'Leap forward' for harbour as Randle Reef cleanup contracts awarded

The contracts mark a milestone in the decades-long struggle to get the country's largest coal tar contamination site cleaned up.

Hamilton's McNally Construction one of three companies to clean up contaminated coal tar site

The new plan for the Randle Reef cleanup project includes shrinking the coal tar containment facility from 7.5 hectares to 6.2 hectares. (Environment Canada)

The federal government has awarded the contracts for Hamilton's Randle Reef cleanup — and after years of delays, it finally appears governments are ready to deal with one of the country's biggest environmental blights.

Three contracts were announced Friday, covering all aspects of the cleanup. The first contract is going to Hamilton's McNally Construction for the first stage of construction. Stage two of the project was awarded to Dean Construction Co. Ltd. of LaSalle, Ont, while stage three is going to Riggs Engineering Ltd.

This project is truly a cause for community celebration.- Chris McLaughlin, Bay Area Restoration Council

The contracts are a milestone after years of planning and negotiation from a group of partners including neighbouring municipalities, the federal government and U.S. Steel, all of whom came up with a plan to "cap" the site – essentially building a box around it and turning it into an extension of the pier that could then be used as land for industry.

The entire project is slated to cost $138.9 million. The value of McNally construction's portion of the project comes in at just under $32 million, documents show.

"This is a red-letter day in the history of our much-maligned Bay. The gradual rehabilitation of Hamilton Harbour leapt forward today with the announcement of the Randle Reef Engineered Containment Facility (ECF) over the most highly contaminated sediment in the Harbour," said Chris McLaughlin, executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC).

"This project is truly a cause for community celebration. It is an achievement for the ages," he said in a statement. McLaughlin told CBC News the city can expect to see construction at the site "relatively soon" as contractors try to beat winter weather.

An Environment Canada news release says the project will start in 2015 and finish in 2022.

It's officially a cold day in hell

The project was previously met with "cold day in hell skepticism," for years McLaughlin said, so Friday's announcement truly is a big deal. "Until now, it has been somewhere between pipe dream or hypothetical. Now we finally have something to hang our hats on — and that's a huge accomplishment.

Randle Reef is located just offshore from U.S. Steel, and is the largest coal tar contaminated site in the whole country. The site is about 60 hectares in size, which is the size of 120 football fields.

According to BARC, Randle Reef contains about 695,000 cubic meters of sediment contaminated with toxic chemicals. That contamination has been described as a "spill in slow motion," because of its continuing slow spread of contaminants across the harbour floor and uptake into the food chain of the harbour ecosystem.

The contamination has been seeping into the harbour since the 1800s, thanks to sources of contamination like coal gasification, petroleum refining, steel making, municipal waste, sewage and overland drainage.

Various groups have been trying to clean up the site since the late 1980s. It seemed as though things would get underway last year, but that plan hit a snag when Environment Canada announced that all of the original tenders in the project came in over budget.

To get the project under budget, some "cost saving design efficiencies" have been implemented. That includes shrinking the project from 7.5 hectares to 6.2 hectares, which would leave more of the contaminated coal tar outside of the structure than originally intended.

The most contaminated parts of Randle Reef would still be covered, with some "lesser contaminated" portions covered with sand and other materials, something the city calls a "safe and widely accepted practice."

Project coming in 3 stages

The first stage of the project awarded to McNally Construction includes constructing the engineered containment facility (ECF) into which the contaminated sediment will later be placed.

The second stage of the project, which includes the reconstruction of a harbour wall that's in poor condition, is expected to start in September.

The third portion of the contract, which was awarded to Riggs Engineering Ltd, deals with engineering services. Environment Canada says a detailed project schedule should be available later this year.

adam.carter@cbc.ca | @AdamCarterCBC


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