Muggah Creek Watershed

Hoping blight makes might

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 scheme.

''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 Sydney.''

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 famous.

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 decades.

''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 quarter-century ago.

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 and learn.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 05/12/99. Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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