$138 million and 11 years: Victoria’s toxic cleanup nearly done

A 250-metre-long panel of First Nations murals was unveiled Friday in the countdown to this winter’s completion of the $138-million Rock Bay cleanup of 17 acres of contaminated land and seabed.

Once the 11-year-long job is finished, about four acres of the downtown site will be sold to the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.

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It’s too soon to say what the future holds for that land, say band officials, but the goal is to map out a plan with the City of Victoria on some kind of economic development.

B.C. Hydro plans to sell its adjacent land after five years of monitoring and soil sampling results confirms the site is clean.

The entire property along Government and Pembroke streets had been called one of Canada’s most toxic sites. It was filled with coal tar from a coal gasification plant and other chemicals resulting from decades as a garbage dump.

Rock Bay was the site of the coal gasification facility from 1862 to 1952 on property once owned by Victoria Gas and B.C. Electric, which eventually became B.C. Hydro.

Industrial practice was to fill Rock Bay Harbour with waste, including coal tar — similar to asphalt sludge — which caused severe damage to the soil, groundwater and harbour sediments, according to Transport Canada.

The pollutants were an “unwelcome inheritance from a time long ago when there was little regard for the environment,” said Greg Reimer, B.C. Hydro spokesman.

B.C. Hydro and Transport Canada teamed up on the remediation project. Spokesman Ted Olynyk said Hydro owns about 7.4 acres of the site. Transport Canada has 4.27 acres of land and 4.9 acres of seabed, according to a federal contaminated-sites report.

Hydro has spent $90.3 million (including about $18-million it gave to Transport Canada), a spokesman said.

Transport Canada has spent $21 million so far, and expects to spend $27.3 million with some funds from Hydro on the project’s final phase, a federal official said.

The site’s surface is now paved and covered in gravel. In the final phase of the project, crews are building a coffer dam to drain and dredge Rock Bay for Transport Canada.

A total of 250,000 tonnes of contaminated soil has been hauled away. Another 88,000 tonnes of polluted sediments and foreshore will be removed in the bay, where a coffer dam is being built.

The murals serve as a cautionary reminder of the importance of a healthy environment. They were blessed in a First Nations ceremony on Friday morning.

Bald eagles soaring above treetops, whales, pristine forests, First Nations people and rushing waterfalls are among images running along Government and Pembroke streets.

They were painted by a 16-member group of First Nations youth, based on designs by artists Butch Dick and Darlene Gait, in a project sponsored by the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, B.C. Hydro and Tervita Corp., an environmental company.

Esquimalt Chief Andy Thomas said the art project represents “our relationship to the land, the water and the resources you see painted in the pictures.

“It tells the stories of our families who lived on this land,” Thomas said. “When you take care of the land, the land is going to look after you.”

Songhees Chief Ron Sam praised the youth, saying their work is “truly world-class.”

The benefits that future generations can reap from the property, which is traditional Songhees and Esquimalt land, was on their minds.

Sam said that talks about buying federal land will take place once remediation is fully complete. In 2012, it was announced the First Nations would buy it for $2.8 million once the work was finished.

While a variety of possible uses have been raised in the past, Sam said “it’s too early in the process to say what we will have here. We see it becoming big for all of us.”

He’s expecting there will be talks with potential partners.

Thomas is also enthusiastic about the land’s potential, saying “it is going to be a big economic engine for us.”

Thomas and Sam anticipate working closely with Victoria on planning for the area.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said a new Rock Bay-Burnside Gorge-Douglas Street planning process was launched in recent weeks to develop a shared vision for the neighbourhood.

First Nations representatives will be on a public advisory committee, playing key roles in driving the public-engagement process and planning during the next 18 months, Helps said.

The city looks forward to partnering with the First Nations as they move forward with economic development, she said.

“This area holds the key to the future of our city,” Helps said.

While some people say there’s no place to develop in the city, Helps said “all you need to do it look behind these murals.”

Rock Bay work is on schedule to be complete by mid-November, said federal spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu. “The project is reaching a significant milestone now that construction of the temporary coffer dam is almost complete,” she said. “Over the coming weeks, we expect to start draining the bay to begin the project’s main contaminated soil removal phase.”

Installing support walls along the property boundaries proved to be more challenging than expected, raising concerns about pile-driving noise in the neighbourhood, Liu said. A consultant was hired to conduct noise and vibration monitoring.

“Fortunately, the majority of the pile driving work has been completed so the noise levels will decrease,” Liu said.

Draining the bay and removing contaminated soil may also result in emissions, odours and dust. A neighbourhood air-quality management program will monitor air quality, she said. If necessary, Transport Canada will take immediate action,” she said.

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