BLOG: U.S. Steel lands – past, present and future

by Matt Jelly, In The Neighbourhood

This morning it was reported in the Hamilton Spectator that U.S. Steel, owners of the company formerly known as Stelco, is willing to consider selling the huge amount of unused land they own on Hamilton Harbour. As they’ve permanently discontinued Steel and Iron production and become strictly a coke-making operation, they have acres upon acres of waterfront land that will otherwise simply sit unused for the foreseeable future.

A bit of history on this: The Hamilton Harbour Commission (now the Port Authority) sold water lots to companies like Stelco and Dofasco since the inception of the commission in 1912. These were untendered sales at the time, arranged privately between these companies and the Hamilton Harbour Commission, without any public notice, sold at far less than the market value of the time.

These water lots were filled in over the past 100 years- over 2000 acres of our harbour were bought up for cheap by industry and filled primarily with slag- some of it simply on the fly with no permits.

In the map below, everything coloured in yellow used to be a part of our harbour. Underneath Industrial Sector K, there are streams and inlets from our harbour that used to stretch far into the lower city- Sherman, Lottridge, Stipes, Gages, Oggs. (Click on the map for a closer look)

Hamilton Harbour Historic Shoreline Map

Over the years, Stelco deposited 630,000 cubic metres of toxic coal tar into the water, in the area now referred to as Randle Reef, creating one of Canada’s most contaminated sites, in Hamilton harbour at the foot of Sherman Avenue North. Three levels of government are now spending $138.9 Million in public money to clean up the mess, with U.S. Steel (new owners of Stelco) contributing only the steel to build a containment unit for the most volatile material that isn’t safe to dredge. This clean up is expected to take 9 years. No company was ever charged or held accountable since the mess was discovered 25 years ago.

For decades these companies were absolutely a source of stable employment to generations of Hamiltonians- good paying jobs that helped build a lot of the Hamilton we love. But over the past 30 years, most of those jobs have disappeared, and the company has been bought by U.S. Steel, who have now discontinued Steel and Iron production at the Hamilton plant, and consistently appealed obligations made under the Foreign Investment Act. They’ve left thousands of workers worried about their pensions.

Again, It’s a good thing U.S. Steel would consider selling the land to the City, rather than simply put up a fence around the property, as has been done in other cases like this in countless jurisdictions. U.S. Steel has already clarified they’d never sell it to another competitor. Big questions remain about the level of contamination in the land, how much that remediation would cost, and whether it can be used in the future for anything other than industry.

Considering the history of this property, in an ideal world those acres of our harbour would immediately revert back to public ownership- perhaps for the same paltry sums they were sold for back in the day, adjusted for inflation. I know it would never happen but that seems only fair.

In the very least, I hope we consider this history, any time we see a company offloading the toxic externalities of their success onto the public in the name of economic development. The message we’ve sent so far has been “the public will always be there to clean up your mess after you’re done.”

You can listen to a podcast of In The Neighbourhood regarding the former Stelco lands here, including our interview with Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins and City Manager Chris Murray, recorded on location at City Hall on November 6, 2013.

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