Sears walking away from contaminated ground remediation in Calgary
A leak was discovered at a former Sears gas station at the North Hill Centre in the 90s, but large quantities of gasoline had already spilled into the ground under surrounding neighbourhoods
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As Sears Canada liquidates its remaining assets, questions are being raised about who’s going to pay for the ongoing remediation of contaminated ground surrounding one of the now-shuttered Calgary stores.
In 1995, a Sears Canada Inc. gas station at the North Hill Centre location was closed down after a leak was discovered, but not before large quantities of gasoline had soaked the ground under surrounding neighbourhoods.
Sears hired a company, Clifton Associates, to handle the cleanup and monitor the site, which was also overseen by the province.
“In this case, Sears was held accountable and was paying for a very costly initial clean up, ongoing monitoring, and intermittent cleanup of other spots that popped up,” said Calgary-Mountainview MLA Dr. David Swann, who told Metro he has been hearing from his constituents about the issue for years.
“The contamination is hundreds of feet underground, and it was too late being discovered – so all they can do is make sure it doesn’t come up into people’s basements, or where they could breathe in the toxic fumes.”
Sears, which was granted creditor protection in June last year, sent a letter to the Hounsfield Heights – Briar Hill Community Association (HH-BHCA) in late December informing them all their stores would be closing in January and subsequently, they would no longer be doing environmental monitoring or remediation in the area.
“We deeply regret this outcome, particularly because we have had a long history of successfully working with you and other stakeholders,” the letter, posted on the HH-BHCA's website, reads.
It also says home owners who can prove they suffered monetary damages as a result of the environmental conditions may be able to make a claim through the liquidation monitor.
Jeff Allan, board president of the HH-BHCA, told Metro in an email the board is working with residents, the government and other interested parties to determine the next steps.
Swann said there are two big concerns: who is responsible for the ongoing monitoring of the area and remediation, and if Sears will be able to financially compensate residents who have been affected by the contamination now that the company has liquidated.
“As of this month, Sears has stopped paying for everything,” Swann said. “I want to see a meeting between the city, the landowner, and the province to decide on shared responsibility for ongoing monitoring and clean up of the plume.”
In a statement, Alberta Environment spokesperson Jamie Hanlon told Metro the province is “actively engaged” in pursuing Sears to hold them to their responsibilities to the affected communities in Calgary and the province.
“The Alberta government takes all environmental contamination seriously and works to enforce the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act to ensure that parties responsible are held to account,” Hanlon said.
Vancouver-based developer Concord Pacific purchased three properties from Sears Canada in 2015, including the North Hill Centre location, and announced plans to redevelop the Calgary site the same year.
Metro attempted to contact the company for comment but has not yet received a response.
Swann wrote to Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in September, before Sears announced its final liquidation, to relay constituent concerns about the company’s ongoing financial troubles – and who would pick up the bill if they happened to stop footing it.
In a response dated Oct. 11, 2017, also posted on the HH-BHCA’s website, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said a new pilot remediation study of the site began last year, but it will take time to determine if it could be a recurrent mitigation strategy.
“It is a long-term project with no simple remedial fix,” Phillips wrote. “Work that has been done to date indicates that there is a negligible risk to human health; however, ongoing monitoring is needed to confirm this.”
Ultimately, Swann said a stronger federal Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act is needed to prevent companies from washing their hands of responsibility.
“This hydrocarbon plume has caused great concern for people in terms of both their health and their property values – and it’s not going to go away,” he said.
“Companies that take on liability like underground storage tanks for gasoline and hydrocarbons, they should know there are risks associated with that, and bankruptcies should not enable them to walk away.”