Ottawa, Nova Scotia set to make long-awaited tar ponds announcement

Alison Auld and Keith Doucette
Canada East
Fri. Jan. 26, 2007

HALIFAX (CP) - People who live near Nova Scotia's Sydney tar ponds will finally find out this weekend how Ottawa and the Nova Scotia government plan to clean up one of the country's most notorious toxic waste sites.

Federal and provincial officials are expected to reveal on Sunday the method to be used in remediating the tar ponds and former Sydney Steel coke ovens - a blackened eyesore in the heart of the Cape Breton community.

The decision comes after about 20 years of planning, consultation, and persistent complaints by residents who claim they have suffered from a slew of illnesses caused by contaminants in the air, water and soil. "I really do hope that they do the right thing and do it safely," said Ada Hearn, who raised her family in a house overlooking the tar ponds but who has since moved out of the area over health concerns. "We've been exposed to a lot of stuff, but we have to try and not allow it to happen again."

Officials in both levels of government wouldn't disclose details of the strategy they've chosen for the $400-million project, but it's believed the eventual choice won't involve incinerating the eight tonnes of PCBs spread among the 700,000 tonnes of chemical-laden sludge in the tar ponds.

Gordie Gosse, the provincial NDP member for Cape Breton Nova and a resident of the neighbourhood near the ponds, told The Canadian Press on Friday that various government sources have indicated that incineration won't be used. "They are not telling me the technical aspects of what's going to happen," said Gosse. "All I know is that with the full panel recommendations that I'm pretty sure that we've won the battle against incineration."

Gosse, who worked at the now-closed steel plant for 18 years, is an outspoken opponent of any plan that involves burning the contaminants created by almost a century of steelmaking in Sydney. He said residents in his riding are tired of the delays and will welcome news that some sort of cleanup is finally about to become a reality. "We've wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on this project already, so I think the people are anxious after all these years and are saying, 'Let's just get it done, let's just get it over with" he said.

The cleanup strategy comes from 55 recommendations drafted by a three-member independent panel that reviewed possible way to clean up the sites.

One of the options proposed by the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency involves digging up the PCBs and transporting them to a nearby incinerator to be burned - a solution that has some residents fearing they would be exposed to noxious fumes.

Bruno Marcocchio of the Sierra Club and a longtime opponent of incineration said the technologies proposed by the agency haven't been proven and could result in further environmental problems. "In short, we've got a plan that is technically incomplete, inept and it's been scientifically disputed," he said from his office in Sydney. "Why is it that we're proceeding with a quick and dirty plan that will leave us saddled in the future with having to do a proper cleanup and in the short term will pose a risk to the surrounding residents?"

The tar ponds and coke ovens sites, which spans about 100 hectares in downtown Sydney, have been shown to have elevated levels of PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs - a group of over 100 different chemicals formed during the burning of coal, oil, gas and other organic substances. PAHs have been shown in animals to cause birth defects.

The panel, which held hearings last April and May, stated in a report released last July that incinerating toxins removed from the site could be done safely. However, the panel also said encasing the toxins in cement on site may be a better approach because of the stress and anxiety that incineration would cause among some residents.

Parker Donham of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency said the group has already cleaned up parts of the area, re-routed a coke ovens brooks that fed contaminants into the tar ponds, and stopped raw sewage from flowing into the ponds. "What we haven't done is actually started cleaning up the sediments in the tar ponds themselves and hopefully Sunday's announcement will clear the way for us to start doing this next summer," he said.

An initial plan at incinerating sludge from the tar ponds failed in the late 1980s at a cost of about $50 million. An incinerator was built next to the ponds, but a pipeline built to carry tarry sludge from the pond to the burners kept plugging.