Skip to main content

Derelict gas stations blight Halifax

Around the city, disused gas-station lots sit vacant for years, awaiting redevelopment. What’s the holdup?

By |
Holes-in-Landscape-Feature

The decline of the service station has created a growing blight on our urban landscapes.

Some cities are successfully using incentives to bring these sites, dubbed brownfields, back into productive use. Halifax, though, does not have incentives in place and lets market forces set the pace for redevelopment, says Luc Ouellette, a senior planner in city’s planning and infrastructure department.

“Why fix something that’s not broken?” said Ouellette.

In fairness to Halifax, it would need to get the province’s permission to do this.

“We’re restricted under our charter. We’re not permitted to give grants or incentive to business,” said Bruce Fisher, the city’s manager of financial policy and planning. “We’re not anxious to pay people to do things that they would have done on their own.”

Market forces are more favourable in Halifax, especially on the peninsula where land is more valuable, so the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites isn’t seen as much of an obstacle.

“In Dartmouth, it probably would be more of a problem,” Ouellette said.

So, while there might be some civic benefit to getting oil companies to beautify them, there is little the city can do to speed up the process—unless it wants to make changes to the entire development process and speed up all development.

The province can—and is—specifically targeting brownfield site redevelopment.

It enacted new regulations that came into force in July 2013 and there is no grandfathering, so any site that was contaminated before that time still falls under the new regulations.

Before they came into effect last year, the regulations were in the form of guidelines and didn’t have the force of law. Now they do, and they spell out what needs to be done.

The new regulations give the owner of any contaminated property 90 days to notify the Environment Department in writing. The owner has 180 days to complete a site assessment and two years to clean up the contaminated site, says Dan Hemsworth, a hydrogeologist and contaminated sites specialist with the Nova Scotia Environment Department.

“Right now, we’re dealing with a lot of oil companies and industries that have these sites,” Hemsworth said. “Basically, they’re falling in line.”

This could prevent situations like the one that has existed at the former King’s Esso station on Quinpool Road. Dubbed a “colossal waste of space” by Sheila Blair-Reed, who five years ago led a community effort to turn it into a greenspace for people to sit and have a coffee or enjoy their lunch.

Blair-Reid met with the person at the oil company who was responsible for decommissioned sites.

“They were very receptive to doing something and that had not been the case historically—according to the Quinpool Road Business Association,” Blair-Reed said. “They were totally wiling to beautify it; they realized it was an eyesore.”

They also got the support of Coun. Jennifer Watts and the city. There was plan to share the costs with the Imperial Oil, but it fell apart, said Karla Nicholson, the general manager of the Quinpool Road Business Association, which was going to lease the property from Imperial Oil Limited.

“HRM was eager to help by offering financial assistance, design and tendering and offering third party liability insurance, but we were never able to get it off the ground, as Imperial Oil was not able or willing—not sure what the reasoning or logic was—to provide the site environmental assessment,” Nicholson said.

In July, Imperial Oil spokeswoman Killeen Kelly disputed this claim.

“We actually have no record of a report being requested,” Kelly said. “We received a request from a local BIA (Business Improvement Association) to lease the property for use as a park and as a condition of that we had requested that BIA obtain civil liability.”

In July 2014, the Department of Environment said it had received a notification about this site, but would not release any information citing privacy concerns. Any information about the type of contamination, the date of an inspection, or the nature of any remediation work it approved, could only be obtained through a Freedom of Information Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) request.

Documents obtained through a FOIPOP request by Halifax Magazine reveal that decommissioning, assessment and remediation work on the site began in late summer 2003 and continued into 2004. This work was done by Dillon Consulting and they prepared a certificate of compliance (CoC) and sent it to the Department of Environment.

“The regulator would have signed off on the remediation work that we did,” Kelly  said in July.

But in a letter dated February 10, 2009, one of the department’s contaminated sites specialists wrote to the manager of pollution prevention saying that Imperial Oil “was and is still seeking regulatory closure by acceptance of the CoC.”

Even if the Quinpool Road Business Association had received the information it was looking for, either from Imperial Oil or the Department of Environment, it’s unlikely they would have been able to get—or afford—the liability insurance for the property and the project would have been scuttled.

“It would look pretty, but no one could be on it,” Blair-Reid said.

The former Esso site has been covered in gravel and fenced off with a “No Trespassing” sign ever since and last fall (on September 25) another complaint of “petroleum hydrocarbons in soil” was submitted to the environment department.

The Department gave Imperial two years (until Sept. 25, 2015) to clean it up and Kelly says Imperial Oil will comply.

The former Quinpool Road Esso was never ugly enough for the city to order any work under unsightly premises act, but it is certainly a blight on what is otherwise a busy commercial street.

“It’s very unfortunate and frustrating,” Watts said. “When you have a very large company that is not based in community, they don’t see the reality of what we see when we drive down the street.”

Imperial Oil is majority owned by ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded oil company in the world, so it’s easy to imagine how insignificant this tiny plot of land appears on their list of priorities.

There is a glimmer of hope, though, as Kelly said in July that Imperial Oil is negotiating to sell the property. She declined to give details until the deal was finalized. As of Oct. 1 (press time), Imperial Oil was still negotiating with the potential buyer.

By contrast some sites get redeveloped quickly. Although environmental consultant Doreen Chenard says the length of time can vary from site to site depending on their size, soil conditions and level of contamination.

“It can easily be a couple of years,” Chenard. “But the biggest factor in how long it takes is marketability of the property.”

The market has to be right and any sale or development needs to be valuable enough to pay for the environmental cleanup.

One example of a quick turnaround time is one of four former Ultramar sites purchased by Banc Developments Ltd. The company has already has a development agreement for the first one at Oxford and Bayers Road and President Besim Halef said he has applied for a building permit and hopes to be in the ground as soon as he gets the green light.

For this property, and the others on Chebucto Road, Robie Street and Joseph Howe Boulevard, the sellers paid for remediation work. Once the Environment Department approved the work, that closed the deal.

When asked how these properties got turned around quicker than others that have been vacant for years, Halef replied matter-of-factly.

“They put them on the market for sale and we bid on them like everybody else,” he said. “It wasn’t a difficult process.”

BROWN BLOTCH

“Brownfield” sounds like an Orwellian term, but if you think of it in conjunction with the term greenfield, it makes more sense. A greenfield site is one that hasn’t been developed before. It’s a piece of land that is in its natural state, or close to it. A brownfield site is one that has been used for industrial purposes and has some contamination that requires environmental remediation.

THE GREEN TEST

Doreen Chenard is the team leader for the environmental engineering group at LVM Maritime Testing, a Burnside company that assesses and cleans up contaminated properties. “Normally if we were asked to assess a property, we follow a phased environmental assessment that is done according to CSA standards,” Chenard says.

Here are the three phases of an Environmental Site Assessment (ESA):

Phase 1:

A background investigation into the site history to tell engineers what types of contaminants they might encounter. They’ll check records and interview people who know something about the site and what it is used for. They will also do a site inspection to check for signs of contamination.

Phase 2:

This involves testing by using an excavator, drilling boreholes, or taking groundwater samples. These are taken at different locations on the site
and during different times of the year because groundwater levels can vary.

Phase 3:

If they find contaminants, then further testing is done to define the extent of the contamination both laterally and vertically.

Once the work by environmental engineers is done, the Department of the Environment usually accepts the report of the engineer or geoscientist at face value, because it doesn’t have the resources to inspect every site. “We are putting more onus on the site professionals,” says Dan Hemsworth, a contaminated sites expert with the Nova Scotia Environment Department. “We require a certain level of expertise and only accept reports from a professional engineer or a professional geoscientist.”

Warning!

You are using an outdated browser. Things may not appear as intended. We recommend updating your browser to the latest version.

Close