Monday, February 7, 2005 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Cleanup unveiling draws near

By Steve MacLeod / The Canadian Press

After 950 public meetings, more than 600 scientific papers and enough hot air to float a blimp, the oft-delayed cleanup of Canada's worst environmental mess is poised to clear a major hurdle.

Or bog down again in spit and vitriol.

The location of a controversial incinerator designed to burn chemical-laden sludge from the tar ponds of a blighted Sydney neighbourhood is expected to be revealed in days.

Details are also expected to be released of a pending environmental assessment of the $400-million plan to rid Cape Breton's largest community of pollution caused by almost a century of steelmaking.

"We've waited long enough for this," Alastair MacLeod, a Sydney dentist and chairman of a community liaison group involved in the project, said in a recent interview.

"This is hurting our image. It's hurting our prospects for employment. It's time to get on with it."

Located in the heart of a working-class neighbourhood, the tar ponds are fouled by a reeking chemical stew of raw sewage, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs and other toxins.

A 200-page federal-provincial plan is expected to be released shortly for the cleanup of both the ponds and the adjacent former grounds of the sprawling Sydney Steel mill.

The 10-year plan calls for tonnes of the most toxic material to be removed from the 100-hectare site and incinerated over three years.

Remaining materials will be either encapsulated on site or exposed to hydrocarbon-munching microbes.

Environmentalist David Suzuki recently called the plan to bury or burn the worst of the contaminants "the dumbest idea."

Opponents fear such methods will expose Sydney's 40,000 residents to even greater health risks and have called for a full panel review - a form of environmental assessment conducted by an independent panel and not by government.

Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, said her group will do "everything possible" to stop incineration.

"It's a completely unacceptable plan," she said last week from Ottawa. "They're hoping people are just so tired - and I don't blame them, I'm tired, too - that they'll just say, 'Let's get on with it and do this bad cleanup because at least then it's over with."'

Premier John Hamm has gone on record as opposing a full-panel review, saying recently that it's not necessary.

The debate over what to do about the tar ponds, which empty into Sydney harbour, has gone on for over 20 years and eaten up about $140 million beyond the $400 million now earmarked for cleanup.

Francis Sirois, who headed a former group charged with overseeing the cleanup, said that while opinions differ on how to solve the problem, everyone agrees on one thing.

"They want the sore taken away in some fashion as quickly as possible - that's the only message you could say is universal," he said.

Parker Donham, a spokesman for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, said the problem has "cast a stigma over Sydney" and hurt everyone.

"Once big, yellow machines are working on the site and people are walking through the gates with lunch boxes, people will feel better about it," he said. "And people won't feel better about it until then."