City of Winnipeg crews knock down walls of business destroyed in February fire — but rubble pile remains

City of Winnipeg crews began knocking down the walls of a Main Street business destroyed by fire earlier this year, but the owner says the pile of rubble that has been a blight on the neighbourhood for months will remain for the foreseeable future as a dispute with the province over the cleanup drags on.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news — there’s nothing happening at this point with the city, other than that they are just ensuring that nothing falls right, left or centre,” said Robert McDonald, owner of Surplus Direct.

On Wednesday, an excavator ripped down parts of the brick walls left after a Feb. 11 fire destroyed the Surplus Direct building on Main north of Jarvis Avenue, as well as two neighbouring businesses.

Crew members wore white hazardous materials suits as they hosed the debris with water on Wednesday.

The city issued demolition permits for the buildings that housed the neighbouring businesses — Top Pro Roofing and Lord Selkirk Furniture — but the provincial government issued a stop-work order for the Surplus Direct building, saying tests it commissioned showed evidence of significant asbestos-containing material in the rubble.

McDonald questions the validity of the province’s testing. 

A man stands in front of a building that has been partially destroyed.
Robert McDonald, owner of the Surplus Direct building, is shown in a July photo. He says his tests showed only small amounts of asbestos in one sample, below the threshold set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

He hired Imrie Demolition to do the work, which contracted the environmental consulting company HLC Consulting to test for asbestos. Asbestos fibres have been linked to a variety of respiratory illnesses and cancer.

Out of 20 samples taken from brick mortar, debris, wall panelling, insulation and roofing materials from a variety of locations, one showed signs of asbestos, McDonald said.

Subsequent testing showed the asbestos content as 0.1 per cent — below the point at which waste is technically considered “asbestos-containing material” under the province’s guidelines, according to a copy of HLC Consulting’s report on its findings, which McDonald previously provided to CBC News. 

Despite those test results, McDonald said the province ordered its own tests, with two out of seven samples showing high levels of asbestos. However, McDonald said the province’s samples didn’t indicate which materials were sampled, or where they came from.

“There’s a whole bunch of things that are not right, what went on there. So I’m at best very, very unsure of their findings,” he said.

Demolition deadline not met: city

The cost of a standard demolition would be about $200,000, McDonald said. But safely demolishing a building believed to contain asbestos — which involves soaking the material in water before moving it to prevent dust flying into the air — would double the cost, he said.

A provincial government spokesperson confirmed the province conducted its own testing, which showed the presence of asbestos. Given the age of the buildings — built in the 1950s — “Manitoba’s laws assume suspect materials as containing asbestos unless proven otherwise,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

“It is important to note that a single positive finding is sufficient to confirm the presence of asbestos.”

The provincial spokesperson added that the City of Winnipeg “engaged Workplace Safety and Health prior to the work occurring to ensure appropriate measures were in place.”

A person wearing a hazardous materials suit is spraying water from a hose. An excavator is working in the background.
Crew members wore white hazardous materials suits as they hosed the debris with water on Wednesday. The province says tests it commissioned showed evidence of significant asbestos-containing material in the rubble. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The city says it stepped in to take down the walls after McDonald did not comply with deadlines for demolition.

“As a result, the city will intervene and conduct demolition work at this property in the coming days to mitigate safety risks,” City of Winnipeg spokesperson Kalen Qually wrote in an email.

The city’s costs for taking down the walls, which McDonald estimates will be about $15,000, will be passed on to him. 

“So I’m getting pushed by the city, I’m pushed back by the government,” he said. “It’s like kind of chasing my tail, and it’s very frustrating.”

‘Eyesore’ for residents

Sheila Stevenson, who lives in an apartment building south of the Surplus Direct store, says dust from the rubble pile poses a health hazard to the residents.

“These old people that live here, they’re asthmatic,” she said. “They came out here with their mask, because the wind is blowing this way.”

Catherine Flynn, the acting chair of the Point Douglas Residents Committee, says the Main Street site is just one example — along with the former Vulcan Ironworks warehouse on Sutherland Avenue — of buildings destroyed by fire in the neighbourhood that have been left for months.

“It looks really bad,” she said. The remaining rubble is also “a daily reminder of … these fires that happen in our neighborhood, and they’re super upsetting and they’re traumatic for a lot of people.”

McDonald acknowledges the rubble is an “eyesore.”

The exterior of a brick building that's been heavily damaged by a fire.
The rubble left following the fire is shown in a July 2023 photo. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

“I want this cleaned up for the citizens of this area. I mean, it’s not fair to them having this there for seven months,” he said.

He said he has offered to have the site retested. Otherwise, he’s prepared to go to court to fight the province’s stop-work order — a process that would all but ensure the pile of rubble stays there for months to come.