Turning the page on toxic site’s dirty legacy

March 9, 2015

IMICOFor a long time, it was one of the largest employers in the city, a place where hundreds earned paycheques making iron castings β€” while we ignored the environmental consequences of that dirty work.

But that was many years ago. Today, the 13-acre former International Malleable Iron Company site is a polluted, ugly blight on an otherwise growing city β€” a relic from a past when companies did whatever they wanted to the land they sat on, and the rest of us looked the other way.

The legacy of contamination has haunted the Ward’s former foundry site for years, while costing Guelph’s taxpayers millions and its city bureaucrats countless headaches. After far too long, there is some faint new hope it could soon, mercifully, finally be off our hands.

The city has hired CBRE Canada, a commercial real estate investment firm, which has drummed up some early interest in the site. They say they’ve found four potential buyers, although none have evolved into serious offers yet.

City hall has tried to find buyers for the site in the past, but no one wanted to touch the troubled former foundry lands and take on the responsibility for the contamination that came with it. Earlier estimates pegged the cost of cleanup somewhere between $4.4 million and $8.7 million.

Guelph inherited this mess in the 1990s, after the company went bankrupt, laid off some 230 workers, and its American parent company signed over the property at 200 Beverley St. to the city.

So far, the city has spent about $3 million trying to clean up the mess left behind by the company β€” demolishing the old plant’s derelict buildings, doing environmental cleanup and monitoring groundwater on the site.

Desperate to have some control over the crumbling, abandoned site, the city β€” which was owed more than $1-million in unpaid taxes β€” figured it had no choice but to take over ownership of the land. It’s been stuck with a lemon of a property ever since.

The lands have seen some strange twists since it was abandoned. It was sold for $1 to a maverick political candidate, John Long, who soon learned from the Ministry of Environment that as the new owner, he’d be required to clean up toxic waste at the site.

Faced with steep cleanup bills, Long did the natural thing β€” he gave the property to an oddball Hamilton-based religious sect, the Assembly of the Church of the Universe, which believed nudity and smoking piles of pot helped them talk to God.

You may be surprised to learn the Church of the Universe thing didn’t end very well at the site, despite all the reefer. Today, Guelph’s plan for the land is a little more grounded in reality.

Under a brownfields restoration plan, the city will cover up to $30,000 in environmental studies required of any prospective owner; waive all municipal taxes and school board taxes for three years; and offset the cost of fixing up the site by cancelling up to 80 per cent of the tax increase caused by the redevelopment for a full decade.

After the mess this site has been, and the millions it’s cost Guelph taxpayers already, any incentives that will help get the property off the municipality’s hands is money well spent.

In a city that’s growing as much as this, and drawing more and more attention from developers around the province, the property remains a jarring eyesore from another era. It needs to be cleaned up and given new life, so we can finally put this ugly, costly problem behind us.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer whose column appears every third Saturday. He can reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca. Follow him on Twitter at @MercerRecord.

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