Long-delayed Sulphur Springs repair may (or may not) be imminent

Sulphur Springs Drive, in North Pelham, which runs between Effingham Street and Roland Road, just south of Short Hills Provincial Park, may finally be getting critical repairs to rejoin the roadway which was washed out and collapsed in May 2016, and has been closed since.

But it took a gambit by Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin to move the project ahead.

With a narrowing window of time to get the work underway, and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) needlessly dragging its feet, to some eyes, on providing the necessary permit to allow the work to proceed, Junkin contacted CHCH-TV in Hamilton and mustered a press conference on-site last Saturday to convey the sense of urgency which prevails regarding the road repair. The construction is complicated by the fact that the roadway abuts the headwaters of Twelve Mile Creek, an ecologically sensitive waterway in Niagara that supports an array of aquatic life, including fish which spawn in the stream.

“Because the Town was committed to building a community centre at the time for $36 million dollars, we did not have the funds to repair the road in 2016,” said Junkin, noting that the initial estimated cost of the rehabilitation back then was between $400,000 and $500,000—with the figure today to be significantly higher.

Because the Town was committed to building a community centre at the time for $36 million dollars, we did not have the funds to repair the road in 2016

“So the road was closed,” said Junkin. “We got the community centre built, and the Town is getting to the point where our financial situation is improving, and we could afford to finally give the citizens back their road.”

Repairs to another long-closed road, Poth Street, were similarly delayed for budget reasons, and undertaken in 2019 after a two-year wait.

The Town of Pelham issued a design-build project tender in May 2020, and the job was won by Duffin Contracting, a local company. “And then we applied for permits—and that, unfortunately, is where things hit a roadblock,” said Junkin.

Junkin told CHCH-TV, along with a small throng of onlookers, that the Duffin team had undertaken this kind of work before, and knew what had to be done.

“They hired an engineering firm from Guelph that had experience with this sort of project, and they came up with a very modern fix for this problem, a design method being used in the U.S and Europe.”

Duffin Contracting submitted a request for a permit to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which was necessary given the roadway’s close proximity to Twelve Mile Creek.

“They got the permit right away,” said Junkin. “Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they didn’t receive the same cooperation from the two local agencies, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority [NPCA] and the Niagara Escarpment Commission [NEC]. The Town realizes, as does the contractor, that this is a highly sensitive area ecologically. The contractor took that into consideration in their planning, and that, of course, is why the Department of Fisheries had no problem with the design.”

The Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans provided a work timeframe from July 15 to September 15, so that construction would not disrupt trout spawning in the adjacent creek.

“So here we are at August 14,” said Junkin, “and because of the delays, we’re already a month behind the starting date. It was unfortunate that most of the inquiries from NPCA came a week before we were supposed to get the permit. We thought we were very close to having a permit. We hadn’t had any feedback. And then a week before the work is supposed to begin, the questions started. The contractor responded with prompt replies, and often a week would go by before they heard back from the NPCA, usually with another set of conditions to be met. So it was getting to be quite frustrating.”

The Voice has learned that behind the scenes Junkin believed that the environmental advocacy group Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC) was the primary driver behind the continued delays, with their apparent intent being to run out the clock on work being able to start this season.

In a July letter to the editor published in the Voice, TUC Chair Dennis Edell made clear his organization’s preference.

“A road washout is often not a desirable thing but, in this case, there was an unintended benefit,” wrote Edell. “A route favoured by weekday heavy truck traffic and weekend motorcycle riders was transformed into a quiet. naturalized walking or cycling path. And in the years since the road has been closed, many streamside residents express preference for the current situation. Trout Unlimited had hoped that a bike and hike trail would become the new normal. We advocated for this option to Pelham Town Council and the Active Transportation Committee. But to no avail. The Town is determined that road traffic should be restored.”

Trout Unlimited had hoped that a bike and hike trail would become the new normal

Despite being given repeated opportunities for comment over the weekend, Edell declined to answer when asked whether Trout Unlimited had engaged in lobbying intended to deliberately prevent the project from going forward this season.

In the face of continued delays, and as the roadway has continued to deteriorate, Mayor Junkin had recently said that because safe passage of fire-fighting equipment could no longer be guaranteed, he was prepared to declare a state of emergency, which would permit the Town to authorize the repair work with or without approval by other agencies.

Pelham Fire Chief Bob Lymburner tells the Voice that as of now there are two additional routes of entry, but “if site two washes out then we will have an issue.”

Asked for comment on the lengthy approval delay, NPCA spokesperson Erika Navarro told the Voice that the agency first received the application on March 31.

“However it was incomplete and missing critical details,” asserted Navarro. “Since then, NPCA staff have spent substantial time guiding the applicant on various technical requirements to expedite completion of this permit application.”

Project Manager Kim Duffin pushed back, providing the Voice with voluminous copies of email exchanges with the NPCA dating back over a year, and asserting that the firm had met every new demand in a timely manner—often working overnight.

“I take strong objection to the claim that we only submitted a complete application on August 11th,” said Duffin. “The NPCA continuously put up roadblocks, telling us that they wanted to see items on the drawings that we quickly did and accommodated their requests immediately. It seems to be a common practice of the NPCA to say that an application is ‘incomplete’ when they wish to stall the project and not issue the permit in a timely fashion.”

The goal of the NPCA for whatever reason—we think it is because Trout Unlimited wants the road to remain closed—was to stall our application

Duffin asserted that the Authority sought to stop the project on spurious grounds.

“The goal of the NPCA for whatever reason—we think it is because Trout Unlimited wants the road to remain closed—was to stall our application, because they are aware that we have a tight window for working near the stream from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.”

NPCA spokesperson Erika Navarro countered that the Authority was not swayed by Trout Unlimited.

“In general, [TUC] has only ever mentioned this site as an example of the increase in erosion the system is experiencing,” Navarro said. “I do understand they have been raising awareness about the issue, but it’s very important to note that [TUC] has had no influence on our planning review and permitting duties and processes.”

Junkin explained how he broke the deadlock.

“[On Friday], I informed the NPCA that Channel 11 News was coming down to do a story on-site. Two and a half hours later, we received an email from the CEO of the NPCA, and son-of-a-gun, the permit was ready [pending approval from NEC]. I wish I had done this three weeks ago.”

With the permit from the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans, and the NPCA signalling approval contingent on NEC approval, the final step is to receive the go-ahead from the NEC. Junkin said he has been assured by NEC Director Kim Peters that the project meets their requirements and will be approved. Junkin said he planned to send an email to the NEC, asking them to expedite the process at their end.

“Hopefully, within days we can have the contractor in here so we can give these residents their road back. I know that [Duffin] is going to get on the job, and will be here from sunrise to sunset. I’m hoping that they can still get it done within the allotted time frame.”

Contractor Bill Duffin described the job as a significant engineering challenge, given that there are actually two streams in the equation—the Twelve Mile Creek headwaters, and the Sulphur Spring stream, which is primarily responsible for degrading the narrow, undulating, four-metre-wide roadway.

Sulphur Springs Drive resident Dr. David Stark at the impending construction site. DON RICKERS

“I wanted to start in May of this year, to do the dewatering for the road,” said Duffin. “We plan to install a culvert to catch all the surface water, and a French drain system along the side, which will take the underground water. We need ditches as well. If this work had been done in May when it was scheduled, the ground would be dry now. Presently, it’s unstable—a heavy construction machine could slide right down into the creek bed. And there are overhead high-voltage wires which need to be lifted to allow the machines to work safely.”

The project will necessitate excavating the roadway to a depth of about eight feet, and rebuilding it in layers with a special plastic grid and compacted gravel before applying an asphalt topcoat. “This whole area is deemed as swamp soil. It’s not compactable—it’s all organic vegetation, which needs to be removed to provide stability for the roadway,” said Duffin. “We are not changing the grade of the road, or its contour, or its width, or anything to do with the footprint.”

This whole area is deemed as swamp soil. It’s not compactable—it’s all organic vegetation, which needs to be removed to provide stability for the roadway

Paula Diamond has resided on Sulphur Spring Drive for 22 years, and expressed frustration that people continue to access the barricaded roadway, on bikes and motorcycles, and also on foot. “The road isn’t safe. I was after [the Town] to put up more barriers and whatnot. But I’m happy the road is being repaired. I need access to my woodlot up on the other side.”

Dr. David Stark, a semi-retired physician, has lived for 24 years on Sulphur Springs, and has witnessed the deterioration of the roadway, and its ultimate closure five years ago, which adds a 10-minute drive to his trip into town.

“The biggest concern is access of emergency services like fire and ambulance,” said Stark. “Getting emergency vehicles up here is a very difficult process, and they have no place to easily turn around. It’s a narrow road—it’s treacherous. You need to be really careful.”

The road blockage has forced Stark and his neighbours to transport their garbage a quarter of a mile down the road for pickup. He describes the delays in repairing the road as “a case of paralysis by analysis,” involving multiple layers of government intervention. But he praised the Mayor’s actions throughout the process.

“Marv [Junkin] has been amazing, forthcoming and straightforward, and very approachable. I’m just glad to see that this is finally coming to fruition.”

Reflecting on the natural beauty and abundance of wildlife along the roadway, Stark said, “This is a very sacred place to me, as an environmentalist. My first university degree was in the biological sciences, so I understand the concept of the ecosystems that are at play out here. We’ve even got a resident Great Blue Heron that fishes in the creek.”

Stark noted that Sulphur Springs was featured in an article in the St. Catharines Standard back in the late 1990s, “and was considered one of the most scenic drives in the Niagara Peninsula. The fall colours are spectacular.”