The residents of Port Stanley, under the auspices of Central Elgin (CE), should have been informed of the very good news that the Standards Division of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment has finally approved the environmental assessment for the harbour lands after more than 12 years of consultation, work and spending.

A letter announcing this great news was tabled at CE’s Council meeting on September 14, 2020 as an information item, with no staff commentary or analysis and no Council discussion or direction.  This is remarkable as the process began with controversy, acrimony, and an expectation that it would be concluded within two years.  This success is extremely important to the future of the harbour, harbour lands, the village, and CE.

The bottom line was that the federal government, namely Transport Canada (TC), was attempting to divest themselves of the liability of the commercially unsuccessful harbour at the lowest cost possible.  That “lowest cost” was on behalf of the “federal taxpayers,” who are somehow different than “local taxpayers.”  The fed’s attempts at limiting federal liability had the serious potential of increasing municipal liability if the right steps were not followed.

At the height of divestiture negotiations in a letter dated July 2008, Transport Canada told the municipality that it intended to proceed with an environmental assessment that could be completed as early as January 2009.  However, if the municipality wanted the next step, a “record of site condition” (RSC) would delay the process by as much as a year.

The letter advised CE that the filing of an RSC would protect the municipality from future “environmental cleanup orders from the Province.”  Central Elgin subsequently decided to allow TC to complete the risk assessment, while CE would take responsibility for the RSC.  This decision supported the municipality’s stated aim to make Port Stanley a fisheries and tourism harbour rather than an industrial center.  By August, CE changed its mind and asked TC to take on the RSC as well.  The feds would not.

A 2008 TC internal briefing note stated: “Port Stanley is a site with a long history of industrial and commercial activity which has led to a complex set of contamination issues.  The contamination is not an immediate risk to human health or safety, nor does it contravene any current laws.” [emphasis added]

That statement was true to federal bureaucrats in 2008 because the contamination was on federal lands, thus exempt from real public scrutiny and legally exempt from any provincial legislation. That superior attitude has permeated negotiations throughout the 12-year evolution of the environmental assessment. The proposed change to municipal ownership would make the lands subject to the strictest of environmental regulations in Ontario.  Many of these new laws were generated by the Walkerton water tragedy that killed seven and sickened thousands.  An Ontario Clean Water act was being developed that involved new governance legislation that would impact Port Stanley directly because of the regional freshwater intake outside the harbour.

As an example of the fed’s attitude, in December 2008, Andrew Hibbert of the Lake Erie Beacon had asked under Access to Information for federal plans to dredge the harbour and to repair the breakwater.  When preparing a ‘non-reply’ to this request, a TC internal e-mail identified Andrew: “I also want to bring to your attention his quoted remarks at a public meeting on the evening of December 4:  ‘Denoting himself as wearing two hats this evening – one for The Lake Erie Beacon and one for the Port Stanley Think Tank – Andrew Hibbert noted we have been waiting for answers after five years of negotiations for the harbour, and still don’t get them.  He said that meanwhile the harbour was going untended by Transport Canada and soon we will be lucky to get a canoe in the harbour.’ This reporter has been a Transport Canada critic on Port Stanley matters in previous media reports.”

The virtual abandonment of the harbour infrastructure in Port Stanley was bad enough as a “negotiation strategy.”  What was much worse was the release of all the environmental contamination reports to CE authorities while telling them they were negotiating under a “cone of silence.”  This damaging situation became untenable in 2009.

Although all the previously conducted environmental reports were labelled “CONFIDENTIAL,” to the Government of Canada there was no legal recourse to keep them secret.  Some 850 pages were released under Access to Information in 2007.  These reports were subsequently given to the Lake Erie Beacon (LEB), the London Free Press (LFP) and distributed freely in the region.  The LFP even made them available online and their star reporter, Chip Martin, began to ‘chip’ away at TC’s implausible communication strategy.

In January 2009, an Environment Canada website explaining the dangers of wood preservatives entering the environment, identified Port Stanley as a source of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) entering Lake Erie.  This was revealed by the LFP.  This led to a dialogue between provincial and federal authorities over the infamous Kettle Creek ‘blob.’  Finally, the two levels of government were talking.  The LEB asked why there was a contract for an environmental assessment for proposed dredging in Port Stanley on a Public Works website.  It was going to be a bad year for the feds.

By the end of Jan 2009 local authorities realized they did not ‘officially’ have any of the federal environmental reports.  The LFP made a ‘meal’ of this based on the required “source water protection” data being collated by local water authorities.  TC was highly embarrassed, and bureaucrats refused requests for interviews.

Even the University of Western Ontario student newspaper got into the act, addressing embarrassing questions to TC which they refused to answer.  Their strategic communications advice was that all local water quality issues belonged to local authorities.  The strategy also postulated that they were the good guys, and all would be revealed and available when the risk assessment was made public – soon.

The MP for the area, Joe Preston was energized by the publicity and the apparent confusion among bureaucrats about what was really going on with the harbour divestiture in Port Stanley.  This intergovernmental action and high-level oversight finally ensured that Central Elgin moved toward an acceptable deal that would not expose local taxpayers to an unacceptable environmental liability when the harbour was officially transferred on September 8, 2010.

So, the Harbour Lands Risk Assessment, which was to take two years to complete, was finally competed in 12 years, with no publicity, no acknowledgement, no fanfare, and no explanation.