Tar ponds cleanup 'a joke,' technically flawed, says May
By STEVE MacLEOD The Canadian Press
Tues., Jan. 30, 2007
A $400-million plan to bury one of Canada's worst environmental messes is doomed to fail and will jeopardize the health of people living nearby, says Elizabeth May, leader of the federal Green party.
"It's a joke. It won't work. It's technically deeply flawed," May said Monday about the plan to clean up Nova Scotia's noxious Sydney tar ponds.
The federal and Nova Scotia governments ended 20 years of false starts and broken promises Sunday by announcing another plan to fix the blighted landscape in the heart of industrial Cape Breton.
Since 1986, there have been three other multimillion-dollar cleanup plans, all of which led nowhere.
Under the latest project, which will take until 2014 to complete, 700,000 tonnes of PCB-laden sludge will be mixed with concrete and other hardening agents, then covered over.
May accused the governments of "taking a huge chance" on a technology that an environmental panel has already expressed doubts about.
The independent Joint Review Panel, in a final report on the project released last July, said it wasn't convinced that "solidifying and stabilizing" the tar would work and recommended further study.
May, who staged a 17-day hunger strike in Ottawa in 2001 to press for the relocation of families living near the tar ponds, maintains that testing done before the panel made its recommendations determined that concrete and the sludge that fouls the ponds won't solidify properly.
"If you mix concrete with dirt, it hardens, no problem," she said during an interview from Oakville, Ont., where she was giving a speech.
"If you mix concrete with sand, it hardens. But if you mix concrete with gooey tar, it doesn't harden."
Parker Donham, a spokesman for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, insisted the cleanup method will work.
He said further testing will done in the coming weeks to find the final recipe of sludge, concrete and hardening agents.
"I've heard an awful lot of engineers talk about this process . . . and they're very confident they'll be able to find a mixture that works well on the particular sediments, or actually a range of mixtures, because the sediments vary from place to place."
The tar ponds are fouled with almost a century of runoff from the former Sydney Steel mill, a sprawling property bounded on three sides by neighbourhoods of modest, working-class homes.
The cleanup also calls for placing a layered cap over contaminated sections of the mill's abandoned coke ovens site, another huge property where tarry substances ooze from the ground on hot days.
Environmentalist David Suzuki called covering up the pollution "a stupid answer" to a terrible problem.
"It's a classic," he said from his Suzuki Foundation office in Vancouver.
"In Chernobyl, what did they do? They just buried the problem under layers of concrete."
A widespread public outcry led to the rejection of an earlier proposal to incinerate the estimated eight tonnes of PCBs in the sludge before encapsulating the rest of the material.
May expressed relief that incineration has been ruled out, but said digging up the sludge to mix it with concrete will expose residents to potentially harmful vapours.
"I'm not a technical person, but the technical experts I've talked to can't see how this will work," she said.
"It's a Mickey Mouse solution. It's not high-tech."
Donham said the majority of people in Sydney are tired of the delays and want the mess cleaned up.
He expressed frustration at continuing opposition to the project from May and others.
"She has never liked any proposal to clean up the tar ponds," Donham said. "She is the most prominent of a tiny group of people who demand a cleanup but for whom no actual cleanup method is ever good enough."
May, though, said she favours a process that involves washing the soil to remove toxins, a technology the review panel dismissed as unfeasible.