Muggah Creek Watershed
PUBLICATIONThe Regina Leader-Post
DATE Friday June 4, 1999
BYLINE Cayo, Don

A solution for Cape Breton

The feds and the Nova Scotia government have promised to pump yet another $62 million into the bottomless pit that is industrial Cape Breton. You're forgiven if you yawn and ask, "What's new?"

With billions squandered over a period of decades on "final solutions" for the region's twin boondoggles - the Sysco steel mill in Sydney and the Devco coal mines scattered around the landscape and extending for miles under the sea - isn't this just déjà vu all over again?

Well, no. This little bit of spending - it works out to about $2 out of the pocket of each man, woman and child in Canada - is quite different from the endless succession of futile grants and bailouts that have gone before. This time, the spending is warranted.

The money is to start cleaning up an appalling environmental mess left by decades of steel mill sludge and to buy out 24 poor families whose yards - and, in some cases, their very homes - have become cesspools of industrial waste. No one is even pretending it's an investment that will ever pay dividends; it's merely a first installment on a long past due social and moral obligation.

The scope of the environmental problem is as big as it is foul. It includes a 40-hectare toxic dump called "the tar ponds" - home to an estimated 700,000 tones of PCBs and heavy metals, some of which is flushed with each tide into Sydney's harbour. Upstream is the site of the former coke ovens - ground so polluted that it can catch fire, and where contamination is proved to have penetrated up to 24 metres below the surface. And then there's adjacent Frederick Street, where at long last residents are being bought out after living for years with arsenic-laced orange goo surfacing in their yards and, more recently, in their basements.

It's impossible to argue that governments should delay for even a moment a start in fixing the mess they've helped create through perpetual subsidies and lax regulation. But it's just as impossible not to regret the way they propose to do it.

The clean-up plan was announced short months after the province pledged yet another $44 million to keep the Sysco mill limping along for a few years more. Why? The government spin-doctors' best explanation is that it will defer much-larger looming costs - not just the clean-up, but also crippling pension liabilities and the millions in previous loans that will be transferred from Sysco's books to Nova Scotia's when the mill finally closes. The most recent subsidy does nothing to lessen these future costs - it may even increase them. But it saves the current government from having to face reality.

A rational government would close the mill now and swallow the costs. But with 650 jobs on the line and the always-weak Cape Breton economy reeling from the pending closure of one of Devco's two remaining dangerous and unhealthy coal mines, the minority Liberal government in the province has no stomach for tough decisions.

The sad thing is that there's a much better proposal on the table to deal with Sysco. Tory leader John Hamm - who, perhaps by no coincidence, has no seats in Cape Breton and little or no hope of winning any when the next election rolls around - has put forward a genuinely sensible alternative. He suggests closing the mill and guaranteeing its workers jobs on the clean-up crews until they reach retirement age. This would be no make-work scheme; any reasonable clean-up is bound to take at least that long, particularly since most of the mill's workers are into middle age or beyond.

Hamm's plan is prudent and humane. It acknowledges the need to start the clean-up right now, and it adds nothing to the eventual cost. It saves the workers from the frightening prospect of trying late in life to find new work in a job-starved area.

It avoids huge severance and/or additional pension liabilities. It ensures that yet another generation of workers will not be trapped in inherently unsustainable jobs. It ends the demand for ever-more subsidies. And it provides the Cape Breton region much more time to make a gentle transition from the old economy to the new.

All it would take is a little foresight, a little political courage and a little co-ordination between the two levels of government involved in the clean-up. What a pity that, in Atlantic Canada at least, such small things seem too much to ask.

Cayo is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.
DATE Fri 04 Jun 1999
BYLINESteve MacInnis

Survey shows environment, jobs top priorities

A sampling of 191 residents in six Cape Breton Regional Municipality districts suggests the clean up of the tar ponds, job creation and the clean up of the coke ovens site are top priorities for government action.

In addition, residents rated sewage contamination of Sydney harbour a high priority.

When it comes to confidence levels in receiving information about health risk issues, residents gave top marks to doctors, scientists and university researchers while the municipal government and private industry received the lowest confidence rating.

As for confidence in media information, residents gave more credence to television and newspapers than radio reports.

The technical report was completed and funded by researchers at the University College of Cape Breton through the school's research and evaluation committee. The survey was conducted from May-September, 1998, with a total of 917 residents contacted, 32 per cent of whom (191) were interviewed.

Helen Mersereau headed the research team and explained Thursday that while the results should not be deemed representative of the Sydney population, the report does offer a glimpse of what concerns residents and how they want those concerns addressed.

Participants were predominately young, healthy, well-educated and employed and the majority were female.

Mersereau said the bulk of the respondents believed because they live in and around Sydney, they are exposed to more environmental risks than the average Canadian. They are also uncertain about the pathways toxins travel to have an effect on an individual's health.

``About 70 per cent of the participants reported being at least very concerned about the potential health hazard of playing/walking near the tar ponds/coke ovens site,'' notes the report.

About 85 per cent of those surveyed reported being very concerned that consumption of vegetables grown near the two sites was also a potential exposure pathway.

Not surprisingly, cancer was the major health concern for residents, given that a recent mortality rate study for several malignant and non-malignant diseases between 1951 and 1994 showed higher rates in Sydney than the rest of the country.

When it comes to receiving health information, residents prefer a one-on-one meeting with an expert. Written materials, home videos and a 1-800 number were suggested as useful tools in getting health information to the public.

Only a slight majority of those surveyed - 58 per cent - agreed that improving one's lifestyle could offset health risks from environmental contamination.

Among the recommendations offered by the report is that more effort is needed to address concerns that environmental issues are more serious here than in the rest of the country. Providing information on exposure pathways and developing a risk communication strategy for the clean up plan of the Muggah Creek Watershed were also suggested.

Mersereau presented the findings Thursday to two Joint Action Group (JAG) committees, which she said seemed receptive to accepting the recommendations. JAG is mandated to develop a remediation plan for the watershed.
DATE Fri 04 Jun 1999
BYLINESteve MacInnis

Extensive soil, water testing program near

A draft proposal focusing on a more extensive soil and water testing program in Whitney Pier could be ready as early as next week.

Terry MacPherson, a hydrogeologist with the provincial Environment Department, said the terms of reference for the sampling could be presented to a Joint Action Group (JAG) committee as early as Tuesday.

``It is just another piece of the puzzle,'' said MacPherson, noting the battery of tests completed over the last year are starting to paint a picture of the precise extent of the contamination.

Test results earlier this week from Tupper Street and Laurier Street - not Frederick Street - revealed drainage water from three basements showed no sign of contamination.

Also, said MacPherson, the department is awaiting results of soil tests done on a Tupper Street basement.

The more extensive sampling program is likely to occur over the summer months, as the JAG partners try to solve the mystery of contamination in at least one Pier neighbourhood, Frederick Street.

Traces of arsenic have turned up in basements on the street and residents were relocated to a hotel. There is a voluntary government buyout being offered to 24 homeowners on Frederick Street and Curry's Lane.
PUBLICATIONThe Halifax Chronicle-Herald
DATE Friday June 4, 1999

Sydney homes clean, Environment says

SYDNEY - Three homes tested by the provincial Environment Department for toxins were reported clean as a whistle Thursday.

"The results indicated that (the substances tested) ... actually met the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines," department spokesman Terry MacPherson said Thursday. "We're not recommending that they drink it. We're just simply saying ... there was nothing in there to suggest there was a problem."

Discoloured water taken from the basements of two homes on Tupper Street and a third on Lingan Road were tested several weeks after arsenic was found in the basements of some homes on neighbouring Frederick Street. The owners of the three homes were worried that the substance, similarly coloured, contained arsenic.

The Frederick Street discovery resulted in the evacuation of 10 families last month. Last week, the province offered to buy the 24 homes on Frederick Street and Curry's Lane. So far, half of the owners have agreed to the buyout.

Mr. MacPherson said more homes on Tupper Street, Laurier Street and Lingan Road have been tested, but results have yet to be returned.

The provincial Public Works Department plans to conduct an extensive soil and water study in the lower end of Whitney Pier, once the terms of reference have been outlined by the Joint Action Group.

JAG is a community group charged with cleaning up toxic waste sites, contaminated over more than a century of steelmaking.

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