By Dan McNeil
Recently a long-term resident took me to task because he believed my intent in these articles was to get everybody to start calling our local “Berm” the “East Headland,” like Transport Canada does. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth being – now, it really is a berm. It is a great mound of clean earth that covers an engineered geotechnical barrier that protects future users from the contamination lying beneath. Everyone needs to be fully aware of all this entails. It is not the “last bit of undeveloped lakefront available to the public.” It is a “brownfield.” It is going to be the most managed and controlled piece of property in Elgin County. By the way, Hofhuis Park is the latest bit of undeveloped lakefront available, with more like it possible with future dredging.
Many years ago – likely the fall of 2008 – at a Town Hall meeting hosted by Central Elgin (CE) and Transport Canada (TC), we were told that the East Headland could likely, possibly be remediated to a ‘parkland standard.’ This was while the divesture was in the midst of final negotiations and TC had initiated a Phase 1 environmental assessment that was based on the property being abandoned and fenced off. The danger to the public in this negotiating scenario was to “trespassers only.”
One knowledgeable sceptic in the room opined into the microphone what this ‘potential parkland’ meant: “Oh, I have seen you do this before. You will put down a clay barrier to isolate the contamination, cover it with a foot of soil, then put sod down. The only park uses it will be good for are soccer fields. You won’t even be able to plant a tree.” This derisive input was not dispelled by the presenters. This was not the kind of future any of us were actually hoping for.
Fortunately, several years later, it became clear that Ontario’s parkland standard was not just soccer fields with bushes and no trees. Ontario’s environmental standards for parkland are as high as for residential with the intent that it includes public amenities like washrooms and arenas, and some trees. That said, in many cases, contamination cannot be safely removed and there is a requirement for “risk management measures.” The most typical measures to isolate the problems are ‘hard capping’ (asphalt and or concrete) or ‘soft capping’ (clay, soil). This ‘capping’ must be engineered for soil drainage and surface drainage to isolate the site.
Most of the contamination on the berm is below the water table. It could not be safely removed. However, it needed to be contained. The berm was constructed in a rather haphazard way, in ‘cells’ with impervious clay and rock barriers. As explained in the last story, Light Non-Aqueous Phase Liquid (LNAPL), also known as ‘free product,’ was discovered. The LNAPL could not be safely contained indefinitely.
In November 2016 Transport Canada presented CE the results of its recently completed LNAPL removal and the plan for hard and soft capping the remainder of the property. The large asphalt parking area on the berm was sufficient to meet MOE standards. The remainder had to be engineered for drainage, a textile barrier and a top fill of – 0.5 meters of clean soil. Yes, that was less than 20 inches of soil, not enough for most trees. This would have required an estimated 50,000 square meters of clean soil and was all TC was prepared to pay for.
Once again, the public should know that CE staff are experienced, capable, and motivated. They care about the future and have been very proactive in providing sensible solutions that have made a real difference. CE provided at no charge enough extra clean fill to do a much better job. The berm is well sculpted with features for surface drainage and has many areas of greater than one meter of clean soil so some types of trees can actually be planted.
There is a lot of pressure from the public to get moving with the further development of Port Stanley’s waterfront. Over the last months, CE has been presented with many ideas to get started on the berm in a piecemeal fashion. The placement of large rocks on the berm as meeting, sitting places has been successfully proposed and completed through the Port Stanley Village Association (PSVA). Immediate plans for starting a Carolinian forest area has been nixed because it is not likely appropriate for the wind exposure of the berm (soil depth may also be an issue) and because a “Waterfront Master Plan” must be completed throughout the harbour areas to ensure “that landscape and other components harmoniously relate to each other” (Staff Report CAO.19.20). This is not recommended to occur until the Harbour Secondary Plan is completed. CE has also highlighted the need for ongoing public consultation.
This spring the Director of Asset Management and Development Services tabled a report to Council (Staff Report AMDS-08-21), explaining the requirements for “Certificate(s) of Property Use” (CPUs) for the harbour. This is the part where the berm becomes the most controlled and managed property in Elgin County. CPUs will be public, posted on the MOE site and will include monitoring and sampling plans, an inspection program and a reporting cycle. In particular no work or activity will be allowed on the property without municipal oversight. This is a statutory program required by the MOE with severe penalties for non-compliance. This all comes with a cost which is no longer the responsibility of the federal government. The actual extent of these extra costs will not be known until later.
Finally, let us not forget that the harbour needs to be dredged, and not just for marine traffic. This dredging is most important to prevent future flooding which could impact all of Port Stanley in the Kettle Creek flood plain and all of the potential development around the harbour, including the berm. With harbour ownership, CE has taken on responsibility for maintaining hydrodynamic capacity for water to exit the harbour area when the spring floods arrive. The recent high lake levels have worsened the problem (see Report AMDS-28-20 PS Harbour Secondary Plan Lands, Flood Uprush). Council has commissioned a contract for further analysis and modeling.
Dan McNeil is a retired Royal Canadian Navy officer who served as Central Elgin Ward 1 Councillor from 2010 to 2018. An activist and environmentalist, he also helped establish the Port Stanley Village Association and served as its first president.