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Expert explores using plants to remediate contaminated sites

Botanic garden advocates hope to transform former waste transfer site

Advocates of creating a botanic garden in the heart of Powell River have organized a presentation about using plants to restore the contaminated former waste transfer site.

Dr. Valentin Schaefer, a biologist and ecologist, is the faculty coordinator of the Restoration of Natural Systems Program that is offered jointly by the School of Environmental Studies and Division of Continuing Studies at University of Victoria. He will be speaking at 5 pm on Monday, November 19 at the Powell River campus of Vancouver Island University. There is a minimum admission fee of $5, to cover the cost of bringing Schaefer to Powell River.

Powell River Botanic Garden Society is sponsoring Schaefer’s visit to the community. Members have been working to create a botanic garden at the former waste transfer site, which is located north of the Willingdon Beach area off Marine Avenue. Diana Wood, president, said the society has close to 180 members. “Lots of hands-on volunteers have signed up to be members,” she said.

The parcel, approximately 10 hectares, was given to the community for park purposes by the province in 1966, but in 1972 a garbage incinerator, which was a pit burner, was built there. It handled household garbage and commercial waste from the region. For several years, it also accepted large quantities of paper from the Powell River paper mill. It operated until the early 1990s, when the ministry of environment ordered it to be shut down due to failure to meet its permit requirements.

The society hopes it can lease the site from the City of Powell River for $1. It is known to be contaminated with heavy metals and Powell River Regional District’s solid waste management plan, which is still waiting for approval from the provincial ministry of environment, has identified it as one of the former landfills in the city that has to be properly closed. The first step in that process is to develop a closure plan, which will include a detailed assessment to identify all sources and types of contamination.

Members of the society see the site as an opportunity to research how plants may be used to remove contaminants, potentially at considerably less cost than other remediation methods, such as transporting the contaminated soils to a secure landfill. At the same time, the society hopes to create an attractive public space. “We’re hoping to convince mayor and council to try something new, which would also be simple and cheap,” said Wood. “It could be such a good example for other places.”

Schaefer and his graduate students undertake research projects in ecological restoration, the most recent of which is Restoring Urban Nature. There is a possibility that Schaefer is interested in using the area as a test site, Wood said. He will be touring the site during the day before his presentation.

Schaefer is a leading proponent of urban ecology and biodiversity who has written extensively and presented internationally on these topics. He and his students provide policy support to the ministry of environment and the District of Saanich.