The biggest pile of contaminated sediment on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes was supposed to be de-listed as an “area of concern” last year but figuring out what to do with the coal by-product in Hamilton harbour and finding the money to do it, took decades. The first barges hit the water six months ago and now two layers of steel wall have been built around the heaviest concentration of toxic sludge at Randle Reef, the first half of a container that will be finished next year.
At Pier 15 you can see the heavy equipment dropping rock into the walls to shore them up and keep the contaminants inside. It’s expected to be here forever. At the bottom of the harbour is enough coal tar to fill first Ontario Centre three times over. In the 1800s, the village of Hamilton was lit by a nearby coal plant and by the early 1900s, the steel mills moved in. It was a time when both industry and municipality used the harbour as a dump. Even within the past 10 years, floating blobs of tar have been seen in the water. Before building this container, workers tried to empty the harbour of fish. Except, they didn’t find any fish.
“There’s almost nothing that lives in here. It’s extremely toxic.” Jon Gee, Environment and Climate change Canada.
Especially when exposed to air, so the department has been careful not to let any contaminants surface. After another year of building, they will then spend two years dredging the lake bottom.
“It’s a giant shop vac really, that will basically suck it all up, pump it via underwater pipeline so those contaminants never become exposed to the air.”
Once the tar is contained, water will be removed and cleaned. The container will be capped and weighed down with rock for three years until it compacts. Eventually the area will be paved and the Port Authority will take it over, that’s expected in 2022. Income generated when ships berth at Randle Reef will be used to maintain the container, so the toxic tar never escapes. Within 10 years from now and $139 million later, Randle Reef should be taken off the country’s environmental watch list.