Cleanups expected to leave lasting legacy

A look at environmental cleanups underway across Cape Breton as region makes transition from industrial and resource-based economy

Cape Breton Post
By Tom Ayers
Fri., Mar. 19, 2010

In the final instalment of a three-part series, the Cape Breton Post explores the legacy expected to be left behind by environmental cleanups around the island. SYDNEY ó Cleanups across Cape Breton, from the tar ponds and coke ovens sites to the former steel plant and dozens of former coal mines, are expected to leave a lasting legacy that wonít truly be noticeable for some time to come.

Topics :
Sysco , All-Tech , Cape Breton University , Sydney , Cape Breton , Central Park

And while some critics point to the possibility of increased health hazards from the cleanup activities themselves, most officials believe the island will be better off in the long run. Alastair MacLeod, a retired dentist and chairman of the community liaison committee overseeing remediation of the tar ponds and coke ovens sites in Sydney, said the legacy left after that project is finished ó scheduled for 2014 ó wonít be known until the future land-use plan receives public input and meets approval.

However, he added, the brownfield sites in the heart of Sydney will include an active industrial park and at least some parkland. "I donít know what the cleaned up tar ponds will look like in the future, but it will look like a park. I think it will be similar to the creation of Central Park in New York. I see this as a colossal benefit and legacy from the cleanup."

For more than 40 years, officials have been predicting the end of heavy industry and urging Cape Bretoners to transform the islandís economy. It hasnít been an easy sell, and the actual work has been harder still. However, the tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup has already created local employment and economic spinoffs generally, as well as direct employment and financial support through contracts set aside specifically for aboriginal companies.

Among the legacies of the former Sysco steel plant cleanup are the creation of the Harbourside Industrial Park that is filling up with manufacturing and commercial businesses, a series of walking trails through the site connecting Whitney Pier with Sydneyís north end, as well as an outdoor community sports park ó scheduled to open this summer ó that includes a walking track, soccer field and basketball and tennis courts.

Another benefit of the Sysco cleanup has been the ongoing employment of up to 43 former steelworkers either taking part in cleanup activities or working for one of the 14 businesses that have opened in the new industrial park. Only 120 of the 500 acres on the site have been remediated and developed. Further plans around future land use of the overall site are still being developed in conjunction with the tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup project.

Gary Campbell, president of Nova Scotia Lands Inc. which is overseeing the Sysco cleanup, said the tar ponds and steel plant sites are separate projects, but their future use is tied together because of their proximity. The former steel plant site "sits right in the middle of the two, so itís hard to imagine one without the other," he said.

The tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup is scheduled to end in 2014, but there is no deadline for cleanup of the Sysco site, which will continue to be developed as demand for industrial land increases, said Campbell. The tar ponds project has a finite budget and deadline set by the provincial and federal governments, but the former steel plant cleanup is entirely funded by the province, so development will be incremental and dependent partly on revenue potential from tenants and land sales.

By 2009, the Cape Breton Development Corp. said in its latest annual report, 11,000 acres of former coal mine sites had been cleaned up and conveyed to communities for use. An additional 7,400 acres are slated for cleanup, which is expected to be complete by 2012. The Crown corporation, now dissolved and taken over by Enterprise Cape Breton Corp., has also continued to pay millions of dollars in severance, early retirement and other benefits to former employees and will continue to do so under ECBC.

Cleaning up the environment is also a benefit that is self-evident.

Dean Hart, an inspector with the provincial environment department, said a coal mine reclamation project at the former Evans mine near St. Rose, south of Margaree Harbour in Inverness County, has turned a longtime underground coal mine into a greenfield. Wetlands have been restored and vegetation has taken hold, attracting moose, bear and other wildlife. "Itís actually come quite nice," Hart said. "Itís quite a transformation, quite a success story." He said the 200-acre property was converted into a surface mine reclamation project in 2003 and was finished about three years later. Itís now under long-term monitoring by environment and natural resources officials. Itís too soon to say what the overall legacy of Cape Bretonís coal mining past will be, though.

The province imposed a three-year moratorium on surface mine reclamations after approving Pioneer Coalís project at the former Prince Mine in 2006, and last year extended the ban on new surface mines for another three years. What is left at the Point Aconi site wonít be known until the project is finished, but it will likely determine the future of other reclamation projects that may be waiting in the wings.

There are plenty of other former mine sites around the island that need to be cleaned up. "We havenít received any applications for coal mining, not since Pioneer Coal," said Department of Environment inspector Brad Langille. "You get the rumours of companies waiting to see whatís going to happen (in three years). "Weíve had enquiries from people, but nothing actually came to the table in paper."

The cleanups will leave behind knowledge, skills and expertise in environmental remediation among scientists at Cape Breton Universityís centre for sustainability in energy and the environment and through CBUís $1.7-million research chair in mine water remediation. That expertise will also be left with employees and private companies.

One local company, All-Tech Environmental Services, has been so successful at training and hiring local people that it regularly loses employees to other companies and to government. To deal with that, president Terry Smith recently signed a contract with a headhunting firm so he could replace lost employees. He added, though, that All-Techís philosophy is to train and employ people and if they want to move on to bigger and better things, heís OK with that. "Itís actually a pretty good feeling to take someone on after school and see them spin off," said Smith. And once the current cleanups are all done, there will still be more work in Cape Breton ó the Donkin coal mine is one possibility ó and elsewhere.

"Our business keeps evolving," Smith said, noting the tar ponds cleanup is set to end in four years, but the company has more than one project on the go, and with offices across Atlantic Canada, All-Tech is positioned to follow the contracts wherever they are. "At one time we were doing a lot of asbestos management and that turned into mould testing and handling, and thatís now turned into other sensitivities. In 2014, thereís a core group (of employees) thatíll stay here and others may be transferred, but maybe a year or so before the (tar ponds) contract is up weíll start looking for other contracts in other areas."

Billy Graham, a former worker at the coke ovens and the Sysco steel plant now working for All-Tech, said he isnít sure what the long-term legacy will be, but he sees positive signs and is hopeful for the future. He now specializes in abatement work on asbestos, mould and heavy metals and works with several former steelworkers and young people educated at CBU, most of whom are doing jobs that used to be filled by workers imported from the mainland and elsewhere.

"To see well-educated and locally educated and locally employed people on a high-profile job, I think itís wonderful," said Graham, adding itís not all rosy in Cape Breton, but cleanup projects have helped replace some of the 3,500 high-paying jobs that were lost when the steel plant closed. "We do have what will be in the not-too-distant future a comparatively large clean area," he said. "Does one outweigh the other? I donít know." However, Graham added, "to see the cleanup gives me a good feeling, and thatís, I guess, one of the reasons Iím so appreciative of Terry. He has replaced some of those jobs. "Iím really enthused that the cleanup is occurring. I just hope Iím around when thereís a ribbon cutting."

No one yet knows if property values will improve as a result of all the cleanups, but the provincial agency that sets residential and commercial assessments is ready to take that into account. Joe McEvoy, senior policy analyst with the Property Valuation Services Corp., said current property assessments are based on January 2008 values, and the agency examines sales and other data six months on either side of the base date, so there could be a lag of up to 30 months before improvements in a neighbourhood are reflected in property values. With that type of interval, he added, "if there is an impact from remediation, it may not take effect until next year."

History is no indicator of whether property values have been depressed by the environment in Cape Breton, because of the industrial nature of most communities on the island and the number of old company houses and row houses that continue to sell. "It was always a bit of a dilemma because, gee, thereís always been people interested in these properties," said McEvoy. "We watch all the sales that are going on and if Whitney Pier started to pick up because the coke ovens are gone, that is something weíd be aware of."

Environmental remediation is also expected to leave a healthier population behind, eventually.

A Health Canada study in the 1980s showed local cancer rates were higher than those of other regions in the province and the country. And cancer rates are still among the highest in the country here. But, a cancer specialist in Cape Breton said, cleanups and improved lifestyle choices ó such as lower smoking rates ó will help bring cancer rates down.

Dr. Ron MacCormick, a highly respected oncologist with the Cape Breton District Health Authority and medical director of the Cape Breton Cancer Centre, said there is often a lag time of about 20 years between cancer and its causes. Since the loss of heavy industry, the health district has initiated several high-profile community wellness programs and there are more walking trails and healthy living options in the region, said MacCormick. All of that means cancer rates should start coming down soon, he said.

There are several new cancer studies underway, some of which wonít be complete for years. After the launch of one of those studies two years ago, MacCormick said he was optimistic about the future of Cape Bretonersí health. "If Cape Breton has a big improvement in health in the next 20 years, it could be because our environment is being cleaned up," he said at the time, adding recently he still believes local health outcomes will improve.

tayers@cbpost.com