Massive Rock Bay cleanup years and millions of dollars from finish

A handful of brick buildings, currently behind temporary fencing on Government Street, are being prepared for demolition as the next phase of the Rock Bay cleanup gets started.

Crews are gutting the buildings, which until recently housed tenants including Super Save Gas and Club Phoenix in the 2100-block of Government, with the expectation they will be razed in mid-January.

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“This will be our last big dig. What we’re doing next is demolishing the Super Save site. They will be coming down so we can remediate under there,” said B.C. Hydro spokesman Ted Olynyk.

Hydro and Transport Canada, the owners of the land that stretches to the water from Government Street and along Pembroke Street, have been working to remediate the toxic site since 2004. Hydro has also been doing some early clean-up work on its portion since the mid 1990s.

It’s been a massive job that is at least two years and millions of dollars from completion. Olynyk said Hydro has spent $51.8 million so far. He could not estimate what the budget for the next few years of work will be as that budget has not yet been approved by the B.C. Utilities Commission. Transport Canada has spent $19 million so far on cleaning up the foreshore lands.

The original joint budget had been for about $32 million, which grew to $68 million within 10 years.

“This is still listed as a high-risk contaminated site by the province,” said Olynyk. “And it was one of the most contaminated sites in B.C. at one time.”

The Rock Bay remediation project includes 1.73 hectares of uplands and 2.02 hectares of harbour floor that is administered by Transport Canada.

Hydro’s land at Rock Bay is the site of a former coal gasification facility that operated from 1862 to 1949 by Victoria Gas and B.C. Electric. The coal gasification process — the main waste product being coal tar — resulted in a significant impact to soil, groundwater and harbour sediments.

When the joint remediation project started, neither Transport Canada nor Hydro had an idea of how bad the contamination had been.

“It’s not our mess, but we are legally responsible for the remediation of the site,” said Olynyk. “And the site is very complex. We didn’t know what we were dealing with completely.”

Olynyk said the more they dug the more problems they found, which translated into budgets being blown.

According to Transport Canada, there is still some question about what’s left to be done. Spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu said because there was more contamination than originally thought and the remaining work is complex as it requires cleaning up near the shore and under the bay, they are taking more time to study and plan the next phase.

Liu said they expect to tender the clean-up contract in the spring with a goal of project completion by December 2016.

Olynyk agreed it’s possible they could be facing another mess when they start remediating under the soon-to-be-demolished buildings. “We have some idea, but that’s the thing with underground — we didn’t realize the extent of it before and that could [be the case] again,” he said.

To date, more than 200,000 tonnes of contaminated soil has been removed from the site.

Even when remediation is complete, Hydro will continue to monitor and test the site. Olynyk expects they will continue to do that until at least 2020, at which point the utility hopes to sell its property to recoup some of its costs.

The federal government has already sold some of its waterfront to the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations for $2.8 million. The agreement is expected to close when remediation is complete.

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