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CA 1.25 million tonnes of radioactive waste

Property Here - Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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By Brian Slemming

Port Hope is as close as you can get to how a small Ontario town looked when Queen Victoria ruled the waves. It has been described by historical architects as having the “best preserved 19th-century streetscape” in Ontario. It has a population of almost 17,000 and is approximately 100 km east of Toronto.

It markets itself as a weekend get-away destination with its famous Capital Theatre and a fine selection of restaurants, antique stores and B&Bs. While a small new subdivision is being developed on the west side of the town, the bulk of the properties are large heritage-type homes built around the turn of the century. In almost every respect Port Hope is a desirable area in which to settle. Apartment dwellers in the Greater Toronto Area looking for individual homes with a private garden should be heading to Port Hope to find their residential dream home. Realtors should be deluged with potential buyers. But, the town has a big problem. A problem that impacts the area’s real estate industry and will not go away. It began in 1932, when Eldorado Gold Mine opened a radium refining facility in town. Radioactive residue from the processing was stored not just on the refining site, but at a variety of sites in and around the town. Worse, many sites became contaminated from accidents and spills, but no record of these radioactive waste dispersals were kept. Eighty years later, most of the disposal areas, officially designated as “low-level radioactive waste” have been identified. The residue remains scattered through residential neighbourhoods.

In 2011 Dr. Helen Caldicott came to town. She is an internationally recognized anti-nuclear activist and author whose controversial statements were seized on by most media outlets. On that visit, Caldicott guaranteed headlines by advising residents to evacuate the town because “that radioactive waste will leak into the water for the rest of time”. The displaced residents, according to Caldicott, should then “sue the federal government.”

David Turck, a Port Hope councillor and sales rep with Royal LePage Pro Alliance Realty said, following Caldicott’s warnings, “This is not the first time we have had dealings with Dr. Caldicott. The fact is, low-level active waste is being responsibly handled.”

The furor set back the town’s real estate market and a variety of local Realtors detailed for REM a litany of sales difficulties. But there was a plan to tackle the problem.

The federal government established the Port Hope Area Initiative (PHAI) to resolve the situation. To no one’s surprise, PHAI is not clearing the town of residents, but it is clearing the town of a lot of contaminated soil. What’s a lot? Try one and a-quarter million tonnes.

When digging begins, the forecast from PHAI is that 409 trucks a day will be at work throughout the small town. The fleet of trucks will take away contaminated soil and replace it with new clean dirt. The contaminated soil is being moved to a prepared site  that was once a scrap metal business on the north-eastern side of the town.

The historic accumulation of radiated waste and the subsequent clean-up is once again causing upheaval in the local real estate market. The problem has been recognized by the PHAI and a “Property Value Protection Program” (PVP) has been devised.

Councillor/Realtor Turck described the program’s basics: “When a potential client asks me for a valuation I look at what the true value would be if the clean-up was not going on. I look at comparable properties in the municipality and in Cobourg. (a neighbouring community six miles west of Port Hope). That is the value I give. I then must explain the federal government’s compensation program. Under the PVP, vendors who must reduce their asking price because of the clean-up can file an appeal to the PHAI for compensation for any losses sustained by lowered prices.”

Turck says: “If the property is in a designated area or on a truck route we can ask for a resale appraisal. The appraiser can be selected by the vendor. After the appraisal, a price point is established at which the appraiser believes the property will sell. Then the Realtor can start to market the property at that price-point. If, after four weeks, the property has not sold, the price can be reduced by five per cent. The vendor cannot accept an offer for lower than 10 per cent during that period.”

That process repeats every four weeks until the property is sold. Provided the conditions have been adhered to, when the property is sold at a lower price, the PHAI makes a settlement with the vendor.

“If a property was listed at $250,000 and it eventually sold for $130,000, my commission would be on the final selling price and would not include any portion of the PHAI settlement.” Turck has mixed feelings about the program. “It provides some guarantees for the vendor and it certainly requires additional work for both the vendor and for the Realtor. The Realtor, however, is not properly compensated for that extra work and earns commission on a lower amount.”

Tony Dekeyser of Century 21 All-Pro Realty, president of Cobourg Port Hope Real Estate Board, says: “I know some (Realtors) want some compensation for the losses in revenue and in recognition of the extra work, but I believe that is beyond our control. It is the federal government who makes the rules.”

Prices in Port Hope are about $30,000 to $40,000 lower than those in neighbouring Cobourg for similar properties. What frightens the industry is that the worst may not yet have happened. Those 400 trucks filled with radioactive waste have not started their journeys around town. Special routes have been designated that keep the truck traffic out of the town centre, but people in many residential areas will have to get used to the sight of tightly sealed trucks filled with radioactive material passing by their front door. When that happens prices may go into free fall. A local paper suggested that when the trucks move it may be hard to give property away.

Local agents say that’s not likely to happen, but many are bracing for a harder task in listing and selling Port Hope properties.

For a small town that got good news in 1932 there’s been a lot of bad news since, and it doesn’t look to get much better in the immediate future.