Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Reclaiming the gas station

Paolo Mussone has a new way to turn old gas stations into vibrant community hubs

In every abandoned gas station, NAIT researcher Dr. Paolo Mussone sees a new playground or a thriving business.

“There are tens of thousands of sites just like this that are scattered throughout the Prairies and British Columbia as well, and many of them are in urban centres,” says Mussone. The contaminated sites can’t be developed, remaining empty eyesores for communities, financial drains on landowners and environmental liabilities.

The Edmonton-based chemical engineer has been working with soil scientists at the University of Saskatchewan and Federated Co-op, which owns some of these sites, to reclaim land contaminated by old, leaky fuel tanks, using bacteria that occurs naturally in the soil. The remediation method is less invasive and far less expensive than the alternative – digging out all the contaminated soil. And it’s much faster than letting the hydrocarbons degrade on their own, which can take decades, he says.

Hungry for hydrocarbons

Feeding them a low-dose formula of fertilizer makes the bacteria hungry. When the fertilizer supply is stopped, the hungry bacteria resort to eating the hydrocarbons that contaminate the soil, remediating the site in a few years, instead of decades. The result is land that can be redeveloped and used by owners and surrounding communities much faster.

Mussone and his colleagues at NAIT’s Centre for Sensors and System Integration built sensors to monitor the bacteria and track how quickly the hydrocarbons are degrading. The team is experimenting with the technique and the sensors at an old fuel storage site owned by Federated Co-op in Saskatoon. They hope to expand their work this spring to contaminated sites in Stony Plain, just west of Edmonton.

Eventually, Mussone hopes to see the technology used across Western Canada, where similar sites continue to hinder community-building efforts. “Contamination is a legacy that our generation is leaving for the next,” says Mussone. “It’s important that our generation does something about it, so we don’t hand over a major economic, as well as environmental, liability.”

Changing the urban landscape

In a city like Edmonton, which has about 200 of these abandoned sites, changing that legacy could change the urban landscape for the better. Making contaminated land suitable for residential redevelopment in the urban centre could lead to decreased sprawl, says the researcher. “It will be a driver for a better urban environment.”

Federated Co-op has already tested the technology at an old gas station in Saskatoon that had been leaking for 20 years. A few years later, the land had been remediated and is now home to a commercial retail space.

“The company was able to clean it up in less than 4 years with minimal intervention,” says Mussone. “The community that lives around that space now has a hub instead of a black hole.” 

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