Saturday, April 2, 2005 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Tar ponds: make haste, bury waste


TO USE an unfortunate phrase, I've been getting "up to speed" on the Sydney tar ponds cleanup in the past few weeks. But it turns out there's no rush.

Indeed, in the great sweep of this project's history, it's hard to tell if the cleanup is marching forward, falling backwards, or standing at attention.

A slew of plans to clean up the slough of despond has been anted up since 1984. And the current proposal - described in a Project Description put forward by the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency (STPA) in February - is taking a beating from the Sierra Club of Canada.

The provincial government agency proposes - in brief - to bury most of the coal-mining and steel-making sludge that has accumulated in the tar ponds over the past century or so. And to burn the rest of it.

The critics have glibly labelled this the B&B solution: the burying would involve a great deal of cement, and the second B would put an incinerator in place to burn up PCB-contaminated soil.

The B&B defenders say the method is tried and true. STPA spokesguy Parker Donham - of Harry and Parker fame - points to thousands of "capped" contaminated sites where grasses now blow in the breeze.

And as part of my 3 a.m. reading regimen, I discovered Tuesday night - in the March 28 edition of the New Yorker - that a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course will soon be built atop the old Ferry Point landfill in the Bronx.

Donham is not too worried anymore about public opinion in the Sydney area - most people, he says, want governments to get on with the job. But he's losing sleep over the federal environment assessment (EA) of the project - or the process the EA might follow.

Indeed, the decision over whether to conduct a "comprehensive review" or convene a full "panel review" is crucial. It now sits in the lap of federal Public Works Minister Scott Brison, who has the daunting task of making a recommendation to his cabinet colleague Stephane Dion, Canada's environment minister.

The tar ponds agency favours a "comprehensive review," which as Donham points out, provides scope for intervener funding and public input. He argues it will take a lot less time than a full panel review, which would involve finding expert panellists, getting them up to speed on the project, and scheduling hearings when they can all show up at once.

Enter Elizabeth May - the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. May agrees with Donham on one point - that Brison should make a decision quickly. Beyond that, she gives no quarter. Ms. May is pushing for a full panel review of the B&B cleanup, and uses all the right words in defending her position - "greater transparency," fuller "accountability," a "more public" process. And she insists panel members should be "independent" and from "outside government."

If ever there were a case for a full panel review under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, she says, "this is it." May also favours what she calls more innovative cleanup technologies - the principal one is called "soil-washing." And while she concedes there is a heck of a lot of soil to wash at the tar ponds - more than 700,000 tonnes of it - she says this would not cost more than the $400 million governments have set aside for the project.

Now, May is a brilliant and persuasive advocate, and you couldn't pay me enough to debate her in a public forum. But I still think the Donham crowd has got it right.

The B&B method may not be rocket science, but it isn't from the Flintstone era either. What the tar ponds agency proposes to do is "remove and destroy" the worst stuff from the site, and "treat and contain" the rest. It's not a perfect solution, but it sure looks like a practical, workable, doable one.

And it can still be challenged in a "comprehensive review" process. You can be certain the Sierra Club would do just that. May and her colleagues will surely fight for a better cleanup plan during the environment assessment process.

But we just don't need a full round of hearings on this project. The tar ponds cleanup has already been the subject of more than 900 public meetings, hundreds of technical reports, two stillborn cleanup efforts, and 21 years of hand-wringing in Sydney and Halifax.

And to date, it has cost taxpayers more than $130 million to not clean up the mess. It's time to end the war of words, and get on with the job.

Jim Meek is a freelance journalist based in Halifax. He is also editor of The Inside Out Report, a quarterly journal based on public opinion research.