One of two lagoons on Lakeshore Road that are planned to be decommissioned.Harmony Group

Initiative Reporter

New information from the federal government has come forward about the history of a property in Niagara-on-the-Lake where there is a potential risk for unexploded ordnance. And it appears that risk is here to stay.

The Department of National Defence told The Local that it will be impossible to determine if there are unexploded military devices within two sewage lagoons that are part of a former water treatment plant that sits in the vicinity of a field formerly used as a military training ground.

The properties were part of a recent report considered by Niagara Region’s public works committee, asking that the federal government assist financially with the clean-up of the property, but locals who remember the history of the site said they thought it had already been cleaned up, and one group is trying to get it open to the public as greenspace.

The region has been leasing the property from Parks Canada since it built the first Lakeshore Road sewage treatment plant, decommissioned when the new one was built on property beside it, also belonging to Parks Canada.

Regional staff are dealing with what was news to them — that they are now responsible for cleaning up unexploded ordnance.

The DND told The Local that the lagoons on that property are the only piece of the area that needs attention — and that they can’t be remediated of any possible explosives.

A survey was conducted in 2008 that sought out any ordnance, explosives that did not explode or function as intended, including the former water treatment plant property before a new one eventually replaced it when it opened in 2020. No ordnance was found during that investigation, said DND spokesperson Andree-Anne Poulin.

But that survey, along with another in 2011, did not include the sewage lagoons.

“Due to the water depth and small magnetic signature” of potential unexploded devices, it is “not possible to investigate” for ordnance in the sewage lagoons, said Poulin.

But the lagoons can’t be remediated and the federal government, through DND, believes the region needs to take measures while taking the old treatment plant out of service.

Poulin said there is no requirement for any special ordance- related precautions at the site except for the sewage lagoons, and that “nothing has changed” since previous probes in the area of the new water treatment plant.

“The probability of coming across a UXO (unexploded explosive ordnance) and causing it to unintentionally function while decommissioning the sewage lagoons is remote, but not zero. The decommissioning plan for the lagoons will need to take that into account,” added Poulin.

How should the region handle the possibility of potentially dangerous ordnance when shutting down the lagoons for good?

“With regards to recommended precautions, our advice to the regional municipality is to investigate options for decommissioning the lagoons that do not involve disturbing the sludge where UXO may be present,” said Poulin.

An area of about 23.1 hectares was transferred from Parks Canada and the Department of National Defence to build the two existing lagoons in 1965. This piece of land is currently in the hands of the region, said the recent public works report, and needs to be restored and turned back to Parks Canada.

An additional 3.7 hectares of land west of that property was leased from Parks Canada to facilitate construction of the existing mechanical and chemical facilities, including aeration lagoons.

Together, two parcels — the old treatment plant and the DND property, formerly a rifle range, on its eastern border, represent the area to be decommissioned. West of the new treatment plant is Niagara Shores Park, officially off-limits to the public, but used regularly.

Asked why a need to rid the property of any potential ordnance wasn’t top of mind when the new water treatment plant was built, Niagara Region communications consultant Janet Rose said that given the significant amount of time that has passed since the lagoons and associated buildings were commissioned, staff today cannot be certain of the assessed condition of the site at that time, “nor what was considered in the decision to proceed with the project.”

She said it was known that the DND had conducted training activities in the area and that ordnance could be present, but there was no documented risk that prevented proceeding at the time.

It was not until the results of the most recent assessment that the “medium” level of risk was revealed to the region, along with the remote possibility of ordnance being present, which if not handled correctly, “would have the potential to cause a catastrophic event.”

The region’s request to the federal government is to provide financial aid and assistance in managing potential ordnance on the property, or that the government accepts return of the land in an “as is” condition for Parks Canada to remediate.

Or if the DND determines remediation is not feasible for Parks Canada to undertake, the region is requesting that an agreement be made with the federal government to accept the return of the land in “as is” condition, said Rose.

The region currently has an available budget of $2 million for the project. This funding is “considered sufficient” to undertake the revised Phase 1 decommissioning works, which now incorporates the removal of all equipment, fixtures and appurtenances from buildings and process tanks within the existing site and leaving the emptied and decommissioned facility on site, said Rose.

The region had a previous approved budgeted of $10 million for decommissioning and restoration construction for the entire project site.

“Due to the more recent changes in the situation, the project was not proceeding within the original planned schedule of the region’s funds being held for the project,” said Rose, adding it was decided in 2022 that a portion of that budget would fund another capital project.

If future changes to the scope of the decommissioning works are required, the region will “reconsider the budget allocation as needed in future capital budgets,” said Rose.

The property is located on the shore of Lake Ontario near the mouth of the Niagara River, and covers an area of more than 121 hectares.

Originally acquired in 1908 by DND, the lands were transferred in 1947 to what is now Parks Canada.

In 1982, 23 hectares were transferred to Niagara Region for use as a sewage lagoon, and an additional 3.6 hectares was leased to the region for the operation of a wastewater treatment plant located at 1699 Lakeshore Rd.

Until 2000, the balance of the property was used by DND under lease agreement for summer militia training which included two rifle ranges, a pistol range, a rocket range, a grenade range and a tank training and maneuvering area. There is also a small area to the west known as Niagara Shores, administered by Parks Canada.

There has been a push from people in the community, mostly from a group called Harmony Residents, to preserve the land in its natural state and to see it used by the public.

“Parks Canada remains committed to discussing the future of the property,” said Parks Canada spokesperson Julia Grcevic. She also notes “there are still many steps that need to be undertaken before transfer of the land can take place.”

Ron Dale is a local historian and author who was superintendent of Niagara national historic sites for Parks Canada from 1992 to 2013.

Other than Niagara Shores park, he said, the former DND property is fenced with locked gates so any public use of the property requires the scaling of the fence.

Very few locals use the land to walk their dogs or simply hike. Niagara Shores is accessible to the public with the entranceway near the new sewage treatment plant.

He said the military had rifle, pistol, and grenade ranges at the eastern side. Mortars and rockets were fired there, and explosive items like artillery simulators and thunder flashes were also used at times during infantry training.

“However, the primary use was for rifle, submachine gun and pistol training,” he explained in an email to The Local. He believes there is a “high” potential for live blank ammunition dropped during training exercises and a “much lesser chance of dropped live rounds with bullets.”

Unexploded grenades from the First World War era and unexploded mortar bombs are possible, he added.

He claims suspected unexploded devices have been found on site near the lagoon and exploded by military or police bomb disposal teams.

The devices were blown up with another explosive charge, which made it “impossible to determine if the suspected ordnance was live or inert,” he told The Local.

Niagara Shores Park, he added, is already open to the public and has been for several decades. “At one time you could drive right into a parking area by the lake,” said Dale.

However, vandalism, cutting down trees, dumping refuse and other abuse led to the locking of the gate, allowing pedestrian but not vehicle access, he said.

“The area of the new sewage treatment plant is not an area where it would be likely to find UXOs but that remains a possibility for the rest of the land east of the new treatment plant,” he said.

Also, about 100 bodies from the War of 1812 are most likely buried somewhere on the property and extensive archaeology would be required if any infrastructure, such as parking lots or trails, were developed, said Dale.

Finn Madsen, a longtime member of Harmony Residents, questions why the possibility of unexploded ordnance has resurfaced, especially when there was ample opportunity to comb for it when the treatment plants were built.

But he is also hopeful Parks Canada and the region can collaborate to come up with a plan to keep public access at Niagara Shores Park, as well as other ares of open space in the vicinity.

They could “construct a park with proper commemoration for those who fought the war on the property,” he said, referring to it being a battleground in the War of 1812.

Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa said he believes the issue of potential unexploded military devices on the property might be getting revisited because there is a “different standard” today related to public safety than when the last studies were conducted years ago. “In the modern times we’re in, there’s more of a cautious approach to things,” he said.

It’s important to “take every precaution necessary to determine what the next steps are,” said Zalepa.

He hopes a reasonable path forward can be found, perhaps creating a “very passive eco-park that the public can use comfortably. I know many people in the community want to see that.”

By Kris Dube, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 30, 2023 at 06:30

This item reprinted with permission from   Niagara-on-the-lake Local   Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario

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