Parkgoers near Sydney tar ponds warned of potential health risks

CBC - Nova Scotia
July 3, 2009

SYDNEY - The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency says there may be "unacceptable risks" to people who use a park being developed near the notorious site during the cleanup process.

The agency has asked the Cape Breton Regional Municipality to delay work on the park until 2014, when the cleanup of the tar ponds is scheduled to end.

A wire fence separates the park on Intercolonial Street from the tar ponds long considered one of Canada's worst toxic waste sites. On one side, bulldozers push gravel around to prepare the tar ponds area for when crews start mixing cement with the contaminated soil later this year. Shrubs and flowers dot the green space on the other side a few metres away.

In a letter to the CBRM, agency officials said the park area wasn't included in any environmental assessments, and there could be health risks to people using it. "Additional studies would be required and would likely demonstrate that there would be unacceptable risks to users of this park, in particular, children," the letter states.

Officials said there are ways to mitigate those risks, but that would mean extra costs and delays to the cleanup project. Wilf Kaiser, an agency spokesman, told CBC News on Thursday that the land the park is on was originally zoned for industrial use. "If we now change the usage of the land next to the ponds in that area to a usage that would attract people and particularly children, that would be a concern to us and we wouldn't want to see that if there was a way to avoid it. Why add risk or build risk if you don't need to?" he said.

The agency says people who live across the street don't need to worry.

Kaiser said the site where the park is located will act as a buffer for any contaminants stirred into the air during the cleanup. "We know from the modelling that we've already undertaken that we don't see any issues there from potential impacts on the air quality or the health of the folks that live on Intercolonial Street," he said.

The CBRM has already given $18,000 to the Wintering Harbour Neighbourhood Association to develop the park. Municipal officials are now advising the group to put the work on hold for five years.

Though the letter is dated Aug. 18, 2008, it was never made public. The document was only recently obtained by CBC News. No one from the neighbourhood association would comment to CBC News.

In a letter to the CBRM, however, members say they are shocked that the area wasn't included in an environmental assessment and are disappointed that the park is on hold.

The tar ponds are the result of pollution from steel-making and coke ovens that began operating in the early 20th century. The site contains 700,000 tonnes of soil contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), solvents and various heavy metals.

Last month, the federal and provincial governments announced they will spend $52 million for a project to mix the toxic waste with a concrete-like substance to stabilize the site. The plan then calls for the site to be capped.