Comparing Canadian Contaminated Site Inventories

In recent years, public demand for transparency, especially in areas concerning environmental governance, have mounted, putting pressure on Canadian governmental agencies to develop platforms that enhance the public’s accessibility to information. One such case is the development of information sharing systems that allows the public access to the state and condition of impacted properties. Impacted properties include both contaminated land and brownfield sites. Brownfields are defined by the Government of Canada as “abandoned, idle, or underutilized commercial or industrial properties, where past actions have caused environmental contamination, but still have the potential for redevelopment or other economic opportunities.”

The level of information provided to the public across provincial jurisdictions varies greatly and is highly divergent in terms of the range of information shared with the public by government agencies (PIRI, 2014) (Figure 1). The following is a review and comparison of public access to contaminated site inventories across the 13 provinces and territories within Canada. There are three main questions that are answered by this article: (1) Which provinces provide public platforms to access contaminated site information and what type of information is provided (2) how accessible is this information, and (3) What are the main concerns involved in information sharing?

Figure 1: Percent of provinces and territories in Canada (out of 13 provinces and territories) that have a contaminated sites (CS) registry, document contaminated site conditions, outline property specifics, require fees to access certain types of information (access fees), tracks site progress, plan to develop a CS registry and identify the area of contamination.

Which Provinces Provide a Contaminated Sites Inventory and What Details are Disclosed?

Contaminated site registry systems are in place in 76% of provinces and territories within Canada (Figure 1). This may include contaminated sites that are apart of a stand alone or another property listing system. Provinces and territories that have a registry include: Alberta (AB), British Columbia (BC), Manitoba (MN), Yukon (Y), Quebec (QC), Ontario (ON), North-West Territories (NWT), Newfoundland (NL), and Prince Edward Island (PEI) (Figure 2). However, the degree of information shared within these listings vary extensively. For example, Ontario’s database includes records of site condition (RSC) which entails detailed information of the type of contaminants at a site, contaminant concentrations, as well as information on the phases of environmental site assessments (ESA) completed, the date of site closure and company involved (PIRI, 2014). In contrast, Manitoba’s database provides only a file number, company name, city and address on an impacted sites list. No details of a site’s contamination levels, information concerning the degree of contamination or site remedial status is provided (PIRI, 2014).

In addition, more than half (58%) of the provinces in Canada record contamination over the area of a property (based on property specifics) versus recording contamination over an area (area wide) (Figure 1). Contamination doesn’t tend to stick to the boundaries of property lines, therefore inventories that record entries based on property specifics will not accurately represent the breadth or extent of contamination within a given area (PIRI, 2014). Provinces that record area-wide contamination are BC, NT, and NB. Many registries also do not include site information that track the process of assessment or cleanup (track site progress, Figure 1). AB (only if submitted to the department), BC, YK, QC, and NB keep track of site progress.

Figure 2: Provinces within Canada that provide and inventory on contaminated sites that is available for public access include from west to east: Yukon (YK), British Columbia (BC), North West Territories (NT), Alberta (AB), Manitoba (MN), Ontario (ON, Quebec (QC), Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Newfoundland and Labrador (NL).

How Accessible is this Information?

The ease with which a user can access information about impacted properties also varies throughout provincial jurisdictions. In general, most of the provinces that provide a registry make it available through online government portals. These provinces include AB, BC, MN, ON, PEI, whereas the northern territories tend to have little to no online accessibility, and either provide information upon request or in hard-copy (PIRI, 2014).  Another barrier that tends to arise when attempting to access contaminated site information is how site information can be searched within a provincial inventory. For example, PEI’s portal requires that users know the PID (Property Identification) number in order to access contamination information about a specific property (PIRI, 2014). Although searching AB’s database requires knowledge of very specific property information (e.g. meridian, range, township, section, quarter section, legal subdivision), AB does provide a searchable map or downloadable list of completed ESAs with geographic coordinates (PIRI, 2014).

A jurisdiction may also require a user to pay a fee before accessing contaminated site information. This can exclude users that lack disposable funds and restrict access. British Columbia for example requires users to login and pay a fee to access any information regarding their impacted site registry (PIRI, 2014). In contrast, AB does not require any fees to access contamination information. Prince Edward Island’s (PEI) database is slightly restricted. Although PEI includes summaries of the status of each site in the registry, the user must apply under the Environmental Records Review Regulations for access to additional site condition information (PIRI, 2014). Approximately 46% of province require users to pay a fee for accessing information on contaminated sites (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Most provinces in Canada require fees to access contaminated site (CS) information. This is broken down into fees for all contaminated site information and fees for addition site condition information. These provinces include BC, MN, NB, NL, NS, and YK. Provinces that do not require fees to access information are AB, QC, ON, and PEI. Some provinces do not record whether access fees apply.

What are the Main Concerns Involved in Information Sharing?

A common concern with public accessibility to information on impacted sites is how different approaches to sharing information could indirectly influence the land valuation of impacted sites or nearby-properties. Too little information on contaminated sites such as the contaminated sites list provided by the province of Manitoba, could lead to the misinterpretation of how severe the contamination is at some of these impacted properties, potentially driving down land value. In contrast, although more detailed information could provide clarity on a site’s condition and status (e.g. Ontario CS database), too much technical information could lead to misinterpretations as well (PIRI, 2014). Depending on the stakeholder or person’s technical background some detailed technical information may lead to misunderstandings of the severity of contamination or the risk associated with contamination (PIRI, 2014).

Figure 4: Provincial and territorial governments need to strike a balance between protection of human health and the environment, level of service and information access and privacy when deciding what information to make publicly available in their contaminated sites inventories.

Given the financial, legal, regulatory, and socio-economic issues involved in divulging contaminated site information, governments must appropriately balance transparency and the fairness of the approach to sharing information on impacted properties (Figure 4). This involves dealing with the potentially conflicting governmental principles of transparency and the right to know versus the protection of privacy and the owner’s desire to protect property value (PIRI, 2014). One way in which this is moderated is by controlling usage within the database portal via a province choosing whether some information remains internal or external. Internal information can always be requested through appropriate governmental channels such as FOIPOP (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy) requests. Another way in which information can be managed and disseminated is by requiring a fee for information access (PIRI, 2014). Restricting access in this manor however can exclude users that lack disposable funds and could limit those who have the “right to know”, which may act as an information barrier, contrasting to some of the main governmental principles outlined in FOIPOP objectives. Fees, however could also aid provincial governments in maintaining a well updated and populated impacted sites database (PIRI, 2014).

Another major concern is that contaminated sites may have an impact on human health and the environment, raising the liability associated with the property. Brownfields are often vacant properties that may or may not have contamination. The redevelopment of these sites is often halted by liability barriers associated with perceived or actual contamination of the property and can reduce the value of a property. By sharing information publicly, the interest in development of urban properties such as brownfields, may increase by reducing stigma associated with vacant lots and tracking the remediation of contaminated brownfield sites (PIRI, 2014). When no information is shared publicly,  perceived risk and associated uncertainty surrounding a site’s liability slows brownfield remediation and re-development, ultimately leading to negative social, economic and environmental outcomes.

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