Still a few twists and turns left in tar ponds cleanup journey


Studies never seem to end when it comes to deciding on best method to clean up tar ponds.

By David Johnson
Cape Breton Post
Wed., July 19, 2006

The long and winding road that is the path toward the Sydney tar ponds cleanup became a bit clearer last week with the release of the Joint Panel Review Environmental Assessment Report with respect to the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency's plan to move forward with the long anticipated cleanup of the tar ponds and coke ovens sites.

As mentioned in Tanya Collier MacDonald's story on the report (Panel Issues Cleanup Caution, Cape Breton Post, Friday, July 14,2006) the Joint Review Panel has recommended to both the federal and provincial governments that incineration of contaminated sludge from the sites could be undertaken "without significant adverse environmental effects" provided that appropriate technology selection and stringent operational regulation was followed.

This, of course, was the preferred option advanced by the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. But, in an interesting twist, the panel advised officials in the provincial Department of Environment and the federal Department of Public Works that the risk benefit assessments for such an incineration/encapsulation plan have only been partly met.

The panel carries on to argue that a "complete assessment, including a comparison of risks and benefits to both human health and the environment, may indicate that the 'full containment, no incineration' alternative ... would be a better approach than employing incineration."

And so, as with so many other studies of the tar ponds problem, the Joint Review Panel Report calls for yet more studies to be undertaken, this time of the relative costs and benefits between "incineration/encapsulation" and "full encapsulation."

Before you roll your eyes and say "same old, same old" note the important fork in the road we have come to. The panel has now pared the viable cleanup options down to two. And reading between the lines, there is a strong warning to governments that incineration needs far more study of both its human and environmental costs and benefits before it could be approved.

In calling for further study, the panel is very much calling for a closer look at the "full encapsulation" option, one that the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency had not officially endorsed.

Collier MacDonald's story notes that some concerned citizens residing in the vicinity of the proposed incinerator are upset that the panel did not wholly repudiate the incineration option. Given the mandate of the panel and the widespread use of incineration at other comparable sites, the panel's conclusions on the scientific viability of incineration as a cleanup method are not terribly surprising.

What is important is that the panel has not fully endorsed the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency's cleanup plans. In calling for further review of the "full encapsulation" option, the panel is calling upon senior officials in both the federal and Nova Scotian departments of the Environment and Public Works to seriously look at this other method, with the strong suggestion being that this other method would provide greater benefits and fewer risks to human health and the environment.

The stage is now set for governments to engage in some final studies and to make an historic decision. As tedious as it is to suffer from "tar ponds fatigue" we are finally getting close to the end of this long and winding road. But not everyone will be happy. The tar ponds are a filthy mess with no easy solution. We are very much faced with searching for the least worst viable option.

(David Johnson is a professor of political science at the Cape Breton University. His column and those of his colleagues, Jim Guy, Darrell Kyte and Brian Howe appear weekly on this page. We welcome your comments on this column or any other material appearing in the Post. You can write c/o Letters to the Editor, Cape Breton Post, 255 George St., PO Box 1500, Sydney N.S. BIP 6K6; Fax to (902) 562-7077or e-mail to or davidjohnson@capebretonu. ca)