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Date: May/June 2009
Publication: ReNew Canada, 38
Author: Tom Williams

The NRTEE counts as many as 30,000 brownfields across Canada. Few of those are in urban mega-centres. What will it take to get the smaller sites remediated?

Most small Canadian communities have brownfield properties in the centre of town – creameriese, mills, factories, rail yards. Property values in small communities are low; without the significant incentives larger cities are able to provide for brownfield developers – and skilled professionals to do the work – these sites will site untouched.

Current owners have no incentives to divest of such properties; developers and municipalities see no benefit of taking on the environmental liabilities. While these sites may have significant social value to the local community, they have no economical value.

Valuable sites in big cities are getting attention because developers can make a business case for remediating them. The low hanging fruit may be gone, that’s true. But professionals that are developing creative approaches and exit strategies are creating value for brownfield sites – finding ways to get to the next tier of fruit.

These solution-finders usually specialize in the science of site assessment and remediation. But in order to see the solution, they need to look at the contaminated properties from all perspectives. Look at a brownfield property from all angles – environmental risk management, planning and development, and finance – you’ll uncover its redevelopment potential (see page 36).

Once the different specialty fields are collaborating, the only barrier to filling this brownfield redevelopment market gap is the labour market shortage – it’s difficult to rely on the expertise of environmental professionals who don’t exist.

Graduates from post-secondary institutions have been a traditional source of labour for the environmental industry. But ECO Canada’s demand-and-supply labour market studies show the number of graduates has been decreasing despite a growth in enrolment. Students are having problems with the math and science requirements of their programs.

The labour shortage is not limited to the environmental industry, ECO Canada found that Canada simply doesn’t have the human resources requirements associated with the cleanup of contaminated sites.

The solution is not simple: Canada’s education system needs to be overhauled. Math and science should be taught — as early as elementary school – in a way that encourages creativity, not fear. Teachers need more training to build those skills – but that’s not possible in a system that’s undergone major budget cuts over the last ten years. This is a responsibility that falls on government, private sector, educational institutions, professional societies and individuals.

Without creative professionals, changes to our educational system and support from all orders of government, Canada’s small towns will remain scarred with contaminated sites.