Ottawa and Nova Scotia plan $400-million cleanup of tar ponds: sources

Murray Brewster (CP)
The Canadian Press
Thursday, May 6, 2004

HALIFAX (CP) - On the eve of a federal election, negotiators representing the federal and Nova Scotia governments have struck a $400-million deal to clean up of the notorious Sydney tar ponds, The Canadian Press has learned.

The agreement was approved in principle Thursday by Premier John Hamm's cabinet, said a senior provincial official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Meanwhile, the federal cabinet was expected to do the same Thursday at its weekly meeting on Parliament Hill, said a federal source. Hamm wouldn't confirm the news, but came as close as he could. "I'm going to choose my words carefully," the premier said on the way into the legislature. "I anticipate something of substance will be announced next week."

The deal will see the federal government contribute up to $280 million toward the cost of cleaning up the ponds and the old coke oven site near downtown Sydney, N.S. The province will put $120 million towards the project, which is expected to be completed in five distinct phases. Over the last five years, estimates for the clean up have ranged between $400 and $700 million.

Depending upon the final bill, officials with both governments say Ottawa could end up carrying between 60 to 70 per cent of the cost, while the province could be responsible for the rest. How the cleanup cost is to be divided was a major point of negotiation, said the provincial source.

The cleanup agreement was reached after a series of intense negotiations this week involving provincial bureaucrats and a senior official from the federal Public Works Department.

Going into those talks, the province had insisted the federal government carry 70 per cent of the bill, as it has done in previous pre-cleanup agreements.

However, federal Environment Minister David Anderson said earlier this year that Ottawa owned only 40 per cent of the contaminated property and was willing to pick up 50 per cent of the costs. Hamm admitted the federal government has shown flexibility at the bargaining table. "I'm very pleased with the approach," he said.

The site is considered to be one of the most polluted places in Canada. The tar ponds contain roughly 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge, which is the result of a century of steelmaking in the heavily industrialized area.

The agreement, which is being reviewed by lawyers, will be formally announced Monday in Cape Breton.

The news was greeted with relief by Gordie Gosse, an NDP member of the provincial legislature whose riding includes the tar ponds. "It's been a long time in coming," he said. "Maybe finally our children and grandchildren will have a place to play in a safe environment."

Though no conclusive, scientific link has ever been established, the tar ponds have long been blamed for a variety stubborn health problems among the 100,000 people who live in Sydney. Some studies have found that Cape Bretoners have among the highest cancer rates in the country.

In March, the province warned it was prepared to carry on with clean up alone, unless a deal could be struck by the time a federal election was called.

Prime Minister Paul Martin is widely expected to call Canadians to the polls sometime in the next two weeks. A federal source admitted election timing did have something to with the decision to fast-track project. When the federal cabinet met for a pre-election session a few weeks ago at the prime minister's residence, each minister was asked what was the biggest issue they would likely face on the campaign trail back home.

According to the source, Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan, Nova Scotia's representative, cited the long-awaited cleanup of the tar ponds.