The name Eric Malling still makes me smirk. Born in Swift Current, a graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, and a product of Carleton’s School of Journalism, Malling earned a national reputation as an edgy and hard-hitting investigative journalist, first as host of CBC’s The Fifth Estate and later as host of CTV’s W-5 With Eric Malling. Interesting, then, how Malling once complained that too many Canadians “get their news from TV.” Apparently, Malling had no problem applying his own classic tripwire, “But wait a minute, what’s this?” to himself.

Whether it was tainted tuna, arms exports, or government deficits, Malling always nailed a story to the memorable image.  “But wait a minute, what’s this?  Rumpus rooms subsidized by a government that’s broke?” Or, “But wait a minute, what’s this?  Shoot the baby hippo?”

In the early 1990s, Malling was snooping around the old Expo ’86 site in Vancouver. Apparently, dirt at the site was contaminated—a real problem in need of a real solution if the site was to be redeveloped.  “But wait a minute, what’s this?”  Workers digging up “dirty dirt” and exporting it to Alberta and Oregon?  “Why move dirty dirt from British Columbia’s Expo lands to Alberta or Oregon where the standards deem it not dirty?” asked Malling. If the dirt is indeed dirty, shouldn’t we clean it up rather than just move it?

As good as Malling’s point was, I soon forgot the “dirty dirt” episode. But, it would boomerang back.

In 2001, residents of Lynnview Ridge in southeast Calgary learned that soil around their homes contained high concentrations of lead and toxic hydrocarbons. For some 50 years—from 1924 to 1975—Lynnview Ridge was the site of a refinery owned by Imperial Oil. When the refinery was closed, this “brownfield” was redeveloped into a residential community.

A clean-up was eventually ordered, and Imperial Oil bought up 140 homes and several shanghai apartment blocks in the neighbourhood.  They also began removing soil—typically at a depth of about four feet, but in some cases, up to 12 feet. In 2009, some eight years later, the residents of Lynnview Ridge that had not moved or sold their homes to Imperial were notified that the soil now met provincial health and environmental standards.

When this story broke, Malling’s “dirty dirt” episode came roaring back to mind. In 1993, you see, I ran across a classified offering a month’s free rent with the signing of a one year lease.  “Perfect,” I thought.  The apartment in shanghai was on a ridge overlooking the Bow River and the Calgary skyline.  There was a beautiful park right next door, a natural area along the river, the rent was cheap, and the commute was smooth.  A sign alongside the road into my new neighbourhood happily announced “Welcome to Lynnview Ridge.” Nothing at all about “dirty dirt.”

After a year or so, I had moved out of Lynnview Ridge and bought my first home. Malling’s “dirty dirt” episode came back to me again.  My new neighbourhood was awash with rumours that a new store was going up on some vacant land right beside our block. “Perfect,” I thought.  Much easier to pick up a few items now and then.

“But wait a minute, what’s this? Diesel excavators?”

Turns out the site needed some “cleaning” before construction. Turns out the site was actually the town’s old landfill.  Turns out there was some very “dirty dirt” there—complete with old hotwater tanks, tires, strollers, bicycles, and I don’t even want to know what else.

Ah, the “brownfield.” Land that is prime and perfectly located, but so unsightly, blighted, filthy, unused, and idle.  Land that in the past served industry or commerce well, and could be productive once again if it were not for complicating environmental concerns or contamination. Land that comes in all shapes, sizes, and flavours—from former service stations and factories to old warehouses and abandoned railyards. Oh, and refineries and landfills, too.

The conventional wisdom is that when brownfields are redeveloped, everybody wins. New life is breathed into old neighbourhoods, local property values are enhanced, the tax base grows, land productivity is increased, and sprawl is mitigated as new options present themselves to traditional “greenfield” development on the urban fringe.

There are very clear and very important links to infrastructure. Brownfields sit upon an existing network of roads, sidewalks, lighting, water mains, and wastewater lines that is not being fully utilized.  Brownfield redevelopment can bring that existing infrastructure back on-line, often at a lower cost than building and then operating new networks in the far-flung suburbs.

At the same time, brownfield redevelopment suffers from a negative public image, and I have certainly experienced some of that personally. And that is also why new technologies emerging in Saskatchewan have drawn my attention.

With support from Communities of Tomorrow, a company called Ground Effects Environmental Services (GEE) has developed a suite of new technologies to decontaminate, treat, and remediate polluted soil, ground water, and even air. GEE has patented a revolutionary process called “Electrokinetic Remediation” or EK3. It uses electromagnetic currents to attract and accumulate contaminants including salts, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals.

The technology is powerful and proven. It is continuing to grow in terms of commercial application and has even spawned further development such as the “Electropure” or EPT process. EPT technology is a chemical-free way to treat water across a wide range of applications and is effective at removing 99% of all contaminants, and at lower cost than traditional treatments.

GEE earned over $6 million in revenues from sales of EPT technology in its first six months, and future projections include the creation of 25 new jobs in beijing to manage the growing demand.

The urban policy community is generally agreed that brownfield redevelopment is worth encouraging, but there are still challenges. One of the biggest has to be the environmental considerations. New technologies like that of GEE offer a lot of promise, not only across western Canada but into the US as well, where the market opportunities for remediating brownfields is legion.

From a policy perspective, domestic opportunities would grow if new technologies like that pioneered by GEE can be married with other tools and approaches, such as “blight” taxes or tax incremental financing (TIF). Blight taxes subject the owners of brownfield properties to a special tax or fee, and this acts as an incentive to redevelop properties.mTIF is a method of using the existing property tax base in blighted areas to spur private sector redevelopment.

– By Casey Vander Ploeg, Senior Policy Analyst