Steelworker put 'his life on the line' to clean up the Sydney Tar Ponds

Living next door to the vast toxic-waste site as a boy, he watched his mother die of cancer and vowed to take action. 'He is the only person to have made any progress in over 15 years'

by Allison Lawlor
Special to The Globe and Mail; Canadian Press
Fri., Jul. 25, 2008

HALIFAX -- Nine years ago, Don DeLeskie, clad in rubber boots and old clothes, waded into the thick black sludge of what has been called North America's largest toxic waste dump and shovelled it into a barrel. Fighting chronic disease at the time, it was his personal effort to clean up Nova Scotia's notorious Sydney Tar Ponds.

At least one television reporter covering the event became overcome by fumes, collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. "Thank God it was reporters that were dropping," said Mr. DeLeskie, a retired steelworker. "I don't say that 'cause it's good. But it was news, then."

Frustrated by years of inaction by provincial and federal governments in dealing with the toxic mess left behind by a century of steelmaking, Mr. DeLeskie staged his clean-up after circulating a petition signed by more than 1,500 people, demanding immediate action at the site.

"Don was prepared to put his life on the line to get action," Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May wrote in their 2000 book Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada's Love Canal. "He is the only person to have made any progress in over 15 years."

Mr. DeLeskie, best known as Donnie, had already mounted multiple hunger strikes in an attempt to force Ottawa and the province to relocate and compensate people living near the tar ponds in Sydney, one of the province's most populous communities.

The site is the result of about 100 years of steel and coke production that left behind more than a million tonnes of dioxins, PCBs and heavy metals. Occupying about 100 hectares (33 times the size of the notorious Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y.) the contamination spread to four areas around the former steel mill: the North and South Tar Ponds, the former Coke Ovens property, an old dump uphill from the coke ovens and a stream that carried contaminants from the Coke Ovens to the Tar Ponds. In 2004, Ottawa and Nova Scotia signed a $400-million agreement committing them to jointly fixing the Sydney Tar Ponds and Coke Ovens sites within 10 years.

Mr. DeLeskie waded into the environmental issue in the mid-1980s after retiring from the steel foundry. Born and raised in the working-class Sydney neighbourhood of Whitney Pier, the tar ponds were etched in his earliest memories. "I remember being a kid and having to watch what way the wind was blowing because of the orange ore dust from the pond ... When you see the sky turn pure orange, well, what are you sucking down? Every window had a rainbow on it - every different colour. This was an unbelievable place," he told writer Gordon Laird for his bestselling 2002 book Power: Journeys Across an Energy Nation.

Tragedy struck the DeLeskie family when Don and his twin brother Ron were just three years old. "My mother was 37 years of age when she died of cancer. I remember waiting for her on the doorstep like a dog for her to come back. I never ever want another child or family to go through that."

That was the true beginning of his activism. "It went from there, I suppose," he said. "You hear people dying more and more. And you start investigating."

In 1993, he decided to do something dramatic and went on a very public hunger strike to get the attention of Nova Scotia health minister Ron Stewart. It was one of many hunger strikes he would stage - and it worked. By the fourth day, Mr. Stewart promised action. He agreed to pay for part of a health study of local residents. But Mr. DeLeskie soon grew increasingly frustrated as more studies were proposed and responsibility for the cleanup bickered up and down among all levels of governments. "When we walk into the house of someone who is dying of cancer, do we say, 'I've got good news for you. We're going to have another cancer study'? Why can't we walk in and say, 'Look, we're sorry for what happened and we can't change that, but at least we could compensate them,' " the ever-outspoken Mr. DeLeskie once told a gathering of government officials. "When they go to their graves, they would know that their families were looked after."

Describing him as very passionate and committed, Ms. May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, remembers worrying about Mr. DeLeskie's health when he decided to join her in 2001 on another hunger strike to pressure the federal and provincial governments into relocating dozens of families living on contaminated soil in Sydney. "I called him and said, 'Don, don't go too long," Ms. May said. "He was in ill health. But his attitude was that he already knew that the tar ponds and coke ovens had taken his life from him so he would do everything he could to address the issue to help others."

He stood up and fought when he knew full well that the tar ponds were killing him, she added. "Don DeLeskie was brave."

Born on Sydney's West Street, less than two kilometres from what is now the toxic waste site, Don and his brother Ron both went to work at the steel plant. Don also worked as a bricklayer before becoming disabled with a respiratory illness. He later had a couple of heart attacks and was confined to a wheelchair. After seeing more and more co-workers and neighbours become ill with cancer, Don and Ron decided they had to do something. Working together, they acted as watchdogs for the proposed clean-up of the Sydney tar ponds and coke-ovens site. Their sister, Sheila, also joined them as a community activist on the issue. Ron died suddenly in 2003 from a heart seizure, leaving Don devastated. He was 57.

With so much controversy surrounding the cleanup issue, Mr. DeLeskie made sure to keep himself well informed. He spent endless hours reading reports and research, and thrived on it. He liked to tell his wife Elsie: "You can never get enough knowledge." He also attended countless meetings and sat on several panels but he grew frustrated by the incessant government studies. "They've been studying this since 1980 - studying, studying and studying."

The tar ponds had been researched to death, he told Mr. Laird. "I could go up and bring a crate down of studies. And they'll do the same studies again. Then they tell us it's okay because most of the waste is underwater. They must think we're totally brain-dead - or totally stupid."

Mr. DeLeskie frequently pointed to a statistical health study done in the 1980s that reported an increased incidence in Sydney's cancer-related deaths - "significantly elevated mortality" - as a sign that the government knew about the problem years earlier but chose to do nothing. Some government reports raised questions about self-induced disease brought on by smoking and hard living, yet such nearby communities as Sydney Mines and Glace Bay failed to show the same mortality rates. "The government knew in 1985 that the residents were going to die of cancer. They knew, and they never told us," he once told a packed community meeting. "We've all been the air monitors all these years. We've been sucking back the stuff day after day into our lungs. Enough is enough. We're talking about our health!"

Mr. DeLeskie was pleased that Ottawa and the provincial government had committed to clean up the site, but he felt that too little was being done too slowly. "He worked on behalf of the people," said Eric Brophy, a Sydney resident and community activist. "It was the people he was out there to protect. He put one helluva an effort into it."


Donald DeLeskie was born Aug. 21, 1945, in Sydney, N.S. He died June 1, 2008, of respiratory illness in a Sydney hospital. He was 62. He leaves wife Elsie, son Donald, stepsons Eddie and Michael, sisters Jane and Sheila, brother Bill and several nieces and nephews.

Progress in the ponds

Don DeLeskie's life's work continues. Last month, the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency reassured Nova Scotia that the cleanup of the former coke ovens site adjacent to the infamous tar ponds is moving into a new phase.

The agency - the body in charge of the massive cleanup - says it has filed a tender for construction of a series of so-called underground cutoff walls. The walls are supposed to prevent contamination from flowing beyond the site. The walls will be built along the north and south sides of the massive property.

Construction is to be completed in November. More walls will be built if contamination continues, said Frank Potter, president of the agency.

The federal and provincial governments agreed in May, 2004, to launch a serious bid to clean up the tar ponds. The cleanup must be completed by 2014.

Canadian Press