Tar-ponds plan raises brows but few hopes

Unions see jobs but residents of Sydney, N.S., are skeptical
cleanup of former steel mill site will ever pan out

By Kevin Cox
Globe and Mail
Thurs., May 13, 2004

HALIFAX -- One of Canada's most polluted industrial sites -- the infamous Sydney tar ponds -- would become a haven for golfers, baseball players and nature lovers under a $400-million cleanup plan unveiled yesterday by the federal and Nova Scotia governments.

But after more than two decades and more than $100-million in public money spent on failed schemes and studies to clean up the foul-smelling, toxic chemical brew at the former Sydney Steel site, many residents of the Cape Breton city are not reaching for their five-irons or their hiking boots just yet.

A website developed by the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency shows artists' depictions of the 105-hectare site as a nature area and nine-hole golf course. But federal and provincial politicians emphasized that the cleanup will take at least 10 years. They also stressed that final decisions have not been made yet.

Bruno Marcocchio, a prominent Cape Breton environmentalist who has railed against the lack of government action on the cleanup, joked with local politicians and cleanup officials about booking tee-off times yesterday. "I was being very facetious, because the whole Sydney Steel site isn't being remediated and much of the material in the tar ponds site is being left there and covered over," Mr. Marcocchio said yesterday.

But unlike other announcements on the fate of the ugly industrial scar, which some residents blame for high cancer and birth-defect rates in Sydney, this time the politicians talked about actions. An environmental assessment of the proposed methods will be done before a decision is made.

Although other announcements about the tar ponds in recent years were punctuated with protests and even some arrests, the cleanup plan was hailed by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and unions such as the United Steelworkers of America.

The ink wasn't dry on the agreement yesterday when the steelworkers demanded jobs on the project. "Obviously this is good for the environment," USWA Atlantic director Wayne Fraser said. "Our members want to continue the cleanup and they want the government to live up to its promise of hiring workers who lost their jobs when Sydney Steel shut down."

Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm said it would not be easy for governments to regain the confidence of Sydney people after years of waiting for the tar ponds to be cleaned up. "After years of false starts and disappointments for the people of Sydney, we are determined more than ever to get the job done," he said at a news conference with three federal cabinet ministers.

The cleanup plan, one of the most ambitious and technically challenging yet attempted in Canada, will be funded with $280-million from the federal government and $120-million from Nova Scotia. More than 45,000 tonnes of sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls would be removed from the tar ponds and destroyed, probably by incineration.

The rest of the 700,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals that were dumped into the swamp-like area outside Sydney harbour for decades before the steel mill closed in 2001 will be encapsulated in plastic and buried under soil and gravel. Similar sites in the United States have been turned into hiking trails and sports fields.

A dam will be built later this year to prevent contaminants from the ponds from flowing into Sydney harbour.

There are also plans to destroy 25,000 tonnes of tar in a high-temperature incinerator at the coke ovens site and then encapsulate the 72-hectare area and convert it into either a nature area or a golf course.

It is not the first attempt to clean up the site. In 1986, Ottawa and the province agreed to spend $34.2-million to dredge the tar ponds and pump the toxic sediment more than 1.5 kilometres to an incinerator and power plant. About $55-million and 10 years later, the project was halted because the incinerator couldn't burn PCBs and there were problems moving the sludge through the pipeline.

In 1996, a $20-million plan by the Nova Scotia government to take slag from the steel mill and bury the tar ponds foundered. At that time, residents next to the coke ovens and tar ponds complained of everything from violent headaches to elevated levels of cancer.

Studies have not established a link between the contaminated areas and levels of cancer and respiratory and heart disease in the Sydney area.