Vanderhoof’s mayor has taken the issue of petroleum industry ‘brownfields’ in the community to a federal cabinet minister after failed communications with petroleum company, Imperial Oil (Esso).
A brownfield site, in relation to the petroleum products industry, is an unused or abandoned site, for example an old gas station, of which expansion and redevelopment is prohibited as a result of real or perceived environmental contamination.
There are a number of these abandoned gas station sites in down town Vanderhoof, and the ones of main concern to Mayor Gerry Thiessen are owned by Imperial Oil.
“What frustrates me is as you drive through downtown Vanderhoof on the highway, there are a number of these sites that used to be old gas stations and old bulk petroleum stations,” said Thiessen.
“Those companies made good financial living off of us as a community – not for them to just abandon those sites and leave us with the mess,” he said.
“And rather than going in and cleaning them up, Esso has decided just to fence them off and abandon them.”
“We’ve tried to reach out to them and talk to them and there’s no correspondence back to us – they have left them and just walked away it appears,” he added.
Thiessen said that he has occasionally seen somebody on the sites checking what appear to be test holes; “but apart from that, they don’t appear to be doing anything with them,” he said.
After trying to contact Imperial Oil a number of times, Thiessen finally brought the issue up with federal cabinet minister Gordon O’Connor at a recent meeting in Prince George.
The three sites in question are: 210 West First Street, a former Esso-branded service station that closed in the early 2000’s; 293 West First Street which was a former bulk petroleum plant and closed in 2009; and the third Imperial Oil owned site is at 107 West Second Street, another former bulk plant which was closed in the 1980s and part of which is now being leased to a commercial business. An Imperial Oil spokesperson would not confirm the name of the business that is leasing part of the unused property.
The issue of Brownfield’s is a nation-wide problem, with many municipalities complaining of the same unused sites.
Ted Stoner, Vice President for the Western Division with the Canadian Petroleum Products Industry (CPPI) says that petroleum companies are in a catch 22 situation with Brownfield sites, and the CPPI are working to try and educate provincial governments, such as BC, about the issues.
“There is a requirement that the land that a business sat on, be returned as close as possible to its original condition,” said Stoner.
“And in a lot of cases in Canada, and this goes back probably 40 or 50 years, the standards for what retail gas stations could use for their underground storage tanks for their fuel was quite a bit different than what it is today, and consequently you could have leaking underground storage tanks that have been there for years and years and have actually leaked hydrocarbon products into the soil underneath,” he said.
In order for petroleum companies to restore these sites to their original condition, they have to drill wells at the site and take soil samples to make sure there is no hydrocarbons in the soil, or if there is, that it’s below certain limits as specified by the provincial government.
“So a Brownfield site is usually one that, typically a large company, when they stop selling fuel at a site, they will demolish what’s above ground…they’ll dig up the earth and remove the underground storage tanks and all the piping and anything else that was underground, do the analysis of the soil and then if the soil requires some form of remediation because of hydrocarbons then they start that,” said Stoner.
In many cases these sites do require remediation of the soil which can take anywhere from months to years, unless you physically dig the soil up and replace it, as was the case at one site in downtown Vancouver.
“They used this process in one of the Expo sites in downtown Vancouver years ago which they call a ‘dig and a dump’,” said Stoner.
“They physically remove the top 20 -30 feet of soil, put it in a truck and remove it, and replace it with virgin soil that hasn’t been touched with hydrocarbons,” he said.
However the ‘dig and dump’ strategy is extremely expensive and since the land in downtown Vancouver is worth a lot more than down town Vanderhoof, it is unlikely a company like Imperial Oil, would ever consider carrying out such a process on sites here.
In the majority of cases, petroleum companies’ just use time as their method to remediate the soil.
“In most cases it’s just that there’s parts per million of hydrocarbon in the soil and it needs time for bio-remedial action – in other words the earth kind of takes care of itself,” said Stoner.
“It can take years to regenerate itself so you have to keep testing to make sure that its aerated…time is what the issue is…and that’s why you’ll see sites sitting, what appear to be abandoned,” he said.
Stoner added that in some cases the soil will never remediate on its own, and would require some physical work, which again will require the land owner to spend money on the unused property.
So one of the main issues with selling the unused properties is that it may cost the company more to return a site to its original state than what’s its worth to sell.
Another major issue, according to Stoner, is that even if the land is sold on, the original owner will still retain the liability for the environmental condition of the soil.
“A lot of companies aren’t prepared to carry that liability by selling to someone else – they will hold onto the land and keep the liability to themselves,” said Stoner.
“I’ve read articles where land has been sold that had a gas station on it say 40 or 50 years ago and it was cleaned up to the environmental standards of that time…and through a series of sales the land ended up being say – take an extreme – a day care centre for children was put on it.
“And then all of sudden people started complaining about a hydrocarbon smell – and it turned out the…smell was from land that was cleaned up to 50-year old standards which are different now.
“The owner who had it 50 years ago still carries the liability and they then have to go back in and repurchase the land – buy it back and essentially clean it up to today’s standards – that has occurred in a couple of cases in North America,” he said.
Stoner said that is probably what the Mayor is referring to when he says he has seen vehicles at the sites ‘testing’.
“They are probably watching that soil to A – see if the parts per million are going down because the soil is naturally starting to remediate itself; and B – they’re watching to make sure the hydrocarbons aren’t migrating…off the property,” he said.
Imperial Oil Spokesperson John Harding says the public affairs department is not aware of receiving a call recently from Vanderhoof.
“However…we are open to learning more about the towns beautification initiatives,” said Harding.
He added that Imperial Oil is only open to discussing projects about two of the sites owned – those on First Street – and not the third (on Second Street).
“In terms of those two properties we are open to learning more…to see if there is a way for a project to occur at either one of these locations that would be suitable to both parties,” he said.
Harding would not confirm the reason for leaving the third site out, but said only that the property is partially leased to a commercial business.
When asked of the environmental condition of the site, he replied; “I don’t know the status of that property – other than it’s being leased. I could go and try to find out…but I think that’s all we’re really going to say,” said Harding.
In terms of the environmental condition of the other two Imperial Oil owned sites in Vanderhoof, Harding said environmental assessment work has been completed on the site at 210 West First Street.
“The Esso branded service station…operated for many years before it closed.” said Harding.
“Environmental assessment work has been completed there and we have an environmental management plan in place – so we’re managing any environmental impacts on that property…in accordance to BC Ministry of Environment standards and guidelines,” he said.
The site at 293 West First Street that closed in 2009 is still being assessed according to Harding.
“That’s where you may have seen some recent drilling of monitoring wells on that property,” he said.
“We are in the process of investigating the environmental condition of that property… I can’t speculate on when that would be completed and like I said, the site just closed in 2009,” he added.
Harding said he did not have the specifics about the environmental assessments at all three Imperial Oil sites.
“If required we would communicate those specifics to the BC government but that’s all I can tell you,” he said.
While Harding did say that Imperial Oil would intend to ultimately sell these properties, he said there are a number of factors that would go into such a decision.
“So I can’t speculate on what kind of time lines we’d be looking at … but the things that would influence our decision to sell are local market conditions for property, the environmental condition of the property, and also that the environmental condition of the property meets the appropriate government standards of that time,” he said.
Stoner says he has been working with provincial governments to make sure they understand what the petroleum industry is faced with, in trying to remediate these Brownfield sites, and also to try and figure out a solution to the liability problem that petroleum companies are faced with.
“We’ve really been pushing to see if we can somehow find a way to … get out of this regulated liability issue because the governments say … we’d like to be able to take these sites and use them for something else and the oil companies are saying yeah we’d like to sell them but were not about to do that if we have to hold the liability for that site … so help us out,” said Stoner.
“Lets find a way that we could limit the liability that would make it economical to reuse these sites for other things.
“There should be no reason why an old gas station couldn’t be paved and used for a parking lot … that’s obviously not going to influence anybody,” he said.
“You wouldn’t want to necessarily put a food factory with basements on it that might potentially come into contact with the soil but something that’s generic.”
“The oil companies aren’t going to do any of that if they still have the liability issue hanging over their head – they’ll just hold onto the piece of land,” he said.
As well as speaking to a federal cabinet minister about the issue, the District has also put in an application for a project being organized by the Ministry of Natural Resources called the Brownfield Renewal Strategy.
“They have offered communities in BC the opportunity to participate in what they’re calling a ‘community service station revitalization pilot sharette’, and the deal would be if your community was chosen, then representatives from this group and from the petroleum industry would come to our community, have a look at the sights and then explore with us opportunities to either deal with the remediation or if that’s not financially feasible for anyone involved then looking at alternative uses,” said District of Vanderhoof Economic Development Officer, Kathy Leforge.
An application to the program was submitted on February 8.