The contaminants sound nasty -- bunker fuel, solvents and heavy metals -- but the cleanup might not be so bad.
After 130 years of leaks and spills, the Canadian Pacific rail yards that segregate the North End from the rest of city could be a petri dish of chemicals requiring serious cleanup before the vast parcel could be redeveloped. Many suspect the cost and hassle involved in remediating the site could be deal-breakers.
But among the many technical, financial, and political problems that plague rail relocation, soil contamination might be the easiest problem to solve, several experts say.
It's already been done in cities across Canada, from Moncton, N.B., to Victoria, and the cost, while a factor, is a few million, not hundreds of millions. And, in many cases, the rail companies paid.
Every remediation is different, depending on what the yards were used for and how many spills occurred. Without borehole testing it's difficult to know how polluted the soil around the CP rail yards is and what has seeped into the groundwater.
"It would depend very much on how bad the contamination is and what's going to be put on there afterwards," said Angus Ross, spokesman for the Canadian Brownfields Network.
But, said Ross, it could be as simple as locating the contaminated spots and digging them out.
Generally, experts expect to find chlorinated solvents, old batteries, metals such as cadmium and chromium, and oils and fuels such as bunker fuel, a molasses-like substance used to power old steam locomotives.
Normally, no PCBs are found, said David Tiplady, a vice-president and the principal hydrologist with Vancouver's Piteau Associates.
And while remediation standards are tougher now, so are the environmental protection rules that govern how rail companies prevent spills and clean them as they happen. Rail workers familiar with the yards say in recent decades there have been few spills, and the province's conservation staff agrees, saying any spills must be immediately remediated.
The issue is what happened generations ago and what effect big incidents such as a 1980 methanol spill had on the soil and groundwater.
Marshalling yards, such as the ones below the Arlington and Slaw Rebchuk bridges, where cars are added and removed from trains, tend to be easier to remediate than mechanical shops such as the Weston shops behind the McPhillips Station Casino.
And the cleanup is usually fairly simple and not prohibitively expensive.
A decade ago, the Canada Lands Co., a federal land development agency, cleaned up 10 hectares of old CN Rail yards in Kelowna, B.C., to turn the parcel into a high-end residential neighbourhood. Among the glitches was worse-than-expected soil contamination. Copper, heavy metals and hydrocarbons polluted the site, and a two-year remediation project cost $1.5 million using a basic "dig and dump" process.
Adjusted for inflation and considering the size of Canadian Pacific's marshalling yards, that would put remediation costs in the neighbourhood of $18 million to $20 million, not including the Weston shops.
Other examples: Tiplady is working on a rail-yard remediation project in British Columbia in which the bill is $10 million so far. And, in Edmonton, where CN Rail's old yards are now one of the downtown's hippest neighbourhoods, cleanup wasn't much more complicated than digging one nine-metre-deep hole near a fuelling station and removing the dirty soil.
"I've cleaned up lots of rail yards," said Don Hussey, now the principal of Urban Revision Consulting, who worked for CN Rail's real estate division when the Edmonton yards were transformed.
"There were spots where there were issues that had to be dealt with, but it was no different from a lot of rail yards, and not really that bad in the end."
Other experts suggest Winnipeg's clay soil could be a big help. Sandy soil allows contaminants to trickle down into the groundwater, a far more expensive cleanup problem. Clay soil tends to hold contaminants in place, protecting the groundwater and avoiding large-scale disbursement.
Proponents of relocating Winnipeg's rail yards, including the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, argue remediation presents an opportunity more than a challenge. If several metres of soil need to be removed, that makes it easier to install water and sewer lines or a massive geothermal field that could heat all the new buildings in the area and make the development a model of green innovation.
They argue doing it now will be cheaper than doing it in 20 years.
Cleanup case studies
Moncton's massive rail yard once covered 113 hectares, employed 4,000 people, and was the freight, passenger and repair hub for most of the Maritimes. But when Canadian National left in 1989, rail-car remnants and foundations remained.
After a couple of years of testing, planning and public consultation, remediation started in the summer of 1998 and by 2000, the property was ready to be sold.
The cleanup was green-minded: Concrete slabs and foundations were ground up and used for paving, contaminated soil was treated and reused, and buried metal was baled and shipped to a recycling plant.
Now, the massive site next to downtown Moncton has been turned into a business park, a residential section and a huge recreation area with hockey rinks, soccer fields and 10 baseball diamonds.
The cleanup cost was $12 million to $14 million.
-- source: OCL Group
Canadian Pacific's Angus shops not far from downtown were the train and locomotive maintenance and manufacturing shops for the region, even producing armed vehicles during the Second World War.
But in the late 1990s, CP began selling or redeveloping the 50 hectares of underused rail yards to turn them into what are now hundreds of townhomes, condos, apartments and seniors housing, parks small and large, a grocery store and a business park.
First, though, the heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons and the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons needed to be removed from the soil. That work was done by 1996 and cost about $10 million. The project, along with the Moncton shops, became a model for other brownfield development.
-- source: CMHC case study