Mon., Feb. 5, 2007 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Tar ponds fix looks familiar
Plan vigorously rejected in 1996

By MARY ELLEN MacINTYRE Staff Reporter

Sydney - It was 1996 and the bravest man in John Savage’s Liberal government was determined to deal with this city’s toxic mess.

Many brave men have stepped into the fray over the years but this was Supply and Services Minister Gerald O’Malley’s turn.

In the previous 10 years, there had been more than a few studies on the infamous site known as the Sydney tar ponds.

The testing and studying of the site had become a virtual industry. Following a few more tests and a couple more studies, a $52-million incinerator was built.

Environmentalists protested the incineration of the material from the now-closed Sydney steel plant. Close to 100 years of steel- and coke-making produced well over a million tonnes of contaminated soil spread over 100 hectares.

Along with benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene and a whole host of the most miserable toxins created by humankind, people were concerned about polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs have to be burned at higher temperatures than the incinerator could produce.

Those who worked in the mill and in the coking plant said they knew the sludge was laced with PCBs because they put them there — by the barrelful.

Their protests were ignored and the incinerator was fired up.

It didn’t work.

In hindsight, that was probably a good thing.

That incinerator still languishes in a rusting building on the banks of Sydney Harbour, just on the other side of the former plant’s slag heap.

During a recent telephone interview, the former MLA for Halifax Needham recalled the reception he got to his announcement. "You mean my public lynching — I remember it well," Mr. O’Malley said, laughing.

As the minister opened his mouth to explain the proposal, protesters cut him short. "When I got there, nobody was really willing to listen to the presentation," he said. "I went to make a presentation and it became a donnybrook."

In brief, the plan was to divert streams running into the infamous tar ponds, fill the ponds with slag from the steel plant and encapsulate the whole thing with concrete. Old holding tanks at the former coke ovens site would be dismantled and that site would be cleaned up. "The whole area — not just Muggah Creek (the tar ponds) — was polluted to an unknown depth . . . somewhere up to 60 feet deep in some areas and I thought quite clearly it could never be completely extracted," Mr. O’Malley said.

He was shouted down by the ever-present environmentalist, Bruno Marcocchio. "We’re going from a cleanup to a coverup — this is ridiculous," hollered Mr. Marcocchio. The room was packed with angry residents. "This is our city," shouted Victor Tomiczek, president of the local Canadian Auto Workers union. "We’re not gonna allow you to do it. This is not a Third World country."

Mr. O’Malley has vibrant memories of that day. "One big guy stood nose to nose with me in the doorway and he wouldn’t let me through but, by God, I was going through him," Mr. O’Malley recalled.

He said the project he wanted to unveil is essentially the project announced by federal and provincial politicians last week. Eleven years after Mr. O’Malley’s news conference in Sydney, federal and provincial politicians announced a $400-million plan to use a technology called stabilization and solidification at the site. That announcement went off without a hitch. "They put in a larger contingent of security people and Bruno was some distance away from the building," Mr. O’Malley remarked wryly. In any event, Mr. O’Malley’s announcement was considered a "cheap fix." Further testing at the site revealed more PCBs were contained in the sediment than initially thought.

A visit to the site later that summer by federal Environment Minister Sergio Marchi put an end to the whole idea. Mr. Marchi toured the tar ponds site on a hot August day. Raw sewage mixed with chemicals in the ponds to stir up a stomach-churning odour. Working to keep himself from retching, Mr. Marchi vowed, like other environment ministers before and after him, to clean up the site.

A Joint Action Group was formed to allow community input into a so-called final solution. The group held over 950 public meetings over the next eight years. An estimated 650 technical and scientific reports were written over the past 22 years. As for how many millions have been spent up to this point, a rough estimate places it in the area of about $100 million, excluding most of the $400 million in the project most recently announced.

JAG eventually concluded the contaminants should be dug up and burned off-site at a cement kiln or a power station.

A joint review panel appointed in 2005 by provincial and federal environment ministers held a series of meetings to determine the best course. Its report was submitted last July.

Mr. O’Malley is blunt when asked the difference between his plan and the plan now in place. "There’s no damn difference," he said. "It’s exactly the same with one major difference — mine cost $33 million and now it costs $400 million."

Mr. Tomiczek said he figures this latest fix is just more of the same. "All these years later, the government has learned how to hold their news conferences and the people have been living with this so long we’ve become apathetic," he said. "Back in the day, we would’ve been booting a few doors down but now I guess people just want it to go away."

As for Mr. Marcocchio, the years have not taken the fight out of him. "This plan is a waste of money, shows a complete lack of concern for human health and in the end the toxic waste will be left with us," he said. "Instead of a cleanup, it’s a coverup once again."