Cleanup Sees Next Hurdle
Push is on to ink a cleanup deal before events conspire for delay
The Issue: Province Threatens To Go It Alone
There's one obvious reason the Nova Scotia government
wants a Muggah Creek cleanup agreement with Ottawa
in place before the next federal election, which could come
this spring. Prime Minister Paul Martin and his harried
Liberals might conceivably lose or be reduced to a minority, which
could affect priorities. The federal commitment to the cleanup, at
least in principle, is probably safe in any event, since all parties
seem willing to adopt this poster child of industrial blight. But,
even so, the election itself would most likely delay the signing of
any agreement until fall at the earliest, even if Martin wins his
majority. He would still have to organize a new government.
Cleanup promoters have been contending with political
timetables since the Joint Action Group submitted its recommendations
to government almost 10 months ago.
First there was hope that Jean Chretien would add tar ponds
cleanup to his legacy list by completing an agreement before
stepping down late last year as prime minister. That didn't happen.
Then the Question was whether the long-standing federal
commitment to the project would be handed off smoothly to the
incoming administration, a question settled when Martin retained
incumbent David Anderson as environment minister and included
mention of the tar ponds in the February throne speech. This
week the commitment moved another political step to the budget.
Now the trick is to beat the election call with a federal-provincial
agreement on technology, management and funding, and this
race could come down to a photo-finish. The two governments
appear to be working out technology and price - about $400 million
over the better part of the next decade - but they're publicly
at loggerheads over an issue that everyone saw coming: cost split.
There was little new information Thursday from Cape Breton
North MLA Cecil Clarke, the energy minister and provincial point
main for political issues in this region of the island, except for the
rather bizarre threat that the province could go it alone on cleanup
of its own properties if Ottawa continues to balk at paying 70 per
cent of the overall cost.
Anderson has offered 50-50, suggesting that the federal government's
being generous because it really owns only 40 per cent of
the problem. The province insists that Ottawa, in one way or
another, is responsible for the more expensive portions of the
cleanup. The province has presented its case publicly in some
detail; Anderson, meanwhile, avowing disdain for public negotiating,
leaves the federal position looking sketchy and arbitrary, so
that it's easier for people to see the province's point of view.
As a political pressure tactic, Clarke's threat to go it alone can be
applauded. When the cleanup method is essentially decided and
funding is provided for on both sides, it would be unconscionable
to allow the project to stall in the congestion of unrelated political events.
The province declaring that it can remediate its properties
for $160 million is a graphic way of presenting its contention
that Nova Scotia's fair share is 30 per cent.
Yet if the solo threat were to translate into separate provincial
and federal cleanups, with yellow police tape separating the two,
the community would surely revolt in outrage and the rest of the
country would die laughing. We get the point, and we hope Ottawa
does too, but this is posturing. Clarke's threat does however raise
a more cunning notion that by going it alone the province might
elude an onerous and cumbersome federal environmental review.