More than a decade after the idea was first proposed, Woolwich councillors remain concerned about allowing a residential subdivision to be built on an Elmira property adjacent to heavy industrial sites.
They’re right to be worried about the ramifications of the Hawk Ridge Homes plan, even if it’s been revised to the point where township planners have signed off on it.
The situation is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, the land is already zoned for residential use, and as an infilling project meets new provincial planning priorities.
On the other, the project promises the potential for years of squabbling and misgivings, not to mention public safety threats and the resultant lawsuits, as the proposal has generated a fair bit of opposition from neighbours.
Both Chemtura (now Lanxess) and Sulco Chemicals, two nearby chemical producers, opposed what was then a 44-unit residential subdivision (it’s now been pared back to 36 units) on the grounds that homes would be within the immediate impact zone should a catastrophic accident occur at either plant. That alone was enough to give the township pause.
Although the worst-case scenario is unlikely to develop, there are greater risks, from smaller-scale leaks or fires to something much more common in Elmira, odour problems. Not to mention noise from the rail line that services those plants – Sulco notes a recent increase in train traffic to its plant, where shunting is carried out between midnight and 4 a.m.
There’s a history of issues surrounding the Union Street industrial area. Chemtura, for instance, was sued by neighbours, eventually agreeing to purchase some of the properties. While the company has all but eliminated odour leaks that were once much more prevalent, there’s no certainty problems won’t arise in the future.
In assessing the subdivision bid, Woolwich would be wise to look at the legal issues: could it be held liable, having approved the subdivision, if at some later date residents there decide to sue over odours or other, more serious health and safety issues? Does the benefit of a small increase in assessment base and a few more tax dollars warrant being dragged into a fight that’s already been played out for years in Elmira? Even neighbourhood headaches over rail and truck traffic are likely to make their way back to council chambers.
Aside from the risks associated with having an industrial area on its doorstep, the proposed subdivision sits in an area with a decades-old history of contamination issues. Since the discovery in 1989 of traces of the carcinogen N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) in Elmira’s groundwater, there have been numerous incidents and investigations of contaminants under the surface of land in that area.
Not just the Lanxess site – Uniroyal at the time of the initial NDMA crisis – but later Varnicolor Chemical and the Nutrite fertilizer site, which are immediate neighbours of the old apple orchard where Hawk Ridge Homes hopes to build.
At the Varnicolor site, some 5,000 barrels of waste were discovered, along with chemical storage tanks and contaminated soil. About 583 drums were found to be leaking on site. Those contained paints, solvents, non-hazardous and hazardous wastes. The chemicals there had the potential to cause leukemia, birth defects and internal bleeding, as well as liver, kidney and eye damage.
More than a decade ago, Chemtura and the owners of the former Nutrite plant were made to install an ammonia treatment plant after that chemical was found in groundwater under the area.
It would not be surprising, therefore, if we were to discover more toxins under the ground there, a situation that could be complicated by the presence of a subdivision.
There are more than a few issues to be resolved, and it’s not as though there’s a shortage of new homes being built in Elmira.