Hamilton pays $1.75M for infamous toxic site that once sold for $2
Years after toxic barrels discovered, Ministry says 350 Wentworth St. N is cleaned up
The city is salting the earth at one of Hamilton's most infamous environmental blights.
Less than two years after 350 Wentworth Street North sold for $266,000 at a tax sale, and a decade after it changed hands for just $2, the city has paid $1.75 million to purchase the once extremely toxic property — all to knock down the building standing there and put up a salt dome.
The purchase marks the end of a decades-long saga at the property that included toxic barrels found hidden behind a false wall, a multitude of owners squabbling over responsibility, and several ministry orders to clean it all up.
It's a winding tale of a putrid, highly-contaminated site that was once exceptionally valuable, then virtually worthless, and now, valuable again.
With cleanup finally complete, the city is ready to move forward with the property, Ward 3 Coun. Matthew Green told CBC News.
"Any time we have a problematic environmental hazard, and any time that we can remediate it, it's an investment for communities and future generations," Green said.
Toxic waste plagues building
The city bought the property at the end of August. Less than two years prior at the end of 2016, the municipality had actually registered a lien against it and sold it to recoup unpaid taxes.
Properties like 350 have a way of costing the public one way or the other in the end...- Matt Jelly, activist
That's when Summy Sandhu bought 350 Wentworth for $266,000. Around that time, you could smell the acrid odour wafting outside, detectable from about 30 feet away. Inside the property were hundreds of barrels of toxic waste that were discovered behind a fake wall in 2013.
Sandhu told CBC news in an email that he "cleaned up all the toxic barrels and completely cleaned the building inside and out." Workers in hazmat suits and masks trucked out the waste, which was found to contain carcinogens like coal tar byproducts, industrial solvents and roof tar.
The provincial Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said in an email that officers confirmed that all the waste was removed and the area was decontaminated in the fall of 2017.
Sandhu did not respond to repeated requests for comment about how much the endeavour cost, but he told The Hamilton Spectator back in 2017 that the cleanup would run $650,000. Coupled with the $266,000 purchase price, it certainly wasn't cheap — but he appears to have done well, considering the city bought it for $1.75 million in the end.
Property records for the building stretch all the way back to 1988, when Currie Products Limited spent a million dollars for 350 Wentworth. Currie ran a tar facility that went out of business there in the late 1990s, and was considered by many to be the company that originally polluted the site. Owner John Currie died in 2013.
Through the years, the building has changed hands multiple times for a wide swath of prices, ranging from that original million dollars, to $610,000 in 2007, to $2 in 2008, to the tax sale in 2016 and now, for $1.75 million. Over that time, building owners fought with each other and the province over who was actually responsible for cleaning up the site, in some cases heading to court in search of a resolution.
City reshuffling properties to create transit hub
For each sale, the price of the property reflected what buyers knew about the site at the time. Lower-city activist and artist Matt Jelly widely publicized the lingering environmental troubles at 350 Wentworth back in 2010.
"Properties like 350 have a way of costing the public one way or the other in the end — whether it's in uncollected taxes, cleanup costs, emergency services, the impact on the surrounding neighbourhood," Jelly said. "So while the price seems inflated, I suppose I'd be happier if the property is in the City's hands as opposed to an unaccountable private owner.
"I still think cities need better tools to deal with properties like these, including more funding from upper levels of government for the cleanup of sites that are hopelessly polluted — the city often ends up back in a square one position where they end up holding the hot potato."
The city's purchase of the property is all part of a reshuffling of buildings in the area to create a transit hub for the lower city like the Mountain Transit Centre at 2200 Upper James.
The city plans to build part of that facility adjacent to the nearby building at 330 Wentworth, but needed a chunk of that property that's currently occupied by a salt dome for expansion — hence the salt dome being moved to 350 Wentworth to make space.
While it appears the city could have saved money by taking over the property when it was up for tax sale, that's not really the case, officials say. The city does sometimes take carriage of properties after a failed tax sale, but woudn't do so on a property like this one with environmental issues, Green says.
"The city won't take on the liability by policy," he said. "The liability is way too big, because you don't know what you're buying … you have no idea what could be found or buried."