There is a long history behind the “Blue Barn,” Jonathan Silcock said while standing inside the large, empty building.
So named because of its blue sides, the structure was once a part of Nexen's chlor-alkali plant. Using mercury-cell technology, for 26 years chemicals were produced in Squamish for the pulp and paper industry. At the international company's peak, 150 tonnes of chlorine were processed daily.
In 1991, Nexen closed shop. Eight years later, the Canadian government ordered the company to clean up mercury discharged into the environment. The Blue Barn then became a part of a $40-million remediation project, housing a wastewater treatment plant for contaminated groundwater.
During the four-year undertaking, 24,000 tonnes of soil was washed, three tonnes of mercury was recovered and 150,000 tonnes of mercury-laden earth was shipped to the West Edmonton Landfill — enough sludge to fill approximately three Olympic-sized swimming pools.
When the Alberta-bound rail cars stopped rolling, the water treatment plant kept pumping. By that time the land was in the hands of the District of Squamish, which passed it to the municipality's wholly owned subsidiary, the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation (SODC).
The blue barn's lights no longer work, said Silcock, the SODC's project manager. Thieves stripped building of the copper wiring. In the dark, Silcock pointed out obstacles on the ground. Bill McNeney, the SODC's chair, stood beside raised concrete blocks protruding from the floor — the only real remnants of the once-vital treatment plant.
By 2010, the Ministry of Environment deemed mercury levels so low and the facility so expensive that it was closed. The equipment cost approximately $1 million annually to operate.
Its smaller counterpart, “Little Green,” cost approximate $100,000 a year. Built in 2006, it took over as a precautionary system against mercury spikes in the groundwater. Since February 2011, Little Green has been on a monitored, temporary shutdown — standing by in case mercury levels exceed the ministry's criteria. To date, it hasn't been turned on.
“At the end of the day we have a building that meets all the industrial and safety standards for industrial use,” Silcock said, before he left the Blue Barn.
It's not alone. Back in SODC's nearby office, Silcock pulled out a map of the area. Seventy per cent of the oceanfront property, including the Blue Barn, sits within a zone in which contamination rates are within allowable limits for commercial and industrial use. Contamination on the northern portion is to be dealt with during construction.
“This is less than a gas station level of contamination,” Silcock said of the slice of the 59-acre site closest to Cleveland Avenue.
The middle third, approximately 20 acres, meets allowable standards for residential development; SODC has a final compliance certificate for that portion. But with the exception of the brownfields, none of the property can be developed before the park is built.
The property shares the same legal lot description as the designated park area. Parkland, like residential areas, is held to a higher level of environmental cleanup standard. The designated green space requires a Certificate of Compliance (CoC) from the Ministry of Environment. Without a CoC, land can't be subdivided, nor can the district issue building or occupancy permits.
“The park needs to be built to get the certificate,” Silcock said.
The 12-acre park that's planned as part of the Oceanfront Sub-Area Plan would not only become a community asset and meet the district's flood elevation standards, but it is the final step in risk management, capping the remaining mercury plume.
The plume isn't what the government considers a “high risk condition,” said Greg Quandt, who joined the conversation via speakerphone. There are numerous contaminated sites in B.C. of similar magnitude and scope as the oceanfront, said the business leader of Hemmera, the environmental consulting firm hired to monitor trigger levels and prepare due diligence materials for project marketing purposes. This year, the Ministry of Environment has approximately 11,000 sites on its records and roughly 3,000 completed projects.
“[The Squamish Oceanfront] is also not what someone might call a heavily contaminated site,” Quandt said.
Mercury naturally attenuates, Quandt said. The one-and-a-half-metre-thick plume's mercury levels are low — nearly 1,000 times lower than historical levels — he added, noting it's not a “free product.” The plume has also shrunk to a quarter of its original size. The remaining pump is on standby to ensure the underground plume doesn't move and to treat groundwater should mercury levels fail standards.
The project's high profile and stakeholders' ongoing involvement helped land $495,968 worth of government grants for cleanup operations, Quandt noted. The original work by Nexen won a Special Environment Award.
Private and government research on the development of strategies linked to the Squamish site resulted in seven published, peer-reviewed environmental technology papers and several U.S. patents.
The remediation process has worked beyond anyone's expectation, Silcock said. When the SODC first looked over the property, the corporation was under the impression the treatment plants would be pumping “forever,” McNeney noted.
“One way to think of it is the remaining contamination at the site is all known and well understood,” Quandt said.
That's good for marketing, McNeney told The Chief. As real estate company Cushman and Wakefield take the project to interested parties, there will be no surprises, he said. The SODC estimates the park will cost $5 million to construct and has a to-do checklist.
“It is pretty much known what cost and what the outstanding list of items are to be done,” McNeney said.