Wednesday, February 4, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited


John Hamm: 'We have set aside money for 30 per cent.'

N.S., feds at odds over tar ponds cost-sharing
Ottawa offering to split cleanup 50-50, province insists share more like 70-30

By David Jackson and Amy Smith / Staff Reporters

Federal Environment Minister David Anderson confirmed for the first time Tuesday that Ottawa will pay half the cost of the Sydney tar ponds cleanup. But the province says that's not enough.

Mr. Anderson said Ottawa is responsible for just 40 per cent of the site but has told the Nova Scotia government it will pay more than that.

"I don't want to get into the negotiations," Mr. Anderson said after question period in Ottawa. "I just want to say that we've offered 50-50, which is more generous than the split would otherwise be."

Mr. Anderson previously hadn't been willing to comment on the cost-sharing. Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking said it would be at least 50 per cent, and some Liberals had said the federal share could go as high as 60 per cent.

It could be a topic for more federal-provincial wrangling, as Premier John Hamm said he expects Ottawa to pick up 70 per cent of the cost.

"It's a $400-million project," the premier said Tuesday at Province House. "The bulk of the responsibility, if you look back into the history of the area, has been on the federal side and we anticipate they will continue to fund at the 70-30 level.

"We have set aside money for 30 per cent."

The type of technology to be used and the project's final price tag haven't been determined. Using Mr. Hamm's figure of $400 million for the total cost, he'd expect Ottawa to pay $280 million.

Monday's throne speech mentioned a $500-million, 10-year federal fund for cost-shared cleanup projects and specifically mentioned the tar ponds. Mr. Anderson didn't know how many other projects might qualify but said there's more than just Sydney.

Prime Minister Paul Martin also cited the tar ponds project in his speech Tuesday, reiterating the government's commitment to clean up contaminated sites.

"More for Sydney, Nova Scotia, for example, where the tar ponds have stood as a national disgrace - a relic of an unsustainable past," Mr. Martin said, sparking a standing ovation from Liberals.

Mr. Anderson said there's still room to discuss the 50-50 split, but he said negotiating could lead to either side's share increasing. He also warned there could be less federal money for other Nova Scotia projects if Ottawa gives too much to the tar ponds cleanup.

"There's no question that it affects how generous you are in other programs if you feel you're paying more than your share on another one like this," he said. Mr. Eyking said he thinks the two levels of government will be able to strike a deal, and there's no point negotiating in public.

"I think at the end of the day the prime minister and premier sit down and say, 'OK, here's the scoop, right? What can the province afford and what can we afford?' "

The federal government owns the tar ponds, an open waterway leading directly to the Atlantic Ocean. Ottawa also owns portions of the former coke ovens site, which cooked coal to make coke that fired the provincially owned steel plant for decades.

Three years ago, the province set aside $316 million to clean up the former steel plant and tar ponds sites and the nearby coke ovens.

Bruno Marcocchio, conservation campaigner for the Sierra Club of Canada, said he was pleased and surprised to hear the prime minister make specific mention of the tar ponds.

"I think it sends a strong and encouraging signal that he is willing to fund it," Mr. Marcocchio said. "I'm certainly glad he did at least commit the federal government to at least some funding."

But he said he's concerned there are still questions about the cost-sharing arrangement.

"I don't think it's appropriate that the Sierra Club . . . enters into the negotiations on who will pay for what percentage of it," Mr. Marcocchio said. "My primary concern is that the federal government play a more active role in the decisions and management of the cleanup."

He said the province has "made bad decisions" on the tar ponds in the past and wasted taxpayers' dollars.

Francis Sirois, an executive member of the defunct Joint Action Group, said the throne speech mention of the tar ponds was very positive.

"It's overdue," he said. "I think it's all positive news."