Wednesday, February 9, 2005 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Fight brewing over burning of toxic sludge
Coal wash plant as incineration site among battles for tar ponds activists

By Murray Brewster / The Canadian Press

SYDNEY - An abandoned Cape Breton coal wash plant has been chosen as the main location for a controversial incinerator designed to burn PCBs and other toxins dredged from Canada's worst environmental mess.

If approved by a public review, a mobile incinerator will burn the most toxic material from the Sydney tar ponds and former Sydney Steel coke ovens site over a three-year period, cleanup officials said Tuesday.

The long-awaited announcement sets the stage for a public battle that will pit government agencies against local residents anxious to rid the community of the unsightly cesspool.

Stiff opposition is also expected from community activists opposed to burning the sludge.

However, bureaucrats with the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency said the decision on incineration will hold up to public scrutiny.

"Incineration is the most widely used means of destroying PCBs in the world," said David Darrow, chief executive of the agency.

The material that isn't incinerated will remain on the former steel mill grounds and either be encapsulated on site or exposed to hydrocarbon-eating microbes.

"These are technologies that have proven track records," said Darrow. "They're safe and effective."

The wash plant, known as the Victoria Junction site, was picked partly because it's a large area located only five kilometres from the coke ovens. There is rail access to the site, and there are significant power sources.

A description of the $400-million cleanup project said the burner will be rolled to the site on five flatbed trailers.

Darrow said the abandoned Phalen mine is the second best location for the incinerator.

The Sierra Club of Canada, an environmental group, is opposed to incineration, favouring instead a process of soil washing.

"Incineration is not a safe technology," said Marlene Kane, a vocal opponent and Sydney resident who lives only a few kilometres from the tar ponds.

"I'm hoping there will be a public outcry from the community during the environmental assessment that (the proposal) will be stopped in its tracks."

Toxic incinerators in use in Alberta and Quebec have contaminated the soil around them, she claimed.

Kane, who wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "No PCB incineration" said there should be a full-panel review, which is an environmental assessment conducted by an independent panel and not by government.

The decision on what type of review to conduct will be made by the federal environment minister after a round of public consultation.

The news was greeted with relief by other residents, who say all of the publicity surrounding the tar ponds has left Cape Breton with a negative image in other parts of the country.

"It's affected perceptions in other parts of the country," said Carla Arsenault, an executive with the EDS call-centre in Sydney. "Whenever people think of Cape Breton, they think of the tar ponds. We've even had some businesspeople ask us if it was safe to visit the area."

The tar ponds were created by a century of steelmaking and are fouled by 700,000 tonnes of toxins that include heavy metals, PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The slimy mess sits in the centre of the city and is bordered on three sides by a neighbourhoods of small working-class houses.

Some residents, who have lived for generations within a stone's throw of the site have repeatedly asked to be relocated when the excavation of the tar ponds begins.

Darrow said Tuesday that moving people is not part of the plan and there will be "vigorous monitoring and air quality assessments."

The statement was greeted with dismay by environmentalists, who insist a voluntary buffer zone of 300 metres is needed around the site.

As means to dig up the site, the agency's proposal calls for the stirring of cement into the top layer of the tar ponds. Once solidified, the mass will be easier to dig out.

But in doing so, Bruno Marcocchio of the Sierra Club said all sorts of "volatile compounds will pose a profound risk to people living 100 metres away."

The announcement Tuesday was marked by heavy security.

One snag developed when Gordie Gosse, the NDP member of the legislature for Cape Breton Centre, was barred admission by a security guard who didn't recognize him.