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Globe & Mail June 22 2000, Thur. - by John Barber
New housing may be resting on an old secret
TORONTO – The first thing you notice about Alessia Circle are the children -- dozens of them swarming over the porches and the lawns of the new brick houses, running heedlessly back and forth across the quiet street. It's like a scene from an earlier age, except that the houses on this solidly Portuguese-Canadian street are new, built just last year.
And the scene below the surface here may not be at all wholesome. The soil under these green lawns is quite possibly contaminated with industrial pollution -- contaminated soil that was never properly cleaned up.
On Tuesday, an engineering company hired by the Ontario Realty Corporation, the provincial government's real-estate arm, reported that it could not determine whether the soil had ever been adequately dealt with after the government sold the land in 1997. So next week, the ORC plans to dispatch a small army of trucks and technicians to Alessia, located just north of Rogers Road in the former City of York, to drill holes and take water samples in an effort to determine the extent, if any, of contamination.
In the wake of revelations of corruption and bid-rigging involving the cleanup of former government lands, Alessia has emerged as the ORC's priority. It is, potentially, a Walkerton-like public-health emergency. Although there have been neither any deaths among the children of Alessia, nor any reports of mysterious illnesses, the link between the dangers they face and the actions of the provincial government is clear. The government has admitted that it has no idea whether the soil on the industrial land it sold in 1997 was properly cleaned before the construction of the 40-odd semidetached houses of Alessia Circle. At the time, it agreed to monitor the process but can't establish whether that was ever done. But its main reason for concern is simple: The job was supposed to have been done by firms owned by the Gabriele family of Woodbridge and Oshawa's Ivan Sirman, companies the ORC is suing for allegedly rigging bids and defrauding it in connection with several other cleanups.
In one case, according to an affidavit sworn by forensic accountant Craig Malcolm of Grant Thornton LLP, the Gabriele family and Mr. Sirman billed the government several hundreds of thousands of dollars -- the exact total is unclear -- for cleanup work in Pickering that it never performed. Mr. Malcolm outlined the complicated Alessia story in a subsequent affidavit. He wrote that the government sold the industrial property, which was once slated for social housing, to a Gabriele-related company, Zenat Holdings Ltd., for $570,000. Zenat immediately transferred it to Mateus Village Inc., a company headed by Frank Gabriele, and began soil remediation.
At about the same time, officials in the City of Vaughan ordered Mr. Gabriele to remove several tonnes of contaminated soil he had dumped in a public park there. The soil Mr. Gabriele dumped in Melville Park smelled of petroleum, according to Vaughan officials.
Mr. Malcolm speculated that the soil dumped in Vaughan had originated on the site where Alessia Circle now stands. Frank and Pierino Gabriele's brother-in-law, Damian Spadafora, has said it went to the Keele Valley landfill. But there is no question that the Gabrieles dumped contaminated soil in Vaughan and were later forced to remove it. Where it then went is a mystery.
"Every house has a child, one or more," Leonor Vaz of 19 Alessia Circle said in a recent interview. It is for the children's sake that she is concerned about the soil here -- and upset about the delays in receiving promised government assurances on the matter. Half of the families who live on the street moved in six months before it was landscaped, she added.
Yesterday the ORC sent a letter to several Alessia residents informing them of the coming tests and assuring them the government will clean up any remaining contamination "at no cost to homeowners."
That gesture pleases Joe Costa of 13 Alessia Circle. The government's action is "better than covering up and saying [the cleanup] was done," he said. But the dangers are still very real, he added.
"It may or may not have been cleaned," he said. "We need to have proof." But that proof is just not available. The state of the soil under Alessia Circle will remain unknown for at least another month, when the testing is completed and the results analyzed. In the meantime, nobody can say how dangerous it is for the children here to make mud pies and play in the puddles.
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