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A nose-crinkling aroma of tar, asphalt and chemical solvents wafts through the air as demolition experts clear away the burned-out remains of a former shingle-making plant.

The factory closed six years ago and the owners are long gone. The 3.2-hectare site has become a magnet for vandals, blamed for four fires in as many years. The city is owed $800,000 in taxes and earns no revenue at all.

What remains, though, is frustration for city officials and residents.

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"I find it incredible that this is in the middle of a residential area," said Brantford City Councillor Marguerite Ceschi-Smith, surveying the scene. "There's no way that anyone should have to live with this."

Pearl Street resident William Doucette, who has lived 14 years beside the property whose owners included Domtar Ltd. and Northern Globe Building Materials, is also impatient.

"I hear they want to tear it down to the ground and sell it, maybe for a green area," said Mr. Doucette, who called in the alarm for the latest fire on May 16. "Something's got to happen."

But will it?

That question will put Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Chris Hodgson in the hot seat when he speaks to the annual meeting of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario here on Monday.

In May, he introduced legislation that promised simpler rules on environmental liability, planning and financing to help municipalities revive derelict sites in their urban cores. The legislation is a cornerstone of the government's "smart-growth" planning philosophy that aims to counter urban sprawl.

But municipal officials, Ms. Ceschi-Smith among them, say Bill 56 falls short in giving communities such as hers the tools to do the job.

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"It's tweaking around the edges," she said, compared to what is needed to tackle 15 polluted sites that scar her city's centre.

"If they [the government]don't help us deal with brownfields, they are still going to be there and they are still going to cost money, cause fires and be dangerous."

She argues that the government offers too few financial incentives and too little time for municipalities to do the necessary cleanup to make the land attractive to developers.

Niagara Region chairwoman Debbie Zimmerman, whose government is experimenting with incentives to spur brownfields redevelopment, said the proposed bill is a "huge litmus test" for the government's smart growth policy.

"To me, we won't be able to meet smart-growth principles without using brownfield areas as redevelopable land," she said.

Local politicians, developers and environmental lawyers praise the government for making some effort on brownfields, but all agree that the legislation's weakest link is the absence of protection for municipalities, lenders and possible buyers from civil lawsuits if they enter abandoned, polluted sites.

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Mr. Hodgson conceded that the liability issue is key and promises to consider improvements to the bill, scheduled for public hearings some time before the legislature returns on Sept. 24.

"We want this to work," the minister said. "I'd be willing to hear any of their suggestions on how we can make it better."

The obstacles to brownfield redevelopment in Brantford, as elsewhere, are financial and legal.

Brantford has no legal or legislative grounds to enter the contaminated property. If it did, it would be at risk for for all cleanup costs on and off site.

When the May 17 fire broke out, said Ms. Ceschi-Smith, "we had to use extreme measures."

Doug Sider, Brantford's medical health officer, cited a little-used provision of the provincial health act to order the city, as an agent of the Ministry of Health, to enter the site. Under that order, the city took on no liability for the polluted site.

So far, the city has spent about $1-million cleaning it up, wiping out its brownfields reserve fund.

Real-estate developer Mitchell Faskin, president of Jannock Properties, which has redeveloped a number of former industrial sites in the Toronto area, served on the government's 14-person advisory panel on brownfields.

"The government's proposals go a long way to addressing some of the financial concerns," Mr. Faskin said. "It will help to bring some lenders in very limited credit-risk situations." He said he and others hope to push the government to improve on the proposed legislation to add some protection from civil lawsuits.

Mr. Faskin said there is no intention to back off on the long-standing environmental principle of "polluter pays," but he said the legislation should more clearly distinguish between actual polluters and innocent parties who want to transform the site.

"If the polluter no longer exists or where a bona fide, arms-length purchaser comes in and cleans it up, they should not be responsible for civil liabilities from any off-site impact," he said.

Pollution Probe executive director Ken Ogilvie, another member of the advisory panel, said the government has to balance protection of the environment and incentives to clean up polluted lands.

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