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Oceanfront planning goes public

Mercury contamination on the radar, but not a driving issue

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Last Saturday, Graham Fuller moseyed about the small crowd gathered at Squamish’s Stan Clarke Park for the re-launch of the district’s Oceanfront Peninsula planning process. A now permanent resident with a robust academic background, he constitutes the definition of a citizen engaged.

“It’s great to see they’re starting the process again,” he said. “We can’t afford to get it wrong a second time. And one of the most beautiful places in the world has to be preserved for the public and public enjoyment, with a balance of residential and light industrial.”

Up to now, the planning paradigm has unfolded in “fits and starts.” Those are the words of a recent staff report detailing the saga, the control of which has shifted from the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation to the District of Squamish (DOS). HB Lanarc, a consulting entity, is steering the process, and a new, more proactive focus on public consultation has come to the fore.

And so Saturday’s open house was the first demonstration of that strategy. District staff was on hand to interface with the public, and placards detailing the process were set up beneath a canopy. An artist was also present to illustrate the ideas proposed by residents.

“We’re calling this the public launch of the create the Oceanfront Planning Process,” said HB Lanarc’s Vince Verlaan. “So we’re asking the public to come out for the first installment of an eight-month planning process.”

The new timeline calls for a draft plan to come together this winter, with a final plan scheduled for Spring 2009.

While the planners were putting on a positive face, some residents were raising red flags. Back in the days of a younger Squamish, when heavy industry carried the day, the Chlor-Alkali chemicals plant leaked mercury into oceanfront waters, at one point to such a degree that herring fishing was temporarily suspended.

Under outgoing Mayor Ian Sutherland’s tenure, the Nexen Lands plot was purchased for $3 after negotiations in Calgary. Millions were spent on a clean-up above the high tide mark, while the contaminants offshore were left undisturbed in the ocean floor. For people like John Buchanan, an environmentalist and member of the Squamish Environmental Conservation Society, the prospect of dredging those buried contaminants is wrought with trepidation.

“It’s exactly what I expected,” he said of the information display. “There’s not a bloody thing about mercury at all. It’s even more laughable when they talk about a shell fish industry.”

And so Buchanan came armed with the cover page of a report prepared by URS Canada Inc, an Ontario planning consultant. Prepared for DOS in 2004, the report is called “Plan for Management of Mercury Contaminated Sediment at the Former Chlor-Alkali Plant, Squamish, B.C.” Buchanan taped the cover page to a placard along with one of the report’s maps showing contaminated zones all along the peninsula.

“I am worried about that,” said Fuller. “Someone might say 80 per cent of it isn’t a worry, but these are highly technical questions. It’s easy to be manipulated by special knowledge of the developers or the greens. Who’s telling the truth?”

According to the report, mercury levels have been subsiding over the years. Mercury levels found in crabs, marsh grasses, leaves, seeds, soil cores and sediment have all been mellowing. And yet, page four of the report notes that provincial criteria are exceeded “at depth in nearby intertidal and subtidal sediments and in some areas of nearby marshlands.”

On the same page, however, the report notes that the mercury has been locked down for 30 years, and, barring dredging activity, will likely remain as such. The report also lists other contaminants, including silver, barium, copper, lead, thallium and hexachlorobenzene.

“We’re relying on DOS, who have been dealing with the long term clean-up,” said Verlaan. “That would be one of the issues to resolve.”

Cameron Chalmers, DOS director of planning, said he and the district are cognizant of the problem, and they aren’t hiding its existence.

“On the mercury issue,” Chalmers said, “it’s been an issue addressed since day one. The former owner spent multiple millions on remediation. It will be a factor in the process. It’s one of a myriad of issues, but it’s not driving the process.”

What is driving the process, said Chalmers, is land use. He predicts the meshing of residential and commercial building to be the most galvanizing issue when it comes to community involvement.

As for Buchanan’s guerilla signage, Verlaan said he considers them on the same keel as all the other public input resulting from the afternoon. “We will address that. All these notes get typed up, and we’ll put it in a report.”

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