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August 1, 2012 by Andrew Snook

Anyone who has ever commuted across the City of Toronto during rush hour knows how congested the roads and highways become. For that reason, improving public transit in Canada’s largest metropolitan area is always a hot topic.

The creation of the two-phase, 33-kilometre long, Metrolinx Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit Project, which will connect Pearson International Airport with the Kennedy subway station, has the potential to significantly ease congestion across the city.

The  first phase of the project began in 2010 and tunnelling is expected to commence this year. Phase 1 consists of a 19-km long stretch that connects the Kennedy subway station in Toronto’s east end to the intersection of Jane Street and Eglinton Avenue, including 10 km of underground tunnels between Keele Street and Laird Avenue. The project’s expected completion date is 2020. 

Although the project will assist in reducing congestion on the city’s highways and roads, landfills around the city cannot accommodate the volume of excavated soils the project will produce, and the result is costly.

According to a recent study commissioned by the Residential Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario (RCCAO) titled, Eglinton LRT Project: Estimated Costs and Impacts of Addressing Excess Construction Soils, the total volume of soils and fills displaced during the first phase of the project will be approximately 1.5 million cubic metres.

The study states that the cost of managing the excess soils for this project could range from $65 million to $100 million, depending on distance, loads and landfill costs.

With the exception of using the excess soils to create artificial islands in Lake Ontario, landfills are the only large-scale sites that will likely be able to accommodate fill quantities in excess of 100,000 cubic metres.

That said, only 20 to 30 sites around the Toronto area are prepared to accept a few truckloads of soil. The remaining soil may need to be transported to landfill sites within the province that are far from the city, in areas such as Orillia, Kawartha Lakes, Dundalk or Owen Sound, according to the study.

The challenge of managing excess soils in Toronto is not exclusive to the LRT project either; the city’s water and sewer capital program is expected to produce more than 800,000 cubic metres of excess soils by the end of the decade.

Navigating regulations
Frank Zechner, a consultant and environmental lawyer that prepared the RCCAO study, says the main issue surrounding soil disposal stems from regulations created by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) designed to encourage the clean-up of brownfield and other contaminated sites. He says those regulations are being misapplied to excess construction soils that are relatively clean; and some municipalities currently restrict or ban the importation of soils from outside their jurisdictions due to uncertainties in applying the MOE’s regulations governing soil quality and placement.

He says the same regulations for testing protocols for soils are being applied, whether the soil comes from underneath a roadway or an industrial site, and that creates added costs and time delays; often for soils that do not pose any serious hazards.

“In 999 times out of 1,000 it is quite benign and the only higher level in the soil would be higher salt concentrations that would not pose any serious hazard, particularly if it’s not being used as a top-level, cultural soil,” Zechner says.

The MOE are currently working with the RCCAO on an industry-led working group, with a focus on helping industry develop solutions for excess soils movement.

Kate Jordan, a spokesperson for the MOE, says municipalities and conservation authorities have the option of using MOE’s standards when issuing permits or bylaws for fill sites, but those standards may not always be suitable for a project.

“If a municipality is using the ministry’s brownfields standards for overall soil management, they may not accept soil that exceed ministry standards, or in the case of road salt, contains contaminants associated with the use of road salt,” explains Jordan. “Soil that contains road salt contaminants may not be appropriate for certain land use, such as fill sites in rural areas with groundwater sources and well users nearby. In other cases, the ministry’s standards may not necessarily be appropriate.”

The MOE is currently consulting with municipalities, conservation authorities and the construction industry on the draft version of a best management practices document and are working to educate municipalities on the intent of the Brownfields standards. The consultation process also involves optional uses for excess soils.

“There may be other options for managing soils that may be impacted with salt, other than disposal in landfill; and as part of our consultation with stakeholders we will continue to discuss how best to manage excess soils with those involved in managing extraction and fill sites,” says Jordan.

Banking options
One optional home for excess construction soils is to create soil banks, where excess soils are stored temporarily.

In a recent project involving the roadway interchange at Laird Road and the Hanlon Expressway in Guelph, Ont. The City of Guelph used 230,000 cubic metres of recycled fill on the project that it had collected by locally storing soils and gravel from 34 different road jobs over a three-year time period. Banking the soil saved the city approximately $900,000 in trucking and material costs, in addition to reduced greenhouse gas emissions from trucks.

Zechner says soil banking is certainly an option, but it requires having someone step forward that is willing to hold the soil and current regulations under the Environmental Protection Act do not encourage banking or minimize liability for temporary storage.

“They [MOE] are considering some regulations and some modifications to policies on a go-forward basis that might allow what they consider to be a temporary holding; but even those in the succession paper that they released back in April… they’re talking of a magnitude of two or three years of temporary storage, when you’re probably really looking at five to 10 years,” he says.

Zechner says there should be some recognition of the costs associated with the transportation and disposal of soils.

“I don’t think there’s recognition on a municipality-wide basis or a region-wide basis,” he says. “They might be able to shave off  five, six or seven per cent of the capital costs accumulatively over years and years. It gets to be a significant dollar amount.”

Whether it gets banked, sent to a landfill or used for another purpose, one thing is clear: a home needs to be found for Toronto’s excess soils/fills before infrastructure project costs spike from a different kind of gridlock.

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