Developer and former mayor had former GM site in St. Catharines rezoned for residential use despite presence of toxic chemicals
A former General Motors plant off the bank of Twelve Mile Creek, a waterway located on the Niagara Peninsula, has been at the centre of controversy since the land was sold to a developer in 2014. Heavy industrial chemicals, many of them extremely dangerous, were used on the 50-acre property in St. Catharines and residents fear their health has been put at risk due to ongoing negligence by stakeholders.
The provincial environment ministry has confirmed to The Pointer that no Record of Site Condition, which shows what toxic chemicals are present on a brownfield property and the remediation work required to clean it, has been submitted to the Province by the property owner.
In 2020, Aaron Collina, president of Movengo Corp., a Hamilton-based development company, worked behind the scenes with former St. Catharines mayor Walter Sendzik and the City’s head of economic development, Brian York, to rezone the contaminated industrial property for a large residential/commercial project. Council, led by Sendzik, changed the zoning months later through a vote to allow residential and commercial use, even though no Record of Site Condition had been provided to show the contaminated land could be used to house residents and businesses.
Since 2018, the public has voiced concerns around the risks associated with the former plant, pleading with elected officials and the developers to take action — demands that led to little work for years as the former mayor and the current landowner instead pushed to get the site rezoned to allow a large mixed use residential/commercial project.
On December 5, the provincial environment ministry and a consultant representing Movengo, gave an update to St. Catharines’ new council, but the presentation left many questions unanswered.
A ministry spokesperson said testing still shows the presence of PCBs around the site and the dangerous, cancer-causing substance is leaking from the property.
The consultant said the property owner is now committed to cleaning up the land and is putting a priority on preventing toxins from leaking into the surrounding area including the Twelve Mile Creek watershed, but the ministry told The Pointer there is still no Record of Site Condition.
“A Record of Site Condition has not been submitted to the ministry for the former GM Lands. For your understanding, Environmental Site Assessments are prepared as part of the Record of Site Condition filing process and have not yet been submitted,” Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson with the environment ministry, wrote in an email to The Pointer December 13.
It’s unclear if Movengo was required to complete and submit the Record of site Condition prior to the rezoning of the land in 2020. Residents have asked why the land-use allowance was changed before the public was assured through a Record of Site Condition and Environmental Assessment that the property could safely be remediated to allow residential use.
When asked if the Record of Site Condition and Environment Assessment report would be completed prior to any development on the site, neither Movengo or the company’s consultant MTE responded. But the City’s website states that: “To consider a change of use for a property such as 282-285 Ontario St., an environmental assessment and record of site condition would have to be filed.”
“City Council can consider an application prior to remediation, however, a holding provision in the zoning bylaw would be applied to the lands,” the website states. “This would require that the environmental assessment and record of site condition be completed in order to lift the provision and allow for the zoning to take effect.”
“Brownfield properties are vacant or underutilized places where past activities from commercial or industrial activities may have left contamination on site,” Wheeler explained. “If a property owner wishes to convert a brownfield property from industrial/commercial or community use to a more sensitive land-use, such as residential, the property owner must file a Record of Site Condition with the ministry prior to proceeding with the change in land-use.
“As this is now a brownfield site, the owner is responsible for ensuring that any contamination present on the site does not cause off-site impacts, and to follow ministry requirements to obtain a Record of Site Condition if the site is to be developed to a more sensitive land-use.
“Where there is evidence that indicates off-site impacts from a property, the ministry will use its authority to require action be taken by the property owner. In this instance, the owner is required to retain a qualified person to develop and implement a workplan to stop the discharge of PCBs in stormwater from the site.”
Images shared by consultant MTE show the extent of the ongoing clean-up of the site.
Freedom of information documents obtained by The Pointer showed Sendzik and York worked with Collina behind the scenes to advance the development project, while residents raised concern over public health risks due to contaminants on the property.
Despite lobbying in 2020 to change the zoning from industrial to residential/commercial (which was approved at the end of 2020), Movengo has not submitted environmental reports to the provincial government showing contaminants are being contained and removed.
The Ministry of Environment had previously downplayed concerns about the level of contamination, including PCBs, found on the former manufacturing site. However, recent testing data detected high levels of toxic PCBs — Polychlorinated biphenyls — a banned substance widely used in past manufacturing operations, in the surrounding stormwater sewer systems.
Previous reporting revealed the City of St. Catharines and the province have known about the potential threat to public health since at least 2019, and that contaminants were leaking off the site. The Pointer found reports from the Province submitted last year, and as early as 2019, warning the City of the risks.
One of the FOI documents obtained by The Pointer is a correspondence from Collina to the City in November of 2020, urging officials to rezone the land at an imminent council meeting where a decision was set to be made. This was about five months after Collina lobbied the mayor and head of economic development privately.
He wrote that “earlier this month my professional planning firm, Bousfields Inc. has done a thorough investigation of the site and surrounding area. They have submitted, on our behalf, comments to you today in support of staff’s recommendations on the re-designation of the GM lands.”
There was no mention of PCBs that were leaking from the property. The Pointer could find no public records showing Movengo has submitted a work plan to contain the contaminants and remediate the property.
The company has not responded to requests for comment.
Following media reports that revealed the behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts by Collina, who met with Sendzik and York, and continued pressure from residents who first raised public health risks, Movengo is now committing to take action, but still has not done the extensive work to complete a Record of Site Condition and Environmental Assessment.
Transforming the former GM lands has been trumpeted by the City and developer Bayshore, which purchased the property in 2014, helped by Movengo which held the mortgage. An ambitious plan to construct a mixed-use utopia featuring residential and commercial elements worth $250 million was promoted shortly after.
That dream came to a crashing halt when demolition work was suspended in 2018 after the company failed to obtain permits, was hit with dozens of provincial offence charges and concerns about environmental impacts began to surface.
Bayshore pushed the mixed-use residential plan despite no environmental assessment of the contaminated site and no work to determine if residential units can even be allowed on the property where toxic chemicals were used for decades. The company abandoned its role and Movengo stepped in as the proponent, with Collina working behind the scenes to get the land rezoned from industrial employment to mixed-use residential so homes could be built on the contaminated site.
Now, after years of campaigning by community members, Movengo has proposed several work plan actions to mitigate the impacts of the contamination and limit further leaking of toxic chemicals from the site.
City councillors were still unsettled about the unknowns around the level of contamination and how successful the proposed measures will be.
During the December 5 Council meeting Ministry of Environment Niagara District Manager Kim Groombridge provided City Council with an update of the ministry's monitoring which includes confirming the property owners are following the ministry’s guidelines “to ensure that human health and the environment is protected during the development process.
“Our role here is to ensure that the owner of the property retains a qualified person to develop and carry out a work plan to address the concern that has been identified, which is the discharge of PCB contamination from the property into storm sewers, off of the property,” she told council.
Groombridge said the ministry will assess the progress of the work plan actions and evaluate the environmental improvements on Twelve Mile Creek once the project is complete.
She did not address why a Record of Site Condition or Environmental Assessment has not been submitted or if the proposed work by the developer fulfills the requirements of a RSC and EA.
Movengo and the consultant representing the development company did not respond to questions about why the RSC and EA have not been done and if the proposed work plan meets the requirements of the two rigorous processes that are supposed to be done before any change to the land use.
“As far as water motor monitoring goes… we did find PCBs in the municipal storm sewer that were above levels that are acceptable, and we've been working with the company and their consultants to ensure that they get a work plan to make improvements to that and ultimately stop that discharge,” Groombridge told Council.
The Ministry has established a PCB threshold of 10 nanograms per litre for Twelve Mile Creek. Groombridge noted there were PCB exceedances significantly above the Ministry’s provincial water quality objectives for all three sampling events conducted at each of the sites, requiring additional actions be taken to stop the discharge off the site.
The environment ministry provided an overview of testing at manhole locations exceeding provincial water quality objectives after establishing a PCB threshold of 10 nanograms per litre for Twelve Mile Creek.
(Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks)
“The concentrations that we're seeing both in the manholes on the property and discharging from the property, the PCB concentrations are still significantly above both provincial water quality objectives and the threshold that we've established for Twelve Mile Creek,” she revealed.
“These are in the sewer, not in the creek, but they're high enough to warrant work be done to address those sources. It's really only a couple of samples so it's difficult to say that this is actually an improvement.”
The Ministry later confirmed to The Pointer the concentrations of PCBs would be significantly diluted due to the volume of water and high flow rates within Twelve Mile Creek.
“This contaminated stormwater that we're talking about is in the sewers, the concentrations that are concerned are inaccessible to the general public,” Groombridge told council members.
Ward 6 Councillor Carlos Garcia asked how the presence of PCBs could be understood only by testing the water running through the underground pipes. PCBs settle into sediment at the bottom of water bodies and other subsurface materials and can pose risks for years. Collecting diluted samples from water will not give an accurate picture of the presence of PCBs which can lead to severe sickness and death from cancer and other diseases.
“When I was a kid in school, and environmental issues were just coming to the fore, the mantra was, the solution to pollution is not dilution,” Ward 6 Councillor Bruce Williamson said during the meeting. “Shouldn't our main concern be to eliminate or mitigate completely any contaminants flowing into the creek?”
“This is a unique situation where we were addressing potential concerns and fears from the public,” Groombridge said.
“The discharge to the storm sewer is really something that we may never know when that started. It could be a result of the demolition, it could be a result of historical practices, it could be a combination of both.”
Groombridge confirmed there's no way to know how much PCB has leaked off the site throughout GM’s operations, which spanned nearly a century on the 50-acre parcel of land.
“Even though we're not detecting it in Twelve Mile Creek we know that it's a very persistent chemical and bio accumulates and that's our main concern,” she said. “We're still detecting it in the sewers and regardless of the fact that we're not detecting it in Twelve Mile Creek it's important that we address the source.”
Before any future use can be pursued on the lands the owner is required to “assess the environmental condition of a property through a Phase 1 and Phase 2 Environmental Site Assessment,” according to the City’s reading of the Environmental Protection Act.
The property has to undergo a thorough “Site Condition” review as part of the required environmental assessment. All potential environmental risks have to be clearly determined and a “Phase 2” EA would then be ordered if risks are found. This would isolate the specific contaminated areas in the soil, groundwater and surrounding watershed, with each of the toxins identified.
Remediation efforts to clean up the site would then have to meet specific provincial standards depending on the proposed future use of the property.
The current work plan should consist of PCB source assessment to understand where the harmful substance is coming from, include sampling of various media on the site, decommissioning of the former machine pits, an assessment of the storm sewer oil grip separator and a design of a new stormwater management system for the property.
An overview of the 50-acre former GM site, which has now been proposed for mixed-use residential development, and the connecting storm sewer.
Thomas Jones, environmental manager for MTE Consultants, representing Movengo, its client, said “The overall remedial solution here is essentially to stop the discharge of stormwater from the site to the municipal storm sewer. That is the priority of the ownership and management team who are committed to doing this.”
Movengo did not attend the December 5 meeting and Jones said he could not answer some questions that only the property owner could address.
“Our plan is, in essence, to terminate all off site sewer discharge that leaves the property and basically suspending any possibility of any PCBs leaving the site making its way into Twelve Mile Creek,” Stuart Randle, construction estimator for Peters Construction Group, said.
“The actual temporary stormwater management system will retain and control all of the surface stormwater generated on the site from rain events, runoff, melt and so on,” he added. “It controls both the quality and the cleanliness of the water that will eventually be discharged once processed through a treatment system.”
Construction for the proposed temporary stormwater management system is anticipated to be completed by the end of March in the new year. Once the system is installed and operating, ongoing assessments of the site will continue to evaluate the site conditions.
To achieve clean water discharge from the site, a stormwater holding pond will be constructed and include perimeter swales and berms to assist in corralling the water into the pond during rain events and melt events. The addition of a perimeter ditch will direct the flow to the pond which contains contours and grades to help drainage into the pond during rain events.
An overview of the berm proposed as part of the temporary stormwater management system to prevent further discharge from the site.
(Peters Construction Group)
The berm will be constructed at the site to retain the stormwater within the site and the stormwater management pond will be constructed and will be bordered with a liner.
All water sources currently escaping the site will be collected into the pond where it will be retrieved and processed through batching tanks and treated through the temporary system before being discharged.
“Until such time as the site is redeveloped and a permanent system is installed, this system would be operating to basically collect, control and treat the storm water before it's discharged to the combined sewer system, which goes to the sewage treatment plant before discharge,” Jones confirmed.
In an email to The Pointer, a spokesperson for the City of St. Catharines confirmed the property owners are responsible for any costs associated with the mitigation efforts on the site.
The spokesperson also said the water containment system is meant to be temporary and if the property is developed, a permanent stormwater management system will be installed. The future costs to the taxpayers are currently unknown.
The water sampling is the most convenient indication of contaminants right now, Groombridge explained, adding in the long term, the Ministry intends to look at all of the different media, including sediments, water and fish tissue. She said the ministry will also be completing a more comprehensive survey to evaluate the environmental improvement in the creek from the Ministry’s earlier monitoring conducted in the early 2000s.
Referring to the concentrations in the manholes being above the creek’s threshold, Ward 2 Councillor Joe Kushner cited concerns that contamination found in the manholes proves the PCBs are flowing into Twelve Mile Creek.
“If they’re in the manhole, do they not eventually flow into Twelve Mile Creek, and why wouldn’t the concentration be the same?” he asked.
Groombridge said that because the sewer system connected to this particular manhole collects stormwater for the entire neighbourhood, and not just the Ontario Street properties, the additional flow of water could dilute the PCBs, making them harder to detect within the creek. She also said the contaminants could be sticking to material within the sewer.
“PCBs bind very strongly to solids, and there’s pockets of solid deposition through the sewer system it could be settling out before it reaches the creek,” Groombridge explained. “It's hard to know exactly what those reasons are, or what combination of them are, but it's not surprising that it would be so much less before entering the creek.”
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