NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Government-wide: Contaminated Sites -
July 28, 2020 Report of the Auditor General
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
Public Accounts Committee
Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin (Chair)
Hon. Gordon Wilson (Vice-Chair)
Hon. Karen Casey
Hon. Leo Glavine
[Hon. Leo Glavine was replaced by Hon. Brendan Maguire.]
[Hon. Karen Casey was replaced by Hon. Tony Ince.]
[Hon. Leo Glavine replaced Hon. Tony Ince for the last portion of the meeting.]
Legislative Committee Clerk
Chief Legislative Counsel
Assistant Auditor General
Department of Transportation and Active Transit
Paul LaFleche - Deputy Minister
Connie Roney - Manager, Environmental Services
Department of Lands and Forestry
Paul LaFleche - Deputy Minister
Peter Geddes - Executive Director, Regional Services Branch
Nova Scotia Lands Inc.
Stephen MacIsaac - President
Donnie Burke - Executive Director
HALIFAX, WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14, 2021
STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
Hon. Gordon Wilson
THE CHAIR: Thank you and good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I’d like to call the Public Accounts Committee meeting to order.
My name is Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin. I am the MLA for Cumberland North and I’ll be chairing Public Accounts today.
I know we’ve all done many of these Zoom meetings, but a few reminders before we start. All witnesses should keep their video on during the meeting, please. Members should also keep their video on during the meeting. This is particularly important to ensure we have quorum when voting.
We ask that you keep your microphones muted until you’re called upon to speak. Please wait until after the Chair has recognized you to un-mute your microphone. If you would like to speak, I just ask that you raise your hand to let me know. I’ll also remind everyone to keep your phones on silent or vibrate so that when you are speaking, we don’t hear that in the background.
Now I’m going to ask all committee members to introduce themselves. First, we have Mr. Wilson.
[The committee members introduced themselves.]
THE CHAIR: We also have Mr. Bill Horne as part of our committee, but I don’t think Mr. Horne is on yet. He will be joining us.
Today’s agenda: We have officials with us from the Department of Transportation and Active Transit, the Department of Lands and Forestry, and Nova Scotia Lands Incorporated to discuss Government-wide Contaminated Sites July 28, 2020, Report of the Auditor General.
I’d like to ask our witnesses to introduce themselves, beginning with Deputy Paul LaFleche.
[The witnesses introduced themselves.]
THE CHAIR: I’ll now invite Deputy LaFleche to make his remarks.
PAUL LAFLECHE: I apologize for the goofy blue glasses today. Good morning, everyone. I’m pleased to be here today to discuss the July 2020 Auditor General Report - I see Andrew Atherton is online with us. The report was on contaminated sites in Nova Scotia. I bring with me the efficiency of wearing two deputy minister hats: Department of Transportation and Active Transit, and the Department of Lands and Forestry. I may get confused when I’m answering. If you need to know which one I am, please ask me and I’ll consult with staff and figure out who I am.
As Deputy Minister of Transportation and Active Transit, I’m also responsible for Nova Scotia Lands Inc., and the President and CEO, Steve MacIsaac is here today with us. I am joined by several of the Department of Transportation and Active Transit staff, including Connie Roney; and Lands and Forestry, Peter Geddes. All of these public servants are also members of the advisory committee on contaminated sites that has been working on the recommendations from the Auditor General’s July 2020 Report.
The Department of Transportation and Active Transit’s Environmental Services Section acts on behalf of the government. Environmental Services works on roads, public buildings, properties, and decommissioning old buildings and sites. Additionally, given the recent division of the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal into two new departments at the government transition, the newer department being the Department of Infrastructure and Housing, Environmental Services under Connie Roney, the manager, also supports sites for new schools, hospitals, and other public buildings, such as the Art Gallery and, if needed, Nova Scotia Community College campuses.
I would like to acknowledge that the scope of work conducted by our team in the Department of Transportation and Active Transit’s Environmental Services is exemplary. In addition to provision of environmental screening and permitting services in support of capital and maintenance projects for the government, Environmental Services provides environmental site assessment and remediation of government infrastructure that is out of compliance with the Contaminated Site Regulations. This includes addressing impacts on active sites such as our maintenance bases, as well as upgrading infrastructure and systems to minimize future impacts.
Our team includes many site professionals as defined under the Contaminated Site Regulations, and in fact I happen to be one, although Connie prevents me from practising because I have other responsibilities. These site professionals are defined under the Contaminated Site Regulations.
Together with Nova Scotia Lands, we also support other government departments to address impacts on provincial lands. These activities may include environmental site assessments; environmental impact assessments; environmental protection planning; fish habitat, wetland and salt marsh restoration; vegetation establishment, management, and bioengineering; the development and promotion of environmentally-sound construction and maintenance practices; the prevention, assessment and cleanup of contaminated sites; surveys of regulated building materials; air, water quality and noise monitoring; water supply development; sewage treatment; regulated chemical management; building demolition and waste disposal/recycling; environmental policy and program development; and the training of government employees and contractors for any of the above.
I am happy to say that the provincial government has accepted all four of the Auditor General’s recommendations in the July 2020 report on contaminated sites. One recommendation was directed at the Department of Environment and Climate Change. That department considers the matter addressed.
Public servants across government have been working diligently to address the remaining three recommendations. The interdepartmental advisory group on contaminated sites addresses the recommendation and provides suggested work to implement these recommendations. The Deputy Minister Committee, of which I am Chair, approves the direction and oversight of the interdepartmental advisory group’s work.
The Deputy Minister Committee updates the Executive Council with the progress of the government’s work. The interdepartmental advisory group is co-chaired by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, acknowledging the technical and financial aspects of environmental liability recognition.
The interdepartmental advisory group membership includes senior officials from the Department of Lands and Forestry, the Department of Agriculture, Inclusive Economic Growth, the Department of Energy and Mines, Nova Scotia Lands, and the Nova Scotia Health Authority. The Department of Environment and Climate Change also brings significant resources to the group in an ex officio capacity as they are in effect the regulator.
The composition of the Deputy Minister Committee mirrors the representation on the interdepartmental advisory group. Membership is intended to capture the range of various activities that are undertaken by government and Crown agencies and may result in the management of a contaminated site.
The recommendations contained in the Auditor General’s report have been addressed or are in progress of being addressed. The first recommendation suggested that the Executive Council Office should assign responsibility for an oversight body to implement a consistent, coordinated approach for assessing and managing known and contaminated sites which the province is responsible for. This is being addressed with the interdepartmental advisory group and the formalizing of the Deputy Minister Committee that is accountable to Executive Council.
The second recommendation suggested that the Province of Nova Scotia should have a complete inventory of known and contaminated sites the Province is responsible for, including a process to monitor relevant information for decision-making. Currently, there are regulatory and accounting procedures that require each department to maintain a list of contaminated sites.
In response to this recommendation, we are developing a toolbox to share best practices amongst departments to document and demonstrate a consistent approach to recognizing contaminated sites and associated liabilities. This will enable departments to demonstrate due diligence and will facilitate annual and as-required reviews of the contaminated site list by the Deputy Minister Committee.
The third recommendation suggested that the Province should implement a risk-based approach to assess and prioritize all known and contaminated sites the Province is responsible for. As part of the toolbox and sharing expertise through the interdepartmental advisory group on contaminated sites, approaches to address compliance under the contaminated sites regulations will be evaluated. This includes risk assessment, which is the foundation of contaminated site management.
The advisory group has tremendous expert resources to draw upon from Nova Scotia Lands, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and Active Transit’s Environmental Services Section, and the Department of Environment and Climate Change in their role as the regulator.
I am proud that we have been able to act quickly to begin work on the Auditor General’s July 2020 report and have assembled a tremendous group of skilled and knowledgeable staff to address the important issues of contaminated sites in our province. The advisory group has been working since October to address the Auditor General’s report. It has been more challenging working during the pandemic as people cannot meet face to face, but I am proud of the work of our dedicated public servants to act quickly and start addressing the Auditor General’s July 2020 report.
Thank you for your time this morning to discuss this important issue. I want to conclude my opening statement and share a few moments with my colleague from Nova Scotia Lands, Stephen MacIsaac.
I want to first say, and I don’t know who takes care of this - maybe it’s Kim Langille. The media are texting me and requesting a copy of this excellent speech that was prepared and also President MacIsaac’s speech. Kim, maybe you could text me and tell me who gets that to the media.
THE CHAIR: Thank you, Deputy Minister LaFleche. Ms. Langille, if you’d like to respond.
KIM LANGILLE (Legislative Committee Clerk): I’m the media contact, so they can certainly contact me. If they just want to email me, I’ll be happy to send it to whomever would like it.
THE CHAIR: Thank you, Ms. Langille. Thank you for your opening remarks, Deputy Minister LaFleche.
Now I’d like to ask Mr. MacIsaac for his opening remarks.
STEPHEN MACISAAC: Good morning and thank you all for the opportunity to speak with you today. My name is Stephen MacIsaac, and I am the President and CEO of Nova Scotia Lands.
Nova Scotia Lands has become the “go to” Crown corporation, assisting several provincial departments for both engineering and construction oversight projects for industrial remediation and brownfield redevelopment projects across this province.
We are currently active in three major locations on our own land assets at the present time with the operation, remediation, and redevelopment of the Sydney Steel Plant, the remediation and redevelopment of the former Bowater Mersey Paper Company site in Liverpool, as well as the former DSME site in Trenton.
Our goal is to remediate these properties to current environmental standards and sell off the assets, both land and material, for redevelopment as well as the creation of jobs within these communities. To date, we’ve been successful on these projects and currently have approximately 475 private sector jobs in these three locations in these business parks that were once heavy industrial sites.
One of the residuals of remediating these former industrial sites is also the requirement for long-term monitoring and maintenance of these sites once the remedial efforts have been completed. We are active in delivering these LTMM services for Harbourside Commercial Park and Open Hearth Park in Sydney, the Trenton Commercial Park as well as the Port Mersey Park in Liverpool.
These LTMM services including surface and groundwater sampling, engineered cover inspections, water or leachate treatment facility operations as well as management, and the general landscaping and maintenance of these sites. Most importantly, all of these efforts are coupled with annual or semi-annual reporting back to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment.
In addition to our own sites, Nova Scotia Lands has become involved in providing these same services to several other government departments, Crown corporations, and agencies. We currently are managing the Boat Harbour Remediation Project on behalf of the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Active Transit and the Montague and Goldenville mines site tailings project closures in HRM and Guysborough County for the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry.
We’re also managing the provincewide assessment of the abandoned mine sites on Crown lands for the Department of Lands and Forestry, marine vessel salvage program with federal government involvement for the Department of Lands and Forestry, and of course the former RDM Recycling Facility Landfill Closure Project in Harrietsfield here in HRM, which is one of MLA Maguire’s projects that we’ve helped him with.
In terms of the status of these projects, Boat Harbour of course is well underway and currently within the federal environmental assessment process. The Montague mines and Goldenville mine site tailing closure projects are still within the planning stages, with the majority of the necessary sampling and analysis completed to date. We are waiting on some final data to be compiled, and then we will begin the detailed design and regulatory phase of this project.
The former abandoned mine site assessment project is still in the assessment and prioritization phase with site visits, which unfortunately were interrupted by COVID-19 restrictions, commencing in the coming days, and carrying on until Fall of 2021.
Finally, the Harrietsfield Remediation Project is in its final stages of remediation. We anticipate this will start up in the coming days and the liner and final closure turf will be installed and the construction aspect of the project will wrap up. Once complete, the Province has committed to a 25-year long-term monitoring maintenance plan for the site.
In addition to these efforts, Nova Scotia Lands staff are active participants engaged in the Nova Scotia abandoned mine site advisory committee, the Nova Scotia contaminated sites advisory committee, as well as advisory and management committees.
In wrapping this up, it is our hope that with our team’s experience in managing contaminated sites and brownfield redevelopment projects, we will be an asset in the future management and planning of contaminated sites within the Province of Nova Scotia.
THE CHAIR: Now we’re going to move to questions. Before I do that, I’d like to welcome Mr. Horne. Mr. Horne, would you like to take a moment to introduce yourself?
BILL HORNE: Sorry, I was having some blood taken from me this morning, so I’m a little later than I had expected. I’m Bill Horne, I’m the MLA for Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank.
THE CHAIR: Glad that you were able to join us. I hope your blood work results are all good.
BILL HORNE: I hope so.
THE CHAIR: Now we’re going to move to questions, where we’ll give each caucus - the PC, NDP, and Liberals - each 20 minutes to ask questions of our presenters. I just ask for you to indicate, where we have two presenters today, who you would like to answer your question. We’ll start with the PC caucus. Mr. Halman, you have 20 minutes.
TIM HALMAN: Welcome to the Chair. I must say you’re doing an outstanding job already, so welcome to this position.
Deputy Minister, Mr. MacIsaac, and staff, welcome. Thank you for the ongoing work you’re doing to support Nova Scotia. My first question is related to how much was actually paid out in fiscal 2019-2020 for remediation.
THE CHAIR: Who would like to answer that question?
PAUL LAFLECHE: We’re just discussing who would like to answer it. We’d have to tally that up through the Department of Finance and Treasury Board officials, and we could certainly do that and get back to you.
A lot depends on if you want to stick strictly with the definition of contaminated sites under the Contaminated Sites Regulations. That would be one answer, but if you want to broaden it to include all sorts of other sites - which would include demolitions and so on and other work we’re doing to make sites look better, so to speak - that would be a much broader definition.
I’ll just ask, which one are you looking for: the strict legal one, or are you looking at the work we’re doing to clean up various sites in Nova Scotia?
TIM HALMAN: All the work you’re doing in fiscal 2019-2020 to clean up those sites, money that was actually spent for remediation, and along with that, Deputy Minister and Mr. MacIsaac, if you get the numbers, the actuals for fiscal 2018-2019 as well. Obviously, these are numbers that I was hoping would be readily available for the Public Accounts committee.
To that end, wow, there are a lot of moving parts to remediation of contaminated sites, and the perennial, pre-eminent question before us here at this committee today through the report of the Auditor General is the following question: Is the Province appropriately managing contaminated sites? Obviously, we know Nova Scotians want that reassurance.
As I indicated, there are definitely a lot of moving parts to this, which I can certainly appreciate. If I’ve understood the Auditor General’s report correctly - and your opening remarks correctly - you’ve got Nova Scotia Lands, the Department of Finance and Treasury Board, you have the Department of Environment, the Department of Lands and Forestry, the Department of Transportation and Active Transit. That is a lot of moving parts to dealing with contaminated sites.
Can you give us an update on that structure? The Auditor General’s report said that there are a lot of obstacles to managing contaminated sites. Could you give us an update on that governance structure? I understand that there’s supposed to be an oversight body, that there’s an interdepartmental group - can you explain how these function and this works?
PAUL LAFLECHE: I’m going to pass that question over to Connie Roney. First, I want to just be clear: we’re still not clear on your previous question. I don’t know if you want to spend time here defining it because it’s a very complex question.
For instance, we don’t know if you’re - sometimes we build parks or do other things with some of the contaminated sites, as you know. Do you want to include that spending or not? Just as a ballpark - just in one area - last year, in Nova Scotia Lands, we spent over $20 million. Again, what are you including in that?
You might actually want to have an offside conversation to define what you really want or we can do it here today. Otherwise, we won’t be clear to answer that question.
TIM HALMAN: For purposes of clarity, deputy, it’s the legal definition. Let’s look at it through that lens.
PAUL LAFLECHE: Okay, we’ll do that. In the meantime, I’ll pass the second question over to Connie Roney.
CONNIE RONEY: The work that the interdepartmental working group is doing is meant to address the points of the Auditor General’s report that refer to providing a consistent approach to managing contaminated sites. Each department has legal responsibility for management of contaminated sites under the Contaminated Sites Regulations.
The interdepartmental working group has been put together to share expertise and procedures to identify best practices within government that can be then adopted as appropriate for the scope of work of each of those departments. Again, the responsibility for the interdepartmental advisory group is to the Deputy Ministers Committee, which reports to the Executive Council.
Every year, departments prepare a list of contaminated sites. They go to the Department of Finance and Treasury Board. The additional work that the advisory committee does is to provide a consistent approach to developing those lists and then to work towards ensuring that the guidelines associated in the Treasury Board manual are being consistently applied in developing estimates for those contaminated site liabilities. Then they will be reviewed by the Deputy Ministers Committee once it is fully operational.
TIM HALMAN: As we’re all aware here, the Office of the Auditor General has identified significant issues with how the Province tracks contaminated sites. Can you explain how this tracking system works? You just kind of went through the governance structure. Can you explain how this tracking system works with respect to contaminated site?
PAUL LAFLECHE: I’m going to pass that back to Ms. Roney, but I noticed an interpretation was made of the Auditor General’s report and we wouldn’t agree with that interpretation. I’ll pass the answer back to Ms. Roney.
CONNIE RONEY: Each department is responsible for managing its contaminated sites. The Contaminated Sites Regulations have a process of managing the reporting protocol that is throughout the management of contaminated sites. Those are the regulatory requirements, and there are regular reports required to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment under the Contaminated Site Regulations that address those and provide the regulatory answer.
I guess in terms of each department, as I said, the toolbox that we’re using as trying to address the issue identified in the Auditor General’s report providing a consistent report of approach across departments so that there could be an apples-to-apples comparison of contaminated sites.
TIM HALMAN: How many remediation bonds is the province currently holding?
PAUL LAFLECHE: That would be for active sites and that would be under the Department of Energy and Mines. That’s a different question. Remediation bonds are different from contaminated sites. Do you want to go into the definition, Connie?
CONNIE RONEY: In terms of contaminated sites, the regulatory requirements would dictate that work has to be done. If under the environmental approval process there is a requirement for bonding, then that estimate would be made by the applicable department, not necessarily by whether it be Environmental Services or Nova Scotia Land - it would be within the department that has the expertise for that activity.
They would come up with an estimate based on that approach. The Department of Transportation and Active Transit does not use remediation bonds. We’re looking after government departments or sites that have been escheated or have come to the province - not because of our activities, but because they have not been addressed by others.
TIM HALMAN: Is it correct to say that in order to get that information, you have to go department to department to get an answer to that question?
PAUL LAFLECHE: I think the confusion here is, you’re talking about private sector assets and this Auditor General report is about government assets. The private sector assets are done in a completely different way. It’s not what the report is about. It’s not why we’re here today - unless, as Ms. Roney suggested earlier, a private sector asset eventually escheats to the Province. That has happened from time to time with certain properties over the years due to closure of companies and deregistration.
Escheating is a Commonwealth process, which I can only say sometimes the Province unfortunately falls victim to. We have some dry cleaners and some other properties that have come to us over the years or, in some cases, we’ve had industrial failures and the Province has ended up the owner - Mr. MacIsaac can talk about Bowater Mersey - but in those cases, there’s usually no bond available.
The bond process you’re talking about is totally a private sector issue where someone permits a private sector activity. It’s completely different. That would be a different subject for a different group on a different day.
TIM HALMAN: Deputy, I have a lot of questions as it relates to this topic, obviously within the scope of that AG report, but also outside of that as well. Is there a complete inventory of all the province’s assets? Deputy, if you could comment on that.
PAUL LAFLECHE: Are you talking about all of the contaminated site assets or all assets of the province?
TIM HALMAN: Contaminated sites.
PAUL LAFLECHE: Okay, because they’re two different things. We are working on an inventory and we do have a partial one of all assets of the province. That goes right down to this set of headphones here, so it depends on what you’re asking for. In terms of contaminated sites, I’ll let Connie Roney answer that question.
CONNIE RONEY: Each department is responsible for maintaining a list, and they identify their properties based on their understanding of past activities or current activities on their sites as defined by the Contaminated Sites Regulations. The language in the Contaminated Sites Regulations is quite formal. It’s known or ought to be known that there’s a contaminated site, but typically the kind of trigger that would be used is there’s a property transaction, there’s a spill or some sort of event, there’s a property development, or there’s a knowledge of historical activities.
The Department of Finance and Treasury Board requests a report from each department at the end of the fiscal year of contaminated sites, and they have a compiled list by department.
TIM HALMAN: Now you’ve piqued my curiosity. Is there a detailed list of all assets with the Province?
PAUL LAFLECHE: No. For instance, I pointed out these microphones are an asset of the Province. We could spend years and years patching together a list. We have a list of assets. That’s a completely different question for a different committee. In fact, maybe I’ll ask Mr. MacIsaac to tell you about what he’s looking at in terms of assets at a larger level than electronic devices and pencils and pens and paper.
TIM HALMAN: Is there a list of properties?
PAUL LAFLECHE: I’ll ask Mr. MacIsaac to tell you what we’re doing on that.
STEPHEN MACISAAC: Right now, we’re engaged in a land inventory project in cooperation with other departments, as well as trying to look at the best practices that have been established through the Department of Lands and Forestry as well as the Land Registry Office for all government-owned properties. The list is substantial. There are over 200,000 parcels of land.
As governments change names and departments, that list becomes more complicated, so we’ve been successful to date in compiling a new app. Nova Scotia Lands championed it with assistance from the Department of Transportation and Active Transit, and we worked with Lands and Forestry as well as the Land Registry Office and the Centre of Geographic Sciences down in the Valley. They assisted us in developing an app which will sort through all government-owned properties identified by department, agency, or Crown corporation.
We’re now in the process right now of using that and testing the data. It’s supposed to be released through the GeoNOVA portal sometime near April 26th or 27th, and then we’ll get out to doing the more detailed testing. As you can appreciate, the number of parcels is large. The Department of Lands and Forestry has a much better inventory of their Crown lands and has been doing this for 20-plus years, so we’re working with them to assist us with this.
We’re currently in the process of developing a Memorandum to Executive Council to go to Executive Council for approval for new program funding. This is a multi-year project to start pulling this together and sorting through the information. There’s confusion on ownership, as well as a lot of unknown parcels that we need to sort through, but we think the low-hanging fruit would be pretty quick to gather.
PAUL LAFLECHE: I just wanted to add to that. If you want to know whether a parcel of land is a government asset or not, we can find that out. We have that. What Mr. MacIsaac is talking about is a user-friendly database which could be used by almost anyone to determine whether land is government or private. It’s a unitary database across all of government.
Right now, basically, if someone called me up and said - in fact, someone did yesterday - there’s a sliver of land which may be mine or may belong to the Department of Transportation and Active Transit on Highway No. 3, I have a wall on it and I don’t know what to do, we can look it up and find out whose land it exactly is. We can get the survey for it, we can go through the Land Registry. We can find all of that, but what we want to find one day is we want to be able to find all the land, the value of it, what assets are on it, and to be able to do it in a user-friendly way for citizens.
THE CHAIR: Thank you Mr. LaFleche. The time has ended for the PC caucus. Next we will go to the NDP caucus. Ms. Leblanc.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Thank you to our guests for being here. I just have a couple of questions before I pass it on to my colleague. The first one is about the bases that Transportation and Active Transit use. We know from the Auditor General that the department has 56 bases that have not been assessed for potential contamination.
My first question is: Can the deputy minister tell me what the plans are for those bases and why there’s been so little progress on assessment of those sites?
PAUL LAFLECHE: Those are active bases. So I’ll let Connie Roney explain how that process works with active sites.
CONNIE RONEY: There are 82 Transportation and Active Transit bases. They are active sites which range in activity. They may be a single shed that houses a piece of equipment that is used solely for Winter operations to large maintenance operations in a central facility. The range of activities on those sites can be varied and the associated risks can change.
All of those sites have been assessed. Transportation and Active Transit and all of its predecessors has been quite proactive. Some of those reports, however, are old because of that. Those have been assessed as long as two decades ago, but we have a sense of what the kinds of activities are on those sites. As identified in 2010, once we had completely gone through all of those sites, we went through a risk assessment process to identify where we should be focusing our efforts next.
Then with the implementation of the Contaminated Sites Regulations in 2013, we undertook some of the areas that we knew to be of higher risk and we have been focusing on those areas for the past while. As part of our ongoing work, we are refreshing that risk assessment to plan for our upcoming work in the coming fiscal years, making sure the money is targeted at the appropriate places.
Having said that, these are active sites. There are regular inspections - for example of tanks and oil water separators. There is an inspection process that is established through the preventive maintenance program. There are staff on those sites that would be aware if there is a release. There is ongoing work every year invested by the Province to upgrade infrastructure such as underground storage tanks or above-ground storage tanks - all those areas that are of risk, so there is work ongoing to prevent impacts associated with the operations of the bases. If there’s a spill event, there are staff on-site that could respond.
I guess we would make a distinction between those sites that are active and those that might have been historic sites where the risks may not be fully understood. These are sites where we have people working and inspecting and providing feedback on a regular basis. In addition, Transportation and Active Transit has invested money each year to look at preventive best practices that might be migrated against across our sites in an effort of continuous improvement.
SUSAN LEBLANC: That’s helpful. You touched a little bit on the potential risks of contamination. If there was an accident or a spill of some kind, do you have a budget line for a liability in that case? Do you have money that’s sort of set aside in case of that kind of incident happening?
PAUL LAFLECHE: We have a budget line in general for all sorts of emergency activities. We have a general envelope operating in capital for public buildings and public assets, if that’s what you’re referring to, but I’ll let Connie get specific in what she does.
CONNIE RONEY: If there was a spill event, we would typically work through our risk management group to ensure that any of those costs were appropriately assigned and that government wouldn’t assume that liability necessarily, but if there is an event that is associated with our activities, our department has a budget. We use that budget in terms of our ongoing base assessment, but we also use it in terms of helping to understand the impact of a spill event or any kind of unexpected event. We always maintain some of that budget in reserve especially for that kind of activity.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I’m going to switch over to talk about Boat Harbour for a moment. In March 2021, the government took over Northern Pulp’s responsibility for cleaning the sludge out of Boat Harbour, and this will add $19 million to the cost of the cleanup. What is the estimated cost of the Boat Harbour cleanup for Nova Scotia at this time?
PAUL LAFLECHE: We booked a liability of just over $290 million. It’s in the budget documents. That’s where we are today. We’re continually assessing that. I think you’ve seen that change every year. As we do more work, we might find more issues we have to book liabilities for, so that changes year by year. It’s around $290 million right now. We do have a contribution from the federal government of some $100 million towards the project, so that’s where we are today.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Given that site investigations for contaminated sites are not fully analyzed, and that the Premier has committed to balancing the budget over the next four years, how do you think this will impact overall spending in the next several years or the next couple of years as you undertake more remediation?
PAUL LAFLECHE: Are you talking about Boat Harbour or all of our sites?
SUSAN LEBLANC: Boat Harbour specifically, but I guess I could extrapolate the question to all the other sites too. The Premier has said that we’ll be back to balance in four years, but we don’t know how messed up these sites are and what the actual liabilities are in many cases. What do we do about that? Does it mean that the commitment to a balanced budget will constrain how quickly that sites can be remediated?
PAUL LAFLECHE: The Deputy Minister of Finance and Treasury Board would have to comment on that. That’s not within the purview of our mandate here, but I can comment that we have been successful in terms of all of our site issues in addressing them within budget from my time, which is now almost nine years in the Department of Transportation and Active Transit - or Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, the predecessor department. We have been very successful in dealing with many surprising new issues.
The magnitude of these issues is generally a small percentage of the government’s budget, and even our budget in Department of Transportation and Active Transit, so we don’t anticipate an issue. It’s much like - the question would be analogous to, you’ve only budgeted $64 million for winter plowing and salting. How are you going to deal with another White Juan? We dealt with White Juan, and some years we have the opposite of White Juan, we have no Juan. In fact, some people say that was this year.
Things go up and down and we manage them within the budget. We’re very good at that. We’ve never had an issue with it. I don’t know that we will have an issue. The largest project we’ve got going is Boat Harbour, and the variation of that budget has been maybe on the order of $30 - 40 million at the top years when we’ve added to the liability, and we add to it as we identify issues. It’s quite manageable. I’m not the Deputy Minister of Finance and Treasury Board - I’m not an accountant - but we’ve never had a problem with this and neither have other governments.
We did a $420 million project - in fact, I think we came in at $414 million, so under budget - for the Sydney Tar Ponds and Sysco remediation. Donnie Burke is here. Maybe Donnie can say a few words on how we managed that liability and made sure it was contained within the liability that was booked by government.
Donnie, do you want to go into that?
DONNIE BURKE: Sure, thank you. With Sydney Tar Ponds, the prime example was we had forecasted budgets, but adjusted accordingly as we went. There were many pitfalls that we came upon during the remediation project - some big, some small and we just adjust. That’s what project managers do.
There’s always more than one way to skin a cat, pardon the expression, so we always look for what’s the most cost-effective method to do it and hopefully realize the efficiencies of changing the way we do it.
With Sydney Tar Ponds, we were very fortunate that the federal-provincial cost-share agreement was, as Paul said, $400 million. The last $100 million was federal - that was the way the agreement worked out. For us, the motivation was the federal government coming to us and saying they would do future site use.
MLA McCrossin was in not too long ago to have a tour of the site and it became a motivator for us within government for long-term monitoring and maintenance. We were able to give back to that community that suffered the blights to be able to make it more. Instead of a site that was avoided by people, now we see probably 30,000 to 50,000 people go across that site annually - something that would attract maybe 15 to 20 people a year to orders of magnitude greater.
Our motivation comes from the fact that we work for the Province and we’re responsible for what we do, and efficiencies are always there, so that’s where we try to do it. It’s always having Plan B and Plan C ready as well.
PAUL LAFLECHE: I would be remiss if I didn’t thank our great partners in Ottawa, whoever they may be at any particular time, for contributing. They do have various remediation programs which we have tapped into over the years - be it Tar Ponds, be it Boat Harbour, be it Harrietsfield which Mr. Maguire can talk about. Any of those areas, we’ve managed to tap into significant federal funding. That is one of the ways we manage to deal with these.
I’ve said before at previous committees, in the past - years ago - we were not very good at tapping into various federal programs that were above the base. These programs are all above the base funding. They’re not allocated by formula, by population base, to provinces. We’ve been successful in terms of the last few years in remediation in tapping into such programs. They significantly eased the pain on Nova Scotians of what Ms. Leblanc is talking about.
THE CHAIR: I just want to recognize the time. You have about eight minutes left, Ms. Leblanc.
SUSAN LEBLANC: I’m going to pass my time on to my colleague, but I just will say that I have no doubt that the department is very good at project management. We know this. There have been plenty of amazing examples in the province.
I guess my worry is if there are cost overruns, they’re coming from somewhere, as we continually hear from our Liberal colleagues. There’s not an unlimited amount of money in this province. I guess my worry is where the money is coming from, ultimately.
I guess that is a question for the Minister of Finance and Treasury Board, but let me just remind our members here that when we’ve gone back to balance, we’ve also seen massive public service cuts in health care and we have the highest child poverty in the country, or we did for a long time. It’s only slightly better now.
I will leave that there. That is a discussion for another day, and I pass the rest of my time on to my colleague, Ms. Roberts.
THE CHAIR: Ms. Roberts.
LISA ROBERTS: I want to just get clear on a few of the basics by asking just a couple of quick questions first.
Contaminated sites have been audited by the Office of the Auditor General a number of times. The report from July 2020 includes an appendix which has a list of the 2010 recommendations and what happened with those, whether they were completed or not in 2014 and in 2020.
Generally, Recommendation 3.2, which was still not complete in 2020 and Recommendation 3.11, which was still incomplete in 2020, both of those were actually to the Department of Environment. I’m just trying to actually - if the deputy could explain to me why he is appearing on this instead of the Deputy Minister of Environment and Climate Change, just so I’m kind of understanding the roles.
THE CHAIR: Mr. LaFleche.
PAUL LAFLECHE: The Department of Environment and Climate Change - and things have changed over the years, I understand that - is the regulator. They actually only sit as ex-officios on our committee and when we go in camera - the deputy’s committee or the officials’ committee - they actually have to leave the room because they are the regulator.
You can call them if you wish but they would only deal with the one recommendation which they feel has been completed. I don’t know if Andrew Atherton, who is present today, concurs with that. If he doesn’t, we’d like to know and we can get back to Environment and Climate Change and advise them.
They are not really relevant to the discussion of today, but I agree with the member that back some years ago, in the early 2000s, with a different structure in government and a different way things were set up, they did have things which were liabilities. Over the years, Transportation or other appropriate departments have taken over those liabilities to take them out of a conflict situation where they are not regulating their own liability.
I think the structure has changed to the better so, in fact, I would hope the Auditor General would agree with that - his office - such that the liabilities and the regulatory authority rest in different areas. If you want to bring in the Department of Environment and Climate Change to talk about their one recommendation, that could be done but they weren’t invited to this meeting, so maybe I’ll just leave it there.
LISA ROBERTS: Just to help me clarify, and that answer certainly makes sense, so in terms of the 2010 recommendation that was still incomplete in 2020, which was that the Department of Environment should report to Cabinet, those contaminated sites were unacceptable risks that have not been adequately addressed to ensure Cabinet has appropriate information for policy decision. So for that recommendation from 2010 to be completed, who would be responsible now, today?
PAUL LAFLECHE: I’ll let Connie Roney answer that question. That goes way back prior to my time. In 2010, some of you may recall that I was fishing and farming, so I didn’t appear until 2012, when at that time Environment had some role and that’s when we started the transition of them out of that role and into the regulatory function fully.
Ms. Roney, do you have any information on that? Or maybe Andrew could answer that later.
THE CHAIR: Well try to keep it to two minutes, if that’s possible. Ms. Roney.
CONNIE RONEY: Well, I guess what I can add, because we work with Environment and Climate Change and we assist them with their work as required, we do have some understanding of some of the - I know they have done an assessment of those. I think, if I understand what is being addressed in this question, is some of those sites may not be provincial sites but just have not been addressed in general because, as the deputy mentioned earlier, of the dissolution of a company or of a corporate structure and it leaves a liability without someone to account for it. I understand they have gone through that process to identify those significant risks to the province and to the citizens.
THE CHAIR: I’ll give you an example of something we’ve taken over. Harrietsfield did become a bit of a liability when the company went into receivership, and I believe we may have had an unfortunate passing of one or more of the owners.
The Environment and Climate Change Department was in charge of Harrietsfield and operating it, and when it became obvious that was not an appropriate situation - they had some orders on the site, there was a court case - that site was transferred over to the Department of Transportation and Active Transit and Nova Scotia Lands. Nova Scotia Lands partnered with the federal government to put together a funding package for the remediation of the site.
Those transitions away from Environment into an active department that can actually remediate took place. I’ll ask Stephen MacIsaac to just talk a bit about where we are with Harrietsfield so you can understand how things transitioned from Environment to the appropriate group.
THE CHAIR: Unfortunately, the time for the NDP Caucus has expired.
I will move to the Liberal caucus. Hon. Gordon Wilson.
HON. GORDON WILSON: I’m sure we will have one of our members looking into Harrietsfield. Just to start, congratulations - the first female Chair that we’ve had in a decade. It’s nice to see and good luck in your role and you know I’m here as your co-chair to assist in anything that I can do to help. Reach out to me anytime.
I think one of the most promising things that we sit here today and hear is a better understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re going. It takes me back a long time. I can remember when the honourable Gordie Balser was the minister who went in and started the closure of Sysco, which started the cleanup of Sysco. It was close to me at the time. Gordie was a friend of mine and I followed that.
Obviously, in my last two years as Minister of Environment, I will say that my first understanding of the complexities of contaminated sites and the cross-jurisdictional stuff that we’re seeing here, the good questions that we’re hearing from our member for Dartmouth East and our colleagues in the NDP, it gives a good understanding of where we’re at. That’s a bit of where we are and I won’t say much more in a preamble. I could go on for a while about this stuff. It is very important, to Nova Scotians especially.
But it’s the understanding of how it works. I do appreciate the work also that the Auditor General does, to have that outside look. We struggle sometimes in government. It’s no secret. Let’s not sugar-coat things. We’re a big family and we all try to achieve the same role and we have each responsibilities. It’s good to hear an explanation also of the role the Department of Environment and Climate Change plays. A lot of people put the rest of the responsibility all on their shoulders but as a regulator I did get a good understanding, so that’s an important message.
I really have sort of a three-part question. I’d like to start off with Mr. Burke. It goes back to process and progress and where we were and where we’re going. We talked a little bit on the budget side of the Sysco Tar Ponds and the cleanup. I would just like to get a little bit of an understanding. I appreciate the fact that the Chair had a chance to tour that; I’m envious. That is an example of a very challenging area that we had. I would be interested in knowing maybe the more physical side of what happened there and what state it’s in today.
I only say that in the context of the next question that I’d like to go to would be after that I would like to go to after that would be in regard to Bowater, which again is near and dear and close to me in southwestern Nova Scotia, and then lastly maybe some reflections on where this might mean Boat Harbour might go.
I’d like to start off with Mr. Burke and just an understanding of what happened with the tar ponds and where they are now.
THE CHAIR: Before I pass it to Mr. Burke I will say that he was an incredible host, I really enjoyed being able to tour there.
DONNIE BURKE: Thank you for the question. The irony of all of this is that we take with Nova Scotia Lands - before I moved over I was the project director for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency - we received most of the accolades. Most of the notice, when you talk about the site, a lot of people refer to it as Sydney tar ponds, but there were two projects that were running concurrently during the late 1990s into the early 2000s. Well it actually started in the late 1990s, but most summed up in 2014.
The demolition of the Sysco site was also quite a feat but it didn’t garner as much attention. I got some stats together in anticipation if somebody did ask. There were over 500,000 square feet of buildings that were demolished, more than 100 buildings demolished during the demolition and the repurposing of the Sysco site. Of course, with these buildings you can anticipate there were lots of issues with respect to liabilities and contamination.
Nova Scotia Lands, that’s what our first purpose was. We were actually a Crown corporation that was formed to deal with the cleanup of the Sysco site, plus led to our project management committee for the Sydney tar ponds cleanup as well. That was all provincially funded.
Of course some of the things, you had some of them in the different communities but we had industrial buildings, such as mills. Some of these mills were 250 feet long, 100 feet wide, concrete that was two feet thick. We had forges, we had blast furnaces and then of course there was an association of stacks. Anybody who is familiar with any pictures from Sydney in the 1970s they would actually liken it to Pink Floyd in that there was a purple haze over the city, right? So these stacks were all over the place.
Nova Scotia Lands had to go in and dismantle this and do it in an environmentally sustainable fashion and follow the regulations of the day.
What we’re realizing today and as I said, the Chair had the fortune to come on site and I invite anybody to come in to see our site, we like to brag about what we’ve accomplished over the time. We now have over 300-plus people working back on the site so it’s modest, compared to what was there before when Sysco was in its heyday there were 4,000-plus people working on the Sysco site and the former coke oven site, but we’re building. In the last couple of years, we’ve doubled the participation on site. We have some small companies: Mill Creek Environmental, Mathjam Holdings, Source Atlantic, one of the Irving companies on our site. We have the New Horizon Achievement Centre, which is a great addition to our site as well.
One of the shining stars in Nova Scotia as a company is Protocase. You heard a little bit about Protocase, especially when the pandemic came on, they were building or looking at pioneering respirators for hospitals. This company has 200-plus employees themselves. They just finished construction or are in the commissioning phase of construction on a new building, so there’s now I would say three and a half buildings because they put a large piece on one of their existing buildings, and they’re looking and planning for the future. So they have been talking to us about the possibility of another building and another building, so a huge success story for Nova Scotia and a private company that is doing well.
We like to brag about that and let people know but it has taken something, again when I referred to the Sydney tar ponds, we’re reinventing the use of the site. It’s a brownfield site, it’s being developed that way. We come back to government, in some cases, where it need be, and ask for whether we provide indemnities on some of these properties for pre-existing contamination because they are brownfield. It has truthfully become a success story.
In recent weeks we have had several inquiries. We just actually in the last few months listed our properties on MLS. We kind of relied on the industrial-commercial sector which doesn’t use MLS per se but just in the last few weeks we’ve had four to six additional properties that are targeted to be sold within the next year. One is a major development possibly, so stay tuned, there’s lots of good things happening on that site.
Again, I offer the invitation to anybody that wants to come and see it. Of course, I already mentioned Open Hearth Park and the former Sydney tar ponds. Unfortunately, with the pandemic we don’t do it, but the Rotary Clubs of Cape Breton have joined together and we would have Ribfest actually on that. Imagine, it’s right in the centre of the former tar ponds. We went from not allowing people on the site, having human health risk signs on our fences to say stay off, and now we’re inviting 30,000 people across in a weekend.
With respect to the other sites, I would probably defer to our president and CEO, Steve MacIsaac with respect to Port Mersey in particular and Trenton as well.
GORDON WILSON: I’m going to jump to Mr. MacIsaac but I’d like to kind of just stay within that box and if he could briefly - because I am going to pass on to my colleague Mr. Horne here in a minute for my colleagues to get a few questions in, I know that they would like to ask. So, we moved from Sysco, we learned a lot of things, we moved into Bowater, I believe you’re involved with that and also involved with Boat Harbour obviously.
Bowater is very significant, it did impact our communities there quite a bit. I remember the fear that went through there and that one is still in progress, there is still work being done there, I understand. Can you tell me where we’re at with the Bowater site and what experiences maybe we’ve learned that we will be able to apply from Bowater to Boat Harbour if there is any?
STEPHEN MACISAAC: The site in Liverpool, the Bowater Mersey plant, we’ve completed the majority of the decommissioning of the assets at this time. We have four major companies all in place with options to purchase agreements and we’re pursuing subdivision of lands. Last year we completed a complete phase 2 environmental assessment of the main park area. The results came back positive, there was no significant exceedances of any of the environmental industrial standards.
We also have at this time Mersey Seafoods, which is a major employer in the area, has asked to purchase the wharf infrastructure and just in the last two or three weeks we’ve had one of our existing tenants ask their option to purchase for another 25 acres of the park. Another major employer in the Queens County area has asked to purchase a lot of the waterfrontage as well as possibly the old main office building. With this trend we’re seeing, we’re hopeful to have an exit strategy of that park in the next few years and many jobs in place. At this time I believe there’s approximately 120 full-time jobs in place and we could double that in the next two to three years with these expansions.
On another note, we still do have several major pieces of infrastructure there that require attention. We have a dam upstream as well as a pipeline. We’re looking at some decommissioning to reduce liabilities there. As well as the old what they called the ASB site, the settling ponds. There are some issues there as far as decommissioning. We’ve been trying to attract users but it’s pretty hard to attract users to that site.
At the same time we’ve had another company interested in purchasing the entire portion of those lands so we are moving right now to list these surplus properties on MLS to sell them off to the best and highest use for the province.
GORDON WILSON: Is there anything that you learned from the Bowater site that can be applied to Boat Harbour? Or are they two different challenges altogether?
STEPHEN MACISAAC: Yes. The Boat Harbour project challenge is to restore it back to its original title estuary with no contamination or - there’s already naturally occurring problems there with arsenic and so we have to get that back to the baseline level.
With the Boat Harbour project which is well underway, we’re expecting the federal approval shortly and we’re going to look at going out to the construction oversight tender as soon as this Summer or Fall. We’re moving forward. The end goal there will be, of course, to restore it to a title estuary but also to redevelop it for purposes. There’s some funding that’s been set aside with the federal government’s $100 million contribution to do such things as walking trails, a marina, possible property development. We’re working very closely with the Pictou Landing First Nation to make that happen. It would be more of a - it wouldn’t be an industrial site, I believe - it would be more of remediate to a higher standard.
GORDON WILSON: Okay, thank you. I’ll pass my time now to Mr. Horne.
THE CHAIR: Mr. Horne.
BILL HORNE: This brings back a lot of memories of my past job with Environment Canada doing some specialty work on chemistry. I won’t go into that very much other than these sites are very difficult most times to deal with. We’re always looking for new technology to clean up the sites and that involves a lot of federal government people, scientists and contractors.
I’m just wondering how you deal with coming up with new technologies that might be specific for that site or whatever and how to properly clean it up.
THE CHAIR: Mr. Horne, I’m going to ask you to adjust your screen so we can see your beautiful face the next time you have a question. We’ll go now to Mr. LaFleche.
PAUL LAFLECHE: Well, that question is better left for Ken Swain. The technology used at Boat Harbour is quite traditional. The same approach as we’ve used at other sites is what we’re going to use. There is a possibility that people come up with ideas for new technologies. Unfortunately, those ideas, which are quite prominent in terms of promoting themselves, have to be accepted by the environmental regulators and until they are, we can’t really use them.
The technology which is proven and we have to really approach for the first five to six years with Boat Harbour would be to dig up the sludge, dewater it - because there’s an incredible percentage of water or fluid in it - and put it in a containment cell. Once it’s in the containment cell, five, six years down the road, there may be other licensed technologies which could be used to treat containment material. The containment material might be able to be trucked away at great cost. None of that is proven at this point or could be done.
What we’re tackling - the approach we’re taking now at Boat Harbour is the same one we took at the tar ponds with a variation - the same one we took at Harrietsfield, which is dig up the sludge, decontaminate it and dewater it to the extent we can and put it back and cap it in an inert way. If a magic technology comes one day which the regulators accept and is safe to be used on site, i.e. doesn’t create airborne pollutants or other issues, which I’m sure the people of the local area would not appreciate, then we’ll look at that technology. But that’s a long way down the road, because even to use those technologies, you’ve got five or six years of digging and dewatering to do.
I don’t know if that adequately answered your question, but that’s the best we can give you at this point, awaiting some magical solution in the future.
BILL HORNE: Just to change the subject a little bit, are abandoned vessels considered a contaminated site? How do we approach that issue? Maybe Mr. Burke or Mr. MacIsaac could answer that? Mr. LaFleche?
PAUL LAFLECHE: I was just going to start by saying that the first approach to abandoned vessels; we have had contaminated ones.
The MV Miner, despite having a clean bill of health from federal officials in Montreal - and I’m sure they’re all getting their lawyers ready to sue me now, but I don’t think they can if I’m in Public Accounts Committee - despite having signed-off as no pollutants, we found millions of dollars of pollutants on the MV Miner. In the end, it cost us way more than expected because of that. Even though it was signed off in Montreal as clean.
There are abandoned vessels that do have pollutants, but the main impetus for that pro . . .
THE CHAIR: Oh, dear. We’ve lost Mr. LaFleche. Hopefully we’ll get him back. Okay, Mr. Geddes.
PAUL LAFLECHE: I’m back, but I’ve got a different name. Kim Langille knows what happened there, we sent her a note on it. We were hoping it would last until the break. It’s one of those automated IT things that happen that you cannot stop.
Anyway, what I was going to say is that the big issue with the WAHVA - the sunken abandoned vessels - is usually safety and navigation, as well as pollution. Those are the driving forces as a federal-provincial program. Mr. MacIsaac, I think, is very well versed on this and can give a short answer to the question.
THE CHAIR: We just have one minute left for the Liberal caucus, Mr. MacIsaac.
STEPHEN MACISAAC: Basically, the abandoned vessels program is through the Oceans Protection Plan of the federal government. We’ve been looking at approximately 30 vessels for removal across the shorelines of the province. These vessels, with the phase of the program we’re in now, have to be in provincial harbours or small craft harbours and under a certain size.
We’ve tapped into the federal funding program. I believe our funding at this point is about $500,000, of which $456,000 is federal funding and the balance is basically being absorbed in our Nova Scotia Lands budget. To us, it’s a program we’re receiving primarily funding, which never would be available in the past.
These vessels aren’t really considered to be contaminated sites. There are assessments done ahead of time by marine engineers. They’re more of a navigational hazard. If there are environmental issues, then the federal program kicks in because we know it’ll be much more significant dollars; there’s a different program.
We have actually been in discussion with them for the next phase of the project. There are bigger vessels, as well as vessels around the province, that need assistance. They’ve asked us to assist them with that program even in some of their own harbours, of which there are 15 federal harbours across the province. We’re in discussions with them now.
THE CHAIR: Mr. MacIsaac, I apologize. This is the end of the Liberal time for questioning.
Before we move on to the second round of questioning, I am going to ask the members if they would consider agreeing to extending the meeting by seven minutes. We did start seven minutes late due to the delays, so I’m asking the members for a show of hands if they agree to extending by seven minutes.
Is it agreed?
It is agreed.
Perfect. We will continue on with our second round of questioning. Each caucus will have seven minutes. We will now move to the PC caucus.
TIM HALMAN: Mr. MacIsaac, I’d like to return to the topic of surplus lands. With respect to that, is there a provincial policy in place in the event that the Province has surplus lands, they could be used for such purposes as housing? Could you comment on that?
STEPHEN MACISAAC: There is a surplus land disposal policy available. It’s in Manual No. 200, I believe, of the Provincial Government Policy Manual. It basically says that lands can be declared surplus by the departments and there are five different mechanisms for how they can be disposed of. It could be with other local municipal or community groups, tenders, procurement - there are several ways.
It is a very short document - I believe the whole thing is one page. Nova Scotia Lands is actually in the process of reviewing that to try to get better direction from government to proceed with that program to assist in redevelopment, as well as how we deal with evaluating the values on a fair basis, how we deal with issues that need to be resolved environmentally, and so on and so forth.
We are currently looking at bringing some new policies and procedures forward to our board - Nova Scotia Lands board - for review in conjunction with the Department of Justice to give us some flexibility in dealing with some of these parcels of land.
TIM HALMAN: Is there a timeline attached to when that would be completed?
STEPHEN MACISAAC: We are already in the process of reviewing the policies and procedures. With assistance from the Department of Justice, we were trying to bring that to our board meeting which just happened last week, but it did not happen. We would probably be looking at the next board meeting - we typically meet twice a year.
PAUL LAFLECHE: Mr. MacIsaac is talking about the surplus lands at Nova Scotia Lands, which is a small portion of government lands. He also referred in the beginning to the government policy. We have surplus lands in government. Probably a week does not go by in Cabinet that we don’t distribute surplus lands to someone. In fact, there is no Cabinet this week, but usually every week we would do that.
There is a surplus lands policy and yes, it could be used for housing. A lot of times, it is because there is an old piece of highway right-of-way that is in front of someone’s property. The government doesn’t need it anymore and they dispose of it. There is a time-honoured process with priorities for different entities - federal government, First Nations, municipalities, et cetera, you have to go through, but the disposal for surplus lands for all sorts of different priorities happen.
You just saw an announcement last week where the province, in fact, benefited from a surplus disposal by the federal government in order to get land to build an Acadian P- 8 school on the peninsula at the old Oxford RCMP building. So, it goes both ways. We are looking for other levels of government surplus land. Sometimes we dispose of our surplus land. So, there is no reason it could not be used for housing or other things. When we look at new school sites, one of the things we do all the time is look at surplus government land.
TIM HALMAN: I think this question is most appropriate for Mr. Burke: would you be able to provide an update for the remediation of the Montague gold mines?
DONNIE BURKE: Absolutely. Montague gold mines actually - as many of you are aware - we were in here last year, a lot of common faces. Peter Geddes and I presented with Deputy Towers at the time on the Montague gold mines and the contaminated sites list for the Department of Lands and Forestry.
Montague itself - we have completed most of the testing for an official or formal Phase 2 environmental assessment. We have categorized the whole site. We have monitored the water components downstream, looked at the effects - the potential - and assessed the human health and ecological risk in the area.
Right now, our design engineer is actually taking all that information, plugging it into the appropriate models and, of course, coming up with a detailed design and a revised estimate. My goal at one point was to be shovel-ready last Fall. Of course, the next step of the process is to go through the regulatory phase.
We have been communicating with the Department of Environment and Climate Change, bringing them on all along, but at the same time these are new in the size and scope of them, so we are entering into the final throes once we get into releasing the Phase 2 environmental site assessment. Then we will go through the formal processes with the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change.
We could be ready as early as this Fall to start some of the work, if not we will be ready, I am sure, by next fiscal year to actually start some of the remediation on that site.
THE CHAIR: Mr. Halman, we have about 30 seconds left - do you have any other comments or questions?
TIM HALMAN: I want to thank Mr. Burke for that succinct summary of that remediation. Thank you very much.
Just quickly, will there be community consultation - how will information get out to the communities impacted by this remediation?
DONNIE BURKE: Absolutely. With the pandemic in place, that has been one of our biggest challenges - to figure out how to get out and communicate. For any of your constituents, I know we have been in the media about it, but everything that we do in terms of reports gets posted on the Nova Scotia Lands website. We do have a section for Montague and Goldenville, or the gold mines projects.
Of course, the Department of Lands and Forestry being in our client department, Peter Geddes and his team have good feedback there, as well. Our plans are to get out with a formal engagement process once we have a defined project.
THE CHAIR: Thank you very much. We will now move questioning to the NDP caucus for seven minutes. Ms. Roberts.
LISA ROBERTS: I would like to continue the questioning around abandoned mines.
Dr. Linda Campbell, a scientist at St. Mary’s University, has said that there are very few gold mining districts that have been investigated to any depth. Very few; not enough. Could Mr. Burke or Mr. LaFleche, or whoever, address the knowledge gaps that continue and what exactly is being done by which body exactly to ensure that we do have a full picture of the work that is outstanding?
PAUL LAFLECHE: Well, the good news here is that this is time for Peter Geddes to star. He was worried that he would get out of the meeting without a question.
PETER GEDDES: We have been going through a process for the last couple of years. We have identified 60-some-odd abandoned mine sites on Crown lands across the province. As you can appreciate, many of these sites were developed as mines long before we had any environmental regulation or any sort of government oversight whatsoever.
We have been working with Nova Scotia Lands to kind of systematically go through every one of those mine sites. We run them through a risk assessment, essentially, to determine where they rank in terms of the need to have more detailed study assessment work done on them.
When I talk about more detailed study, I am talking about going in and actually digging and seeing the extent of delineating tailings and actually just determining what types of contaminants might be on those sites.
It is a phased process, like I said. There are a lot of sites to work through here. As you can appreciate, too, there is a lot of history on these sites. Tracking all that information down and putting it together has been a very complicated process, but we continue to do that.
I think it was referred earlier today that part of that process, as well is that we have staff who are going out and visiting those sites. They are flying them with drones and they are taking lots of photographs, so we are building basically a database of all these sites with a risk ranking. That will sort of inform where we would go next in terms of more investigation of contamination.
LISA ROBERTS: That sounds to me like it is addressing maybe two of the three Auditor General recommendations from July around having an inventory and having a risk-based approach. At what point is that ranking and inventory made transparent to the public? Is there going to be a public-facing portal from the interdepartmental advisory group on contaminated sites?
PETER GEDDES: We do not have a plan for a public-facing portal on those sites right now. I think it was referred to earlier that we have a cross-departmental committee that works just on mine sites as well, so this would include the Department of Environment and Climate Change, and Nova Scotia Lands, who are doing a lot of the technical work on this analysis for us. We actually assigned a mining engineer to work at Nova Scotia Lands to focus specifically on reviewing theses sites and working on the risk matrix.
The actual sites that are being reviewed actually are already available. That list has been previously made available out there. The final ranking, maybe Mr. Burke can speak to sort of timing in terms of when we would expect to have those final results in terms of how those sites would get ranked.
DONNIE BURKE: Peter summed it up quite well. Most of the assessments have been done from a desktop perspective. There is a team of staff with Nova Scotia Lands, led by a mining engineer, that compiled all the information. There was a lot of information available for a lot of these sites. We had to go back and look at the historic operations, and as I said, working with the Department of Environment and Climate Change to determine what exactly was required, these are new, because these are legacy sites versus active sites under an industrial approval, so we are navigating through the Contaminated Sites Regulations with them.
Our goal was to create a prioritized list for the Department of Lands and Forestry and government, then to address the sites. Primarily the assessment is based on human health risk as a priority, but we also look at the location, the ecological risk and the like, so we have a draft form of that, but of course, the final one that we would be looking to inform would be after the - boots on the ground is probably the best way ever to determine what the risks are in advance. These sites have had no attention, so our staff actually, in the update we mentioned that it would be coming in the coming weeks, but actually it started.
We rented the first vehicle yesterday and a team is actually mobilizing out to site later this week and the first of next, so we are going to start working through them. We have run a couple of trial sites in order to look at what we can do, what reconnaissance we do, and part of what we are doing is almost like a Phase I environmental site assessment on every site to look at what the potential for impact is and look at the historical use and the like on each site.
THE CHAIR: We have about one minute left, Ms. Roberts, if you have anything else.
LISA ROBERTS: I wonder if I could just get a real quick number on the number of outstanding sites and, given the work ahead, how many years of work we have ahead as a province to get through those. But I am also wondering if the risk matrix includes any analysis of the impact of environmental racism.
DONNIE BURKE: Yes, we have looked - not so much as saying clearly environmental racism, but looking at where these are located, what the impact is to the local community weighs in as one of the point determinants within our matrix.
THE CHAIR: Time has expired for the NDP questioning. Now we will move to the Liberal caucus. I’ll go to Mr. Maguire.
BRENDAN MAGUIRE: As everyone else stated, you are doing a fantastic job today, keeping us all in line, so thank you for that.
One of the questions that I had - and I don’t know if this would be for Mr. LaFleche or Mr. MacIsaac or Mr. Burke, who would want to take this. Just from my own personal experience over the last couple of years, it is really complicated from the concept of cleaning a site to having that site remediated, so what I have learned over the years is that, in the particular case of Harrietsfield, it has taken the Department of Environment and Climate Change, the Department of Lands and Forestry, the Department of Justice a while there. Of course the Department of Environment and Climate Change would give the permits.
My question is: With all these departments involved, how do we manage these remediations projects - and is there a singular body that oversees all of this?
PAUL LAFLECHE: I will start on this and then we will pass it over to Connie Roney to talk out the responsibility of the committee.
In your area, Minister Maguire, there was the Harrietsfield site that had a particular history. Many of the sites that we have, have different histories. If it’s a clear-cut thing, it’s a government asset - it’s on our base, there’s no legal misunderstanding, that’s one avenue. It goes right into our inventory and we deal with it.
In the case of Harrietsfield, that basically wasn’t an escheatment in my understanding, that was a legal case. At the end of the day, the federal and provincial governments made a decision that it was in the interest of the general public to go in and do something, even though they really had no legal liability. The liability was with third parties, but the third parties had no assets, and if we didn’t go in, the local citizens that Ms. Roberts referred to earlier would be in a negative position.
Those are complicated ones. Most of them, the vast majority, are fairly straightforward. It’s where you get into these legal situations where there’s nobody left standing. We try to ensure in the future that those don’t occur. Earlier, bonds were referred to, for the private sector. There’s a different regime in place than there was, say, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 100 years ago, so these shouldn’t occur to the extent in the future that they have occurred in the past. There are some which are complex like the one in your area, Minister Maguire. That was extremely complex because of that legal history, and unfortunate.
Some of the dry cleaners are in that mode too. We have to deal with them in the public interest, but if it’s a government asset that we clearly own and we know we have to go in it, I’ll allow Ms. Roney to talk about how that would happen.
THE CHAIR: Ms. Roney.
CONNIE RONEY: In terms of responding to a clear-cut provincial liability that’s on provincial land, all those complications that you were discussing do not, as the deputy mentioned, we would undertake the work, we would manage the work within our group. We have site professionals within the environmental services group. Depending on our capacity, we would engage consultants to help leverage our time to expedite the work and work within the Contaminated Sites Regulations.
As the deputy mentioned, though, whenever a contamination leaves the owner’s site to a third party, it invokes a complicating factor, and that is addressed in the Contaminated Sites Regulations. There are definitely additional considerations, even in terms of accessing the site and getting agreement in terms of the appropriate level of remediation that’s allowed within the regulations.
The work of the interdepartmental advisory group, one of the aims is to ensure that all government departments are aware of the expertise within government, within the Department of Transportation and Active Transit and within Nova Scotia Lands that can assist if these departments encounter this issue. We’re hoping that through this working group, the information will be better shared and we’ll be able to reduce some of those barriers that have been encountered in the past. There is no doubt that once you leave your own property or you’re dealing with a property that is not provincial land, it becomes more complicated.
THE CHAIR: We have one minute remaining. Mr. Maguire
HON. BRENDAN MAGUIRE: I guess this is just a quick one. This would be for Mr. Burke and Mr. MacIsaac. We talked about the success of the Sydney tar ponds and what’s happened to that property since then. How do you determine, once a site is remediated, what can and can’t go on it, and what assets you would put there for the community?
DONNIE BURKE: Typically, we remediate to a certain standard. If the site was being remediated to residential parkland criteria or the like, that’s where the determination is made early on.
Harrietsfield in particular, I’m assuming you’re alluding to. Our direction was to go in and fix what we had on that site. We’ll have it down to a 10-hectare area that will be actively managed under environmental remediation. Potentially, there’s a 50-hectare area of that property that could become - the thought now is nature preserve or whatever. Part of that goes back to the consultation we had with the community.
THE CHAIR: That concludes the time for questions to our witnesses. I’d like to also just take a minute to recognize Hon. Leo Glavine, who’s joined us and replaced Minister Ince. Welcome, Minister Glavine.
At this time, I’d like to thank each one of our witnesses. I’d also like to thank Mr. Atherton and Ms. Edmonds, representing the Auditor General’s office. I’d like to recognize our presenters today, the witnesses Ms. Roney, Mr. Geddes, Mr. Burke, as well as the presenters on the agenda Mr. MacIsaac and Mr. LaFleche.
I offer one minute closing remarks to Mr. MacIsaac and Mr. LaFleche if they so desire.
PAUL LAFLECHE: Apparently, Mr. MacIsaac has no closing remarks. I actually don’t either, but I do want to congratulate the new Chair on a great meeting and thank all the members for allowing us to participate today.
We have some follow-ups. The one we’re still confused on is the financial one with Mr. Halman, so we will probably follow up with Mr. Halman to circumscribe that one so that we can give him a good answer before we answer through the committee Chair.
THE CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr. LaFleche. It’s always a pleasure to see you. We thank all our witnesses, and you’re welcome to leave the meeting now and we’ll resume with committee business.
Mr. Atherton, are you going to exit the meeting?
ANDREW ATHERTON: We usually stay for all parts of the meeting so we’re aware of what’s happening.
THE CHAIR: Okay. Thank you.
I do want to again say thank you to the Clerk, Kim Langille, for guiding me through the process and also Mr. Hebb for being present, if we need any legal counsel.
The next part of the meeting is the committee business. Each member should have received an email with the correspondence. We have three pieces of correspondence. I’ll just go through those.
The first one is the Department of Transportation and Active Transit updated action plan regarding the QEII Regeneration Project and Halifax Infirmary expansion and the Community Outpatient Centre, December 2019 report of the Auditor General, Chapter 2, and the Department of Health and Wellness’s response to the follow-up letter from the February 10th meeting. I just want to make sure everyone received a copy of that.
The next two items are actually going to be motions regarding some changes. We have changes to previously approved departments and deputies. As there have been changes to previously approved departments and deputies, the committee will need to approve these changes. The following changes have occurred:
With regard to the topic of COVID-19 recovery and response, the Department of Business is now the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth.
With regard to the topic of fraud risk management and cybersecurity, Andrea Anderson is now the Commissioner of Public Service Commission, replacing Laura Lee Langley.
Kelliann Dean is now the Deputy Minister of Finance and Treasury Board, replacing Byron Rafuse.
I’m asking for a motion to approve these changes.
GORDON WILSON: I move that we approve those changes.
THE CHAIR: Is there any discussion? All those in favour? Contrary minded? Thank you.
The motion is passed.
The next item on the agenda - I’m looking for a motion regarding the subcommittee. There is a new Vice-Chair as Mr. Wilson is replacing Keith Irving, and I’m replacing Keith Bain as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
I am asking the committee to approve Mr. Wilson and myself as members of the subcommittee. May I have a motion?
LISA ROBERTS: I move that we approve Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin and Gordon Wilson as members of the subcommittee.
THE CHAIR: Thank you. Is there any discussion? All those in favour? Contrary minded? Thank you.
The motion is passed.
Next on the agenda is our next meeting date, once the committee business is concluded. So the next meeting date is May 12, 2021; 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. is the in camera briefing session and 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. we will have the Public Accounts Committee with witnesses from Department of Finance and Treasury Board, Nova Scotia COVID-19 Response Council, Nova Scotia Business Inc., Tourism Nova Scotia, and the Department of Inclusive Economic Growth regarding COVID-19 recovery and response, per the December 2020 Report of the Auditor General.
Does anyone have any questions before we conclude?
SUSAN LEBLANC: Madam Chair, I’m just wondering if we can clarify - are we going to attempt to have an in-person meeting if protocols allow? Or are we continuing with virtual? There has been some confusion in the past.
THE CHAIR: I may ask advice on that with the Clerk.
KIM LANGILLE: It was my understanding that the committee had agreed that they would continue holding virtual meetings until a decision was made otherwise. It would be up to the committee to decide when they want to switch back to holding meetings in person. That was my understanding.
THE CHAIR: Thank you, Ms. Langille. Ms. Leblanc.
SUSAN LEBLANC: Thank you for that, Ms. Langille. I would just say that we don’t have time to discuss it now, but I think maybe we should reserve some time at the next meeting to have this discussion. Of course, in May we will know whether or not we are hit with a third wave and we’ll know better by then, and we may have some sense of how things are going. Hopefully in May we’ll have an Atlantic bubble again and cases will remain low, et cetera, in which case I think that we should look at in-person meetings.
Anyway, like I said, no time to talk about it now but maybe we could put it on the agenda for the next meeting.
THE CHAIR: Thank you, we can certainly do that, Ms. Leblanc.
GORDON WILSON: I agree with that. I think to have some thought before time I think that would be more prudent. I’d rather see things dealt with that way, where we know down the road what we’re going to be talking about when we go to the meetings. I think that’s a very good suggestion - not to say that we’re going to be able to, but we all know what can change in a month. Let’s all hope for the best.
THE CHAIR: If everyone is in agreement we’ll place that on the agenda to discuss at the next meeting. Any further comments or questions?
The meeting is adjourned. Thank you everyone.
[The committee adjourned at 10:58 a.m.]