First pond grass promised soon

Officials in charge of the big Sydney cleanup hope to see a portion of the solidified tar ponds seeded with grass this fall.

Cape Breton Post
By CB Post Staff
Fri., Jul. 23, 2010

Appropriately enough, it wont be quite what you think of as grass not right away. A completed portion of the cap will have hydroseed applied, the sort of stuff you notice along new stretches of highway. Its a mulch of grass seed and nutrients, often dyed to a not-quite-natural-looking greenish hue.

Its good stuff, quicker and surer than seed alone to get established on exposed ground. But, like everything else about the tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup, even the grass will owe its very birth to an engineered application.

This pervasive sense of artificiality, of human intervention and manipulation in some attempt to mimic nature in the final result, is part of what makes it difficult for people even now to imagine the finished product as something that they will come to think of as just part of the local environment.

Embedded in original notions of the cleanup was the idea that the bad stuff would be removed and disposed of somehow, and then the reclamation would be more or less up to Nature, with a helping hand to speed things along. The ideal was restoration of the estuary, water and all, as it had been in the 19th century before the steel plant was established. The actual result will be nothing like that. The ponds are being filled in and solidified, and even the watercourses will be mapped out and built by engineers.

Unrealistic expectations at the outset, which were allowed to persist for too long without effective challenge from those with a more realistic grasp of the likely solutions, contributed to the sense of disappointment which lingers over the actual cleanup to this day. Critics say it is not a cleanup at all but a cover-up of the problem, though containment and management are a common and accepted remediation approach at contaminated industrial sites around the world.

Meanwhile, the cleanup contractors soldier on as part of what appears to be a well co-ordinated operation after some initial organizational problems. With stabilization and solidification of the south pond approaching completion nearest the heart of Sydney, the most bothersome part of the project for residents living on the perimeter in particular, the odour problems that started back in March should be about over.

Odour complaints prompted an apparent flurry activity, including a directive from the provincial environment department, and perhaps all that has made a difference. But, given that the work was being done in the open in warm weather, the only sure solution was to get the job done and get out of the south pond without delay.

The Sydney cleanup has had more key stages than the Tour de France but surely the first grass over the tar ponds will be another one, a moment when the community may finally begin to think of these contaminated sites as part of the living space of the community. That greenish mulch will turn to grass and the wasteland will be forgotten for a generation at least.