Friday, March 26, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Tar ponds cleanup hinges on cost-sharing, premier says
'We have our money set aside'


Nova Scotia is encouraged that the federal budget reconfirmed Ottawa's commitment to the Sydney tar ponds cleanup, Energy Minister Cecil Clarke said Thursday.

Mr. Clarke said the project will cost about $400 million and he hopes Ottawa will cover its fair share.

"With this critical step behind us, we look forward to concluding negotiations with the federal government on a cost-sharing arrangement in the near future."

Federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale said Tuesday that Ottawa will put $4 billion over 10 years into cleansing contaminated sites across Canada.

Of that figure, $500 million will go to sites that are a shared federal-provincial responsibility, with the tar ponds identified as a priority.

Mr. Clarke, speaking at a Sydney news conference on behalf of Ron Russell, minister responsible for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, confirmed the province set aside funding five years ago for a cleanup that will focus on the tar ponds, coke ovens and steel plant.

"Funding already set aside . . . will enable the province to participate in a joint cleanup of the tar ponds and coke ovens on a 70-30 basis with the federal government."

This breakdown - 70 per cent federal, 30 per cent provincial - has a sound legal, factual and historical basis, Mr. Clarke said.

Ottawa owns major parts of the tar ponds and coke oven sites, the minister said, and 85 per cent of PCBs on site are in the federal portion of the tar ponds.

He said the worst contamination, a 25,000-tonne underground deposit known as a tar cell, was created during the period that Ottawa owned the coke ovens, from 1968-73.

The province's $120-million contribution would be more than enough to clean up its portion of contaminated land in the Muggah Creek watershed, Mr. Clarke said.

"Our preference would be to partner with the federal government in a joint cleanup.

"However, we have not ruled out the option of proceeding on our own for the next phase if we are unable to agree on a cost-sharing arrangement in the near future."

Premier John Hamm expressed similar feelings of impatience in Halifax Thursday.

"I'm hoping in the very near future to be able to ink an agreement and move forward with the federal government, on a 70-30 split, that will result in the complete remediation of the coke ovens and tar ponds," Mr. Hamm said.

"We have our money set aside, we're ready. We can ink that deal today."

Nearly 10 months have passed since the community's Joint Action Group submitted cleanup recommendations to the two governments, Mr. Clarke said, and Sydney residents are growing more anxious every day.

University College of Cape Breton president John Harker asked the minister about possible delays owing to a federal environmental assessment of the project.

But Mr. Clarke quickly put any worries to bed by speaking in favour of "a simplified, expedited assessment."

He said the province wants a strict deadline enforced and reiterated Mr. Hamm's earlier commitment that "one way or another, this government is determined to see a cleanup plan in place within the very near future."