Sydney tar ponds could become bike school

CBC - Nova Scotia
Mar. 29 2010

The Sydney tar ponds should be turned into a bicycle academy after they're cleaned up, a Cape Breton cycling group says.

Velo Cape Breton, a volunteer-run pro-cycling organization, says the reclaimed Sydney tar ponds would be an ideal spot to teach kids how to ride their bikes.

The proposal calls for a miniature group of city streets, complete with intersections and traffic signs. Only bicycles would be on the roads so that kids could learn safely, the group said.

Excavators are now mixing in the cement that is supposed to turn the toxic sludge, created during production at the former Sydney Steel Corporation mill, into a solid mass. The process is expected to take several more years.

Velo Cape Breton said that when that work is done, the environmental eyesore should be seen as an opportunity to do some good for the community. "It's been a bit of a black eye for a number of years," spokesperson Leroy Hodder said. "And now to make something positive, to develop our fitness as opposed to having a negative impact on the health of the residents, I think it's a fantastic opportunity." Hodder is also a physical education teacher at Cusack Elementary School in Sydney.

He uses the school parking lot to teach children how to ride bicycles and said many don't know the rules of the road. "It would be a spot where it's safe," Hodder said of the reclaimed tar ponds. "It's away from traffic and it's an opportunity to use this land. I think it would be an excellent use for land that's not being used right now."

$52-million project

Velo Cape Breton hasn't come up with a cost for its proposal, which it presented to the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency last week.

No decisions have been made about the future of the site. The consulting firm Ekistics Planning and Design is working on ideas now and will report to the agency in a few weeks.

About 26,000 people live within a four-kilometre radius of the tar ponds, most within 1.5 kilometres of the site, which covers the equivalent of three city blocks.

The tar ponds were formed from pollutants leaked out of a coke-oven, the chamber where coal was heated for more than 80 years. The process largely stopped in the 1960s.

The process separated tar and gases from the sought-after coke and led to the accumulation of about 700,000 tones of chemical waste and raw sewage.

Efforts to clean the tar ponds date back to the 1980s and got a boost last year when the federal and provincial governments announced they would spend $52 million for a project to mix the toxic waste with a cement-like substance to stabilize the site.