The fate of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s decommissioned former wastewater plant on Lakeshore Road is in the hands of the federal government.
In August the Niagara Region’s public works committee voted to request financial assistance from Ottawa to help in the cleanup of what is potentially unused explosive ordnance, or ammunition.
The region wants to dismantle the existing wastewater treatment plant at 1738 Lakeshore Rd. along with its existing lagoons so that it can return it to a naturalized state, which would include a wetland.
The plan is to replace the wetlands that were damaged by the construction of the new wastewater treatment plant 800 metres away. It opened in 2020.
The Battle of Fort George National Historic site adjacent to the old treatment plant underwent a similar removal of unused explosives in 2018.
The Department of National Defence removed the unexploded ordnance and returned it to the ownership of Parks Canada due to the site’s national historic designation.
Once the two parcels of land are decontaminated, the region must return the land to the federal government.
“The government leased the land to the region and now that the lagoons are no longer needed, the lease requires the region to return a site in a natural state that it was received,” Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa told The Lake Report.
The defence department used this area as a rocket range dating as far back as 1908.
However, due to the risk of explosives on the land, a full-scale clearance is required before any remediation takes place, which would be “extremely expensive and challenging,” according to a defence department summary in the region’s staff report.
Zalepa said the lagoons were there when soldiers used the property as a firing range, so there’s the potential for unused ammunition on the property.
A risk assessment of the property completed by the department rated the possibility of unexploded ordnances as “medium.”
If such ordnance is handled incorrectly it could “cause a catastrophic event possibly leading to loss of life,” the report said.
It suggests that the risk can be mitigated by having on-site safety briefings, pre-work surveys and selective clearance of ordnance.
Still, the cost of a full-scale clearance would be too expensive for the region, which also doesn’t have the experts needed to do it.
“The costs associated with UXO (unexploded ordnance) clearance activities could be significant, including a qualified UXO contractor and full-time on-site UXO expert,” the report said.
In addition to being costly, the department said a full-scale clearance would be unpleasant and challenging.
If Ottawa refuses to assist with the necessary funding, the region wants to return the site on an “as-is” basis.
Regardless of remediation efforts, the staff report said it doesn’t anticipate the public will have access to the land in the future because of the “documented conditions of the lands, regardless of remediation efforts.”
Zalepa asked staff to clarify what this meant, since he was always under the impression that it would eventually be available for public use.
“When it does get cleaned up, the lagoons themselves are likely not to be touched, so there would always be some risk with the lagoon areas,” Frank Tassone, the region’s transportation director, told council.
He emphasized that the whole property would not be fully clear of unused ordnance.
Zalepa confirmed later with The Lake Report that it’s not that the cleaned-up lands would never be available to the public.
However, in the short term while they’re sorting everything out, the lands would not be available to the public, said Zalepa.
He said he’d like to see the land turned into a “natural heritage area” where people can walk and explore.
“There’s not going to be any major facilities on-site, because then that involves having to go back to remove the unexploded ordnances,” he said.
Before any decisions are made it would be brought to the public, the region, Parks Canada and other partners, he said.
The Lakeshore Road site where the lagoons are located is 23.1 hectares and was traded to the region in 1965.
A second parcel of land was leased from Parks Canada to build the nearby chemical and mechanical buildings, including the two aeration lagoons, in the 1990s.
The region wants to decontaminate both pieces of land.
The region has multiple agreements with the federal government regarding the old treatment plant and the lagoon land dating as far as the 1980s.
Alternative solutions include having the region foot the bill to clean up the ordnance, or do nothing and let nature restore the land over time.
“If the government doesn’t come to the table the likelihood that it stays in an as-is condition is very highly likely,” said Tassone.
The staff report notes that the only thing the region can do right now is “remove all equipment, fixtures and appurtenances from buildings and process tanks within the existing site.”
Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report