The shame of Randle Reef


Staff member
Feb 15, 2004
The Beach Strip
James (Jim) Howlett is a Beach Resident and member of the Beach Council.
Posted with permission from the Hamilton Spectator.

March 15, 2010
James Howlett
The Hamilton Spectator
(Mar 15, 2010)
It is the stuff that nightmares are made of. Toxic muck on the bed of our harbour known as Randle Reef -- and no one plans to move it.

Above the harbour is a hope-withering muck of politics, bureaucracy, apathy, and lies. It is "Randle Mountain" -- and no one plans to move it either.

The reef was the intentional dumping of toxic fill using dump barges and clam buckets -- not a sewer pipe -- off Stelco's dock with the plan to cover it with clean fill and make land out of it. Stelco would also cloud the waters by pointing fingers around the harbour, saying it could have been any of the other bay industries. Just like the resident of a crack house who says the hypodermics on the lawn were thrown there by the neighbours.

Born in shame, the reef was illegitimate and distinctive -- the largest chemical deposit in the Great Lakes -- an environmental crime that would spread. Ugly and destructive, its reputation would travel the world, while the toxins would travel the bay -- killing anything they could reach and repelling what they couldn't. Nothing can live on the reef. Dead fish and birds are often found there. The shame would grow. The city that called itself ambitious would not have the clout or the cash to clean up the mess.

The reef failures relate to leadership and judgment. Tough words -- which have been coming from the lips of citizens for quite some time, something that indicates strong instinct and intuition.

Maybe that's the best radar of all, for most of us don't know what coal tar is -- but we do know that it would be naive to think that a sophisticated, multilayered, interdepartmental, career-hinging, share-crashing interpretation of events might not be adopted by Stelco to avoid charges.

Denials of this sound like Tiger Woods' "confession" -- a choreographed evasion of justice and shame.

No one would confront Stelco for fear of legal costs if we lost -- and lost jobs if we won.

If we are to move forward from this we must reject the idea that it is either jobs or the environment -- and Hamilton industries must be told to run clean or go elsewhere. Steelmaking is much cleaner in some parts of the world than it is here and its profitable -- and it is the same companies.

In a strange twist, Stelco created the reef on its west side and avoided cleanup costs but filled in the harbour on its east side and sold the land it made to the Hamilton Port Authority (HPA) for $17.5 million to make Pier 22.

Stelco was then sold for $1.1-billion to U.S steel, which would have nothing to do with the reef either. Some money from the sale of Pier 22 and of Stelco should rightly have gone to the harbour's remediation. Yet the money has skipped town like a mobster on $20 bail.

A further slap: the port authority paid Stelco $17.5 million for what became Pier 22, then committed $150 million to HPA projects, only to plead poverty when it comes to the reef cleanup. This after driving the reef costs up by $8 million to make the capped reef strong enough to dock ships. It will spend $6 million on port facilities on the reef when it is capped, but none of it is for cleanup, and the HPA gets the land for free. Touting itself for years as the leader of the cleanup, the HPA now, when it comes to the work, does not have the expertise to do it. Some shame should land in their camp to commit real work and dollars to the project instead of talk.

Surely some shame belongs to the leaders at Environment Canada, who pushed a plan of parlay and patience -- rather than push and punish. How could they miss the idea of a big company doling out promises and denials -- then blowing town with a fistful of dollars that should have stayed in the bay? In trying not to treat Stelco as a stereotype of an evil corporation, Environment Canada leaders led the way to unjust stereotyping of its frontline staff as shaky-handed enforcers.

The Remedial Action Plan committee and Bay Area Restoration Council have been sharing around town that our mayor has dropped the ball for the city's portion of the cleanup. We need results from the mayor now. Any more delaying -- legitimate or not -- runs the risk of looking like pre-election timing, adding the taint of political insult to environmental injury.

If all money from the land made by the capping project went into a fund to do harbour cleanup, and pay back the city's share, we would taste some justice from Randle Reef. If the port authority isn't paying into the plan, it shouldn't get the land for free. Maybe we can also look at hauling Stelco's owners to court over the reef, and the Pier 22 infill as well, now that fears of them leaving town have ironically come true.

People like me are told not to talk like this. We are told to work out of sight to realize our goals. This will keep the detente necessary to work with all parties. It will hamper the process to talk frankly.

Yet what is there to save, when decades of effort by most of the reef stakeholders has seen a sleight-of-hand to the side, delaying the cleanup for decades and swelling the budget?

What have we learned from the reef? That we must be safe from naivete in government as much as business needs to be safe from zealous enforcers of environmental law, or we will continue to have situations like we have today where -- when the reef is finally capped and left for others to deal with, and we are justifiably gladhanding each other over the final result -- three decades of environmental justice will be interred with the bones and shame of Randle Reef.

James Howlett lives in Hamilton. He was an adviser to the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes, and serves as a tribunal judge on matters relating to fill and flooding under the Mines and Resources Act.
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