Cape Breton town seeks role as toxic waste learning site
By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff, 05/12/99
SYDNEY, Nova Scotia - The most polluted place in Canada is chasing
a dream that most communities would call a nightmare: transforming
itself into a sort of living laboratory of toxic waste.
The municipality on northern Cape Breton Island is seeking to power an
economic revival with the very poisons that permeate its earth and
waterways - and that have defeated every other renewal and cleanup
''Desperate times call for dramatic solutions,'' said Robert Morgan, director
of research and development at University College of Cape Breton. ''We're
hoping to turn terrible disadvantage into advantage. If we fail, our community
may not survive.''
There is even talk of promoting Sydney as a center for ''reverse
eco-tourism,'' where visitors can ponder the terrible contamination and ruin
that accompanied the triumphs of the industrial age.
There are few communities in North America whose situation is quite as
desperate as that of Sydney and its municipal partners of Sydney Mines,
New Waterford, and Glace Bay.
Backyards in some neighborhoods are saturated with alarming levels of
arsenic and lead. Then, this week, a mysterious orange substance started
oozing into basements. Residents reacted with the combination of outrage
and fatalism that has become standard for Sydney's inhabitants.
''We have the arsenic, we have the naphthalene, we have the lead,'' said
Debbie Ouellette, a homemaker. ''The ground is poison, the air turns your
lungs raw, now there is orange goop oozing across the cellar. Welcome to
For more than a century, this rough-and-ready district of deep mines, big
smokestacks, and blue collars has depended on steel, coal, and commercial
fishing. Now all three industries are collapsing; umemployment here is at 30
percent and rising. Then, earlier this year, the federal government announced
it would no longer provide the multimillion dollar subsidies that kept 1,200
coal miners on the payroll.
And that devastating blow wasn't even the worst news.
The worst lies in the deadly industrial wastes that glisten and coil all around
Sydney: mountainous slag heaps, rivers of toxic ooze, acidic fumes that taint
the sea breeze, corroded factories collapsing upon themselves.
It seems almost impossible that such blight could occur on Cape Breton
Island, fabled for its exquisite natural beauty and vibrant Gaelic heritage.
Inhabitants of the island like to boast that no other place has been more
abundantly blessed by God.
Conde Nast Traveler magazine last year picked Cape Breton as the most
beautiful island in the world, where majestic headlands rise from the Atlantic
spume and seabirds soar in the great vault of northern sky.
Environmentalists, however, note that few other places on the planet have
been more hideously sullied by man.
Coal mining started in the late 1700s, and Sydney became an important steel
center early this century, attracting thousands of immigrant workers from
Europe and the Caribbean. The Sydney region still has a multiethnic
character that contrasts with the Scots-Gaelic culture for which the island is
Although a mile-long causeway now links Cape Breton to Nova Scotia, the
island retains an identity distinct from the rest of the province.
''We've never really been absorbed into the mainland culture,'' said Morgan.
''We remain islanders, stubborn, and with a bit of a chip on our shoulders.''
And yet lethal rot has been festering in Cape Breton's industrial belt for
''It's our cruel reality, poison at the heart of paradise,'' said Carl R.
Buchanan, chairman of the Joint Action Group, a committee of government
officials and local residents hoping to turn Sydney's tide of ill-fortune. ''Cape
Breton is a Nova Scotia masterpiece, people come from everywhere to
experience the wonders. Yet in the middle of Sydney is this cocktail of
waste like nowhere else on the continent.''
He added: ''We can either despair and die, or find an opportunity.''
Although many inhabitants are deeply skeptical, a few local leaders believe
that opportunity lurks in Sydney's infamous ''tar ponds'' - a tidal estuary in
the center of the city packed with 700,000 tons of chemical waste and raw
sewage - as well as in the hundreds of acres of former industrial sites
polluted by millions of tons of tar, ammonia, oil, benzol, and other
byproducts of the coke yards that once fueled the steel mills.
''We could become an international training ground and research center for
dealing with this kind of environmental challenge,'' said Morgan. ''It's not so
far-fetched; we've already begun. The world could learn from mistakes
we've made in Cape Breton - and from the way we deal with the mess
we've made on our beloved island.''
Only last September federal, provincial, and local authorities finally signed an
agreement to cooperate in cleaning up the hazardous waste sites. ''This is
going to be the most complex environmental cleanup ever undertaken in this
country, and maybe anywhere,'' said Buchanan. ''It's never been done on
this scale, and right in the middle of a city.''
The witch's brew is laced by thousands of tons of PCBs and other potent
chemical carcinogens, which number among the many suspects in a local
cancer rate that is 45 percent higher than the Nova Scotia average, and by
far the highest rate in Canada.
The tar ponds alone are reckoned by some to be the worst single toxic
waste site in North America.
''Sydney makes Love Canal seem small and manageable,'' said Elizabeth E.
May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, referring to the New
York toxic site that became a byword for hazardous waste in the 1980s.
''This is pollution of staggering dimensions, and thousands of people are still
dwelling right in the belly of the beast.''
On the residential street where Juanita MacKenzie lives, for example, the air
is so rank with the odor of chemicals that the eyes fill with tears and a
metallic taste settles on the tongue. A chain-link fence separates the
backyards where children play from a sprawling former coke yard, where
for decades coal was baked in mammoth ovens to fire the steel mills.
Two years ago health workers, equipped with face masks and covered
head-to-toe in white environmental safety suits, appeared in Sydney to affix
signs to the fence, warning, ''Human Health Hazard.'' Local residents, who
live without special protection and who had been repeatedly assured by the
government that they were in no special danger, were shocked.
''We live in a toxic community,'' said MacKenzie. ''Our children suffer from
asthma, learning disabilities, and cancer. There are days we can hardly
breathe. Something has to happen, now.''
The cleanup will be the work of decades and billions of dollars.
''The fishery is ruined, coal is down, the future of steel is in question,'' said
Germaine LeMoine, spokeswoman for the cleanup committee. ''We have to
work with what we have, and what we have is this environmental situation.
Why not make what we can with it? Why not find a market for expertise and
technology we can develop right at home?''
The notion is still in the conceptual phase, and to many it seems outlandish
and even diabolical.
''This is just a scam, a way to keep people's eyes off the real problem, which
is disappearing jobs and a government that doesn't give two damns about
what happens to Cape Breton,'' said Steve Drake, president of the United
Mine Workers local. ''We'll be tossed a few scraps, then forgotten.''
The miners want Ottawa to continue subsidizing the coal works, even though
the $1 billion already pumped into the mines has failed to restore the industry
to its past glory, as was the goal when public money started flowing a
Nowadays even local politicians concede that such economic dependency
does Cape Breton no lasting good.
''There's a feeling in the community that it's time to call in the dogs, to stop
our reliance on those industries,'' the municipal mayor, David Muise, told the
Canadian Press. ''The status quo isn't going to work here any more.''
The new idea is to transform an ecological sow's ear into an economic silk
purse, making Sydney a place to test new environmental technologies, to
research the effects of pollution, and to train ecological technicians -
especially from former Soviet states, Asia, and other parts of the developing
world, where the 21st century's eco-disasters will loom largest.
Some even tout a proposal to make Sydney a center for ''reverse
eco-tourism,'' allowing visitors to examine firsthand some of the horrific side
effects of poorly managed progress before heading out to revel in the natural
glories that anually attract tens of thousands of tourists to Cape Breton.
''We can become a center of excellence for the rest of the world,'' LeMoine
said. ''In overcoming our problems, we can develop tools, techniques, and
expertise that we can provide to other places. The world can come to us