Note: The brief posted below was delivered to MP Mark Eyking and to CEO John Malcolm of the District Health Authority

Brief on Process and Non-incineration Options for
Remediation of the Sydney Tar Ponds

Thank you for requesting detailed advice from the Sierra Club of Canada.

As you know the remediation of the tar ponds is at a point where firm proposals are soon to be submitted. We are concerned that remediation options that are safe, effective and fiscally responsible are not being given serious consideration. We welcome this opportunity to present an option for remediation of a problem in our community that has been of great concern to you and The Sierra Club for quite some time.

We were all excited that former Environment Minister, Sergio Marchi declared the tar ponds a national disgrace in 1996, and gave a federal commitment to work with the community in an open transparent process to find a safe and cost effective, remediation method for the Sysco contamination. This detailed report to you echoes that sentiment. I hope it will lead to a safe, acceptable, cost effective process that provides for the community input that Minister Marchi understood was the key to overcoming the suspicion and contempt the community felt after the first two failed attempts.

Unfortunately the JAG process that started with such good intentions has lost the trust and respect of the community. The Tar Ponds Agency has rendered JAG redundant and without any real purpose, save to give the appearance of meaningful public involvement where none exists.

The promise of JAG was to interact with residents in an open and transparent manner in finding an acceptable solution to the problem. JAG has become hopelessly mired in controversy and has failed to live up to its promise. Consultants - who have not explained how and why they have proposed their solutions - have come forward with only incineration and capping as options. These are the same solutions that have been proposed before and found unacceptable by the community. Instead of meaningful public participation, the public input for making this decision was restricted to a questionnaire relating to the values that should be applied by the consultants who select the technologies. What may have been more useful is an open and transparent process where consultants explained what criteria they used to select the different technologies.

It appears that the future public involvement will be limited to rubber-stamping one or several of four options that CBCL brings forward. Based on preliminary releases to the media, the short list of four remediation options will (in all likelihood) be combinations of incineration and capping proposals – both of which led to anger and rejection the first time they were presented. It will surely not change this time. The community is more aware of the real dangers inherent in incineration than a decade ago and is already beginning to mobilize against another ill-advised and unnecessary incineration scheme.

Harbourview Elementary School, much larger than Don Bosco that it replaced, houses 700 children and is at the same elevation as the top of the tiny stacks of the SERL incinerator. The prevailing winds blow in the direction of the school the majority of the time. The CCME guidelines - that were to be adhered to (at minimum) as part of JAG's promise to us - state that no hazardous incinerator shall be located within 1600 meters of human habitation. Harbourview Elementary and many homes are less than half that distance from the old incinerator and there is nowhere onsite that meets the 1600 meter requirement of the CCME.

During the ongoing work of the Peoples Health Commission that includes surveying the residents in a 3-5 block radius of the Sysco property several strong themes have emerged. Residents feel the government has abandoned them by neglecting their health and safety now and in the past. No one in the community any longer denies that living in proximity to the plant exposed his or her families to elevated risk. No one believes that they are being treated fairly now or that they are being told the truth about the hazards with which they live. No one thinks JAG represents his or her interests. Most feel that their community is just as contaminated as the NOCO area. It is important to understand that scientific articles supporting these fears are already being published.

In an article titled 'Sydney Tar Ponds: Some Problems in Quantifying Hazardous Waste' (see Furimsky Report - 160K PDF) Edward Furimsky cautions in the abstract that " Information on the type and amount of hazardous and toxic waste is required to develop a meaningful strategy and estimate a realistic cost for clean up of the Sydney Tar Pond site"1.

Furimsky points out on page 875 that:

It is evident that the leachability and hazardous characteristics of the waste in the Sysco plant and surrounding area were not determined according to the prescribed procedures.

It is essential that a series of properly selected samples be subjected to such evaluation before developing a strategy to deal with the Sydney Tar Ponds issue.

It is unlikely that this problem can be successfully solved without such information

1 Edward Furimsky. 2002. 'Sydney Tar Ponds: Some Problems in Quantifying Toxic Waste' Environmental Management Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 872-879

His conclusions (see box 1) are of note because they mirror the points the Sierra Club has been making and suggest a reasonable approach to conduct a safe, cost-effective remediation.
Box 1. Conclusions of Edward Furimsky in 'Sydney Tar Ponds: Problems in Quantifying Toxic Waste'

Referring to the contaminated site as the Sydney Tar Ponds may be misleading because the site contamination by toxic metal-containing particulates is a more serious contributor. The lack of data on the hazardous and toxic nature of the waste on the Sysco plant site and surrounding area prevents an accurate estimate of the total amount of waste necessary for selecting appropriate cleanup methods and determining the overall cost.

The rationale used in this study suggests that the amount of waste to be cleaned exceeds the reported amount (700,000 tons) by many times. It is essential that an extensive program involving an analysis of samples

taken from the surface and various depths in the Sysco plant and surrounding areas be undertaken to establish an inventory of hazardous and toxic waste.

Only with such a database can a reasonable conclusion on the final fate of the site be reached. This analysis may result in a decision to clean either a part of or the entire site. Given the large volumes of toxic wastes suspected at the site, the cost and logistics of the cleanup may be prohibitive and declaring either part of or the entire area as a hazardous and toxic site is not entirely unlikely. The limited information that is available suggests that accurate mapping and/or inventorying of the waste at the Sydney Sysco plant is only in the early stages.

The Sydney Tar Ponds site is the result of a lack of environmental regulations and laws. However, although some regulations were in effect during the last two decades of the plant operation, they were not adequately applied. The need for thorough environmental assessment before permits can be granted for any new industrial activity is the lesson that can be learned from the Sydney Tar Ponds case. This may require the anticipation of issues and events that are not yet regulated.

We have conducted tests in 45 homes surrounding SYSCO for evidence of a migration of heavy metals (lead and arsenic) from the outside environment into people's homes. The results are being evaluated and prepared for publication. We will be glad to share the results with you when they are ready. The preliminary results do indicate that the toxic metals are widespread throughout the three communities - the North End, Ashby, Whitney Pier - and are moving from the outside environment and into homes.

This has startling implications for the clean up plans underway. Despite attempts by the province to limit the scope to NOCO the buffer zone will have to be extended to include a wider area. As independent science documents the extent of contamination the clean up plan and costs will spiral out of control. As Furimsky points out without a clearer understanding of the extent and nature of the contamination, any clean up option will be ineffective at creating sustainable solutions.

We have to find a better solution that is cost effective, comprehensive, sensitive to human health and practical. The federal government will have to take the lead if the provincial conflict of being both polluter and in charge of the cleanup is to be overcome. If not the cost and scope will spiral out of control as levels of contamination inside and outside the plant become public, bad and ineffective decisions about remediation technologies will happen again, and conflict with the community will escalate. We need to work together to ensure the work is done properly, human health is protected and the community is truly involved in the decision.

The way to accomplish all of these goals is to immediately conduct a full panel review under CEAA such as that covered in the high level waste panel review would allow decision makers and the public to examine several options without a specific project proposal before them to determine the appropriate technologies and costs of the various options. The minister of the environment has the opportunity to invoke a full panel review at this point without risking accusations of stalling.

As Furimsky points out, some areas like the Coke Ovens might best be dealt with by declaring them a toxic area. Offering a voluntary buyout to homes that are affected by the leachate plume after it is delineated would protect human health, be fiscally responsible and be accepted by the community. Ignoring the reality that the leachate plume and heavy metal contamination does affect residential neighborhoods will result in bad and wasteful decisions in both the short and long term. These are problems that will not go away and denying them will continue to expose residents to unnecessary risk and waste money that could be used to create sustainable solutions.

The mandate of a full panel review could include testing to delineate the problems that both The Sierra Club and Edward Furimsky have documented in Ashby, The North End and Whitney Pier. With that done good economic decisions can be made about how to proceed and what technologies are appropriate.

Incineration onsite as an option is not acceptable. It violates the federal promise of adhering at minimum to the CCME guidelines since there is no location onsite that is further than the 1600 meters from homes. The problems with incineration can be summarized as follows:

  1. cost overruns and schedule slippages,
  2. failure to mitigate the risks to public health,
  3. disregard of worker and public safety,
  4. inability to make the technology perform to program standards
Other jurisdictions like the US and Australia, recognizing the inherent dangers of incinerating hazardous waste, have reviewed non-incineration options. What the Australian review said about incineration may explain why a review that looks at safe alternatives should be encouraged (see box 2 below).

The Sierra Club wants to be part of a constructive solution to safely destroy the contents of the pond in a cost-effective manner. With a full panel federal review we can find a solution that is acceptable to the community. Safe and effective alternatives like the Eco Logic process (see GPCR.PDF (800K) for a description of this Gas Phase Chemical Reduction process) mentioned above meet all the requirements of a safe and effective destruction technology. We hope that we can work together to find a solution that is safe, fiscally responsible and one with which the community is comfortable and involved. We would like to discuss our ideas with the district health authority sometime soon.


Elizabeth May
Executive Director
Sierra Club of Canada

Bruno Marcocchio
Atlantic Canada Conservation Campaign Director
Sierra Club of Canada

Box 2. Excerpt from 'Impediments in the Establishment of Scheduled Waste Treatment Facilities in Australia'

In Australia, proposals to implement high temperature incineration facilities have failed at the community consultation step, even in cases where the regulatory bodies had agreed that the proposal was consistent with their normal approval requirements for industrial facilities, and would not pose an unacceptable risk. This has extended to facilities which have been proposed in extremely remote areas. This has led to an effective outlawing of the incineration of scheduled wastes in Australia.

Community consultation has been less of a concern with regard to the non-incineration scheduled waste treatment processes (such as Eco Logic and BCD). This appears to be a result of several factors: the facilities pose a lesser risk because they are smaller and the process is more contained; the key stakeholders have not formed a strong policy position against these processes; and the companies involved have learnt to negotiate their way through the consultation process.

While a detailed discussion of approaches to the management of community consultation processes is beyond the scope of this report, based on experience with the implementation of scheduled waste treatment facilities, some of the factors affecting the success of such programs would appear to include:

  1. consultation with the national environmental groups (and other interested parties) in order to obtain an in priniciple acceptance of the proposed technology (minimising the extent to which process considerations are confused with site-specific considerations);
  2. selection of an appropriate location for treatment facilities, which will be supported by the relevant authorities;
  3. established, regular communication with the local community on relevant issues (eg ongoing community/industry consultation groups);
  4. allocation of sufficient time to the community consultation process, rather than attempting to compress the consultation process.
CMPS&F [environmental consulting firm] concludes that community consultation is a critical aspect of the establishment of scheduled waste treatment facilities in Australia. With non-high temperature incineration processes, it appears that community consultation will not result in insurmountable obstacles and, in itself, is not sufficient to preclude investment by companies that propose to install a treatment facility. In the case of high temperature incineration, community opinion is likely to continue to preclude the establishment of a facility.

From: CMPS&F – Environment Australia. 1997. 'Appropriate Technologies for the Treatment of Hazardous Wastes.' Section 20.4