugo Levesque/CBC)

In 1958, Sears opened a service station at what was Calgary's first shopping mall and the largest mall in Western Canada at the time.

The gas station operated until 1995, when it was shut down. Two years later, a report from Seacor Environmental Engineering found the gas station's underground storage tank had leaked gasoline between the late 1970s and early 1980s.

CBC News reported in 2003 that the gas had spread a few blocks west and south of the former gas station. 

In 2015, the land was purchased by Vancouver-based developer Concord Pacific, which announced plans to redevelop the lot into a mixed-use commercial and retail high-rise.

"This site is complex and has a long history," wrote Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in a letter to Swann in October 2017, in regards to the cleanup efforts.

The gas leak occurred at a service station operated by Sears at North Hill Mall from 1958 to 1995. (Google Maps)

The most recent annual report on the contamination, undertaken by environmental consultant Clifton Associates Ltd. in 2017, found that levels of both residual hydrocarbon and benzene were above the exposure standards set in the province's soil and groundwater remediation guidelines.

Swann said it's fortunate that the leak was identified before it caused any major harm or danger to citizens, but noted it has required significant expense to clean up, not to mention the ongoing monitoring of the ground and air for toxins, using vapour catchers and wells in the nearby residential communities. 

"Our concern, of course, was that Sears going bankrupt would stop the monitoring of the cleanup, as we saw in the orphaned wells problem," Swann said.

"Companies go bankrupt and somehow those are left to an orphaned well fund, which is totally inadequate, or the public has to pay for it. In this case, the government is holding accountable the new company that has taken over from Sears."

Actions taken to monitor, cleanup leak were insufficient: EPO

The EPO stated that the actions taken by Sears and Concord to date have been insufficient to confine, manage and remediate the toxins released by the spill, and that further work will be required. 

It orders that the parties involved must:

  • Create a website to communicate the situation to the community within 30 days.
  • Recommence semi-annual soil vapour monitoring.
  • Recommence groundwater sampling and monitoring.
  • Fully delineate the boundaries of the dissolved gas plume by July 1, 2018.
  • Submit a written remediation plan by Dec. 15, 2018.
  • Implement the plan by no later than March 4, 2019.
  • Submit yearly status reports on the situation.

Swann said the cleanup was on hold during the ownership transition, but the order ensures that the onus will fall on the companies — not taxpayers — to handle the situation going forward.

He said that the monitoring will continue "in perpetuity, as long as there is any evidence that the oil plume is continuing to move down the slopes toward the Bow River."

With files from Elizabeth Snaddon