Brownfield Glossary

If you want to be more informed about brownfield terminology (and we generate a lot of it!), read on to learn definitions of some common words/phrases.

  • Brownfield:  a brownfield is an abandoned, vacant, derelict or underutilized commercial or industrial property where past actions have resulted in actual or perceived contamination and where there is an active potential for redevelopment.
  • Greenfield:  land that has never been used or developed.  Among other uses, greenfields may be agricultural land, conservation areas or parks.  As greenfields become scarcer in urban areas, or as people recognize the need to preserve the natural environment, brownfields present an alternative.
  • Redevelopment:  the process by which a brownfield property can again become useful.  This may be an interim use (such as a parking lot, park or a brightfield) or a final use (e.g. a shopping mall, commercial building or condominium/apartment building).
  • Contaminant:  a substance present on a brownfield site that poses or may pose a danger to human health and/or the environment.  Most provinces provide a listing of contaminants as part of their brownfield regulations.
  • Contaminant migration:  some contaminants may move, or migrate, from the original site to an adjacent property.  This can occur with vapours or liquids and can result in contamination of the adjacent property.
  • Remediation:  cleaning up contamination on a property to an acceptable standard so it can be reused.
  • Phytoremediation:  the use of plants to remove contaminants from soil.  A plant’s roots draw nutrients from soil.  In some instances, they can also draw aerosolized contaminants into the plant material.  While slow, this can be a viable method of remediating a brownfield.
  • Acceptable standard:  while it might seem desirable to completely remove a contaminant of concern from a site, this is not always possible.  Many provinces have established a level of contamination for a variety of substances so they do not present an unacceptable risk.  This is the acceptable standard.  The level that’s considered acceptable may vary from province to province, and some municipalities may have standards that are more stringent than the provincial ones.  In addition, standards may change over time, as the science dictates. Standards usually vary by municipal zoning; in general, residential is more stringent, while agricultural, commercial and industrial land use, which are progressively more exact.
  • Risk assessment:  the process of determining what contaminants are present at a brownfield, where they are, and the concentrations in which they are present.  A risk assessment usually is carried out by a properly qualified person.
  • Qualified person:  a person who is knowledgeable about contamination and remediation.  In some provinces, such as Ontario and BC, there is a statutory definition of what constitutes a qualified person.
  • Risk management measures:  where a contaminant cannot be completely eliminated from a site, processes are put in place to mitigate any risk.  These might be passive (for example, a hard cap of a specific thickness can be used to manage the risk of a contaminant becoming airborne) or active (e.g. continual monitoring of a site for contaminants of concern to ensure that risk management objectives are being met).
  • Hard cap:  the use of asphalt or concrete of a specific thickness to stop aerosolized contaminants from entering the air.  A hard cap is an example of a risk management measure.
  • Interim use:  sometimes, complete remediation of a brownfield doesn’t make economic sense.  For instance, a contaminated property might be purchased cheaply, but the cost of remediation would exceed what the property would be worth after clean-up.  In these cases, the property will be environmentally assessed to ensure there is no unacceptable risk to human health or the environment. The property might also be partially remediated and/or risk management measures implemented so the property can be put to a temporary, or interim, use.  An example of this would be a brownfield in a small community that is turned into a parking lot.
  • Brightfield:  an example of interim use, a brightfield is a property that is used for solar or wind-power generation.
  • Polluter pays:  the Supreme Court of Canada has held that the polluter pays principle is “a well-recognized tenet of Canadian environmental law”.  The polluter pays principle assigns to polluters the responsibility of remedying the environmental damage for which they are responsible.
  • Public consultation:  in many instances, redevelopment of a brownfield cannot take place until a process known as public consultation has occurred.  A public consultation is the opportunity for the owner/developer to explain how they intend to use the property and the steps they plan to take to remediate it and manage any remaining risks.
  • Zoning hearing:  a formal process conducted by a municipality where a change in the zoning of a property, including a brownfield (e.g. from industrial to commercial or residential), is requested by the developer or property owner.  While the process can be very similar to a public consultation, it has the express purpose of determining whether a zoning change will be granted.
  • Excess soils:  soil that is removed from a brownfield or former brownfield because, for a variety of reasons (not necessarily because it is contaminated), it cannot or will not be reused there.
  • Dig and dump:  the process of digging up contaminated soil, transporting it for final deposit to an authorized waste handling facility.  In all provinces, both the transportation and the waste handling facilities are subject to regulation.  Dig and dump is recognized as a high cost method of remediation, both in terms of dollars and GHG emissions, but it offers certainty to owners, because contaminants of concern are removed from their sites and transferred to secure waste handling facilities. In some areas, the availability of waste handling facilities is an issue.
  • In situ remediation:  in some cases, soil can be remediated while remaining in place on a brownfield site. 
  • Ex situ remediation:  sometimes, the contaminated soil cannot be remediated in place, so it is excavated and remediated on-site or moved to a third-party location for remediation and later reuse on-site or on another property.
  • Soil vapour intrusion:  certain volatile contaminants in the soil can enter overlying buildings or the air above a site as a vapour and, in some cases, can cause air quality concerns. There are a variety of ways of dealing with soil vapour intrusion.


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