Sackville Town Councillors were summoned to a special meeting at noon on Monday where they were asked to approve spending another $125,000 to dispose of 5,000 more tonnes of contaminated soil discovered last week during the excavation of a flood control pond south of St. James Street on land that was used as a railway yard for more than a century.
Last month, council approved spending about $400,000 to dispose of 9,000 tonnes of soil laced with petroleum and aromatic hydrocarbons as well as heavy metals. At the time, officials described the contaminated area as a “pocket” on property the town bought from CN Rail on an “as is” basis.
Town engineer Dwayne Acton explained on Monday that an additional 5,000 tonnes of soil mixed with various materials including buried concrete, creosoted wood and a six inch terra cotta water main would now also have to be trucked to the Envirem Organics disposal site in Memramcook.
Both Acton and Pierre Plourde of Crandall Engineering — the company that is overseeing the flood control project — warned however, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether more contaminants will be discovered as excavation continues.
‘Just a pocket’
Councillor Allison Butcher sounded uncharacteristically angry as she questioned the original use of the word “pocket” to describe the contaminated area that had not been discovered during drilling for soil testing.
“I know people had asked before why didn’t we find these [contaminated soils] when we were doing the bore holes and I was thinking, well, it’s just a pocket,” Butcher said. “Well, this is a freakin’ big pocket,” she added, her voice rising in apparent frustration.
“When does it become not just the town needing to pay for this bump in our road,” she said, “and when does Crandall chip in or when do we stop needing to keep paying and paying and paying?”
Butcher suggested that Crandall should have foreseen the contamination when it originally assessed the project and should now share at least some of the clean-up costs.
Crandall engineer Pierre Plourde responded that in civil engineering projects, contractors such as Birch Hill Construction, are paid for every tonne of soil they remove and truck away based on amounts that are sometimes higher and sometimes lower than originally estimated.
He explained that some aspects of the project, such as installing pipes under the CN tracks, cost much less than expected.
“It goes both ways,” Plourde said. “We’re managing the contract as a whole, but when you look at it, some items will be higher, some items will be lower…It’s a unit bid contract as opposed to a lump sum contract.”
Councillor Shawn Mesheau said he agreed with Butcher that Crandall Engineering should take some responsibility for the project’s rising costs.
“This is becoming a money pit,” he said. “CN is known not for taking care of its properties and as we dig we find more and I’m just wondering what type of liability that Crandall has here.”
Mesheau said that even though the town is paying only 25% of the costs, it’s still taxpayers who are footing the bill and there’s no guarantee that more contamination won’t be found.
“The fact is is that the due diligence wasn’t done on this piece of property to ensure that we aren’t up against this again,” he said. “There’s a lot of balls that have [been] dropped here and I’m sorry, but as a councillor sitting here and going to be requested to spend another $125,000 of taxpayers’ money and we’re still not sure? That concerns me.”
Mayor defends ‘due diligence’
Mayor John Higham said that until the contaminated soil was discovered, the town had no indication that it might be on the excavation site.
He noted that the province had not flagged it on its listing of potentially contaminated land.
“You’ll recall that in the parcels [of land] that we brought together, there was only one plot that had a flag of a potential, probable contamination and we chose not to purchase that site,” Higham said. “CN was not flagged as a probable contamination at that [provincial] level.”
The mayor added that bore hole testing conducted by independent engineers showed no contamination and the full environmental impact assessment conducted by the province did not flag contaminated soil as a potential problem.
“If there’s a question about due diligence, I think it’s important that the community understands just how much has gone into that,” Higham said, “and that’s how we got here, [there] was no evidence whatsoever through all of those steps and all of those independent looks.”
CN’s the ‘villain’
Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken said he was critical of Crandall when the flood control project had to be redesigned because bids for the original project came in at double the costs that had been projected.
But he suggested that having spent part of the weekend digging for a buried septic tank on his own lawn, he realizes it would take time to find and remove contaminated soil.
“The real villain here is the CN Rail who indiscriminately buried large tonnes of toxic junk and now we’re expected to clean it up,” Aiken said. “I realize going after CN is a completely fruitless exercise because they have more lawyers than we do.”
Aiken agreed with other councillors, including Michael Tower, who said that in spite of the costs, the town was doing the right thing by removing the contaminated soil.
In the end, the deputy mayor seconded Councillor Tower’s motion to allocate $125,000 to dispose of the contaminated soil.
Councillors Andrew Black and Joyce O’Neil also voted for the motion, while Councillors Butcher and Mesheau voted against.
Councillors Bill Evans and Bruce Phinney could not attend Monday’s noonday meeting.
To read the town’s latest update on the contaminated soil, click here.