Sunday, April 30, 2006 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Cleanup grilled Public hearings kick off on tar ponds incineration plan


SYDNEY - Three weeks of public hearings into plans to clean up the Sydney tar ponds got underway Saturday with proponents putting their best foot forward on the plan to incinerate contaminated sludge.

The hearings, before a three-member independent panel, began with a presentation by Sydney Tar Ponds Agency CEO Frank Potter and Greg Gillis, vice-president of AMEC Earth and Environmental, the lead firm in the creation of the agency's environmental impact statement.

"I'm here to tell you that most people in Sydney do not care much about how we clean up the tar ponds and coke ovens, as long as we pick a tried-and-true method that has proven safe and effective at similar sites," said Mr. Potter. "The tried-and-true technology for destroying PCBs is incineration. A properly designed, properly operated incinerator will, over the lifetime of its operation, destroy 99.9999 per cent of the contaminants we put into it."

He acknowledged there was opposition to the plan. On Friday, about 25 people in Sydney protested the proposal to incinerate 120,000 tonnes of tar ponds sludge contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

"Will it satisfy everyone?" asked Mr. Potter. "No, it will not. There are those who demand a cleanup, but for whom no actual cleanup method is ever good enough. Most residents of Sydney are happy to have us rely on the best technical advice and experience we can obtain and then act on that advice."

Mr. Gillis outlined the agency's 3,000-page environmental impact statement, which proposes stabilizing 580,000 tonnes of sludge on site, using hardening agents such as cement powder and shipping 120,000 tonnes of sludge contaminated with PCBs and PAHs to Victoria Junction for incineration.

He said the plan aims to reduce ecological and health risks and enhance development, investment and social benefits in Cape Breton Regional Municipality. And he emphasized that the assessment concluded the process wouldn't hurt the local environment or harm human health.

"Do you characterize the proposed remediation project as being a permanent solution?" asked Lesley Griffiths, the panel's chairwoman and co-principal of Griffiths Muecke Associates, a Halifax community planning and environmental consulting firm.

She added that she wanted to know whether the agency could "walk away" from both the tar ponds and incineration sites after the 25 years of monitoring it proposes.

"The way the systems are right now, I believe you'll have the walk-away solution that you're looking for in 25 years," said Don Shosky, a geohydrologist with agency partner firm Earth Tech.

The panellists asked the agency for more information in the coming days on what risk the contaminants will pose 25 years after cleanup.

Another panellist, Bill Charles, former dean of the Dalhousie University law school, asked the agency to rank the Sydney tar ponds among toxic sites around the world.

"I would put it in the top 20 per cent," said Mr. Shosky. "I think there are a lot of sites out there that are a lot worse. Certainly this is a fairly large volume of material that has to be dealt with."

The panellists also asked the agency to expand in future sessions on a statement by Mr. Potter in his opening remarks: "Contaminants at the coke ovens have soaked deep into fractures in the bedrock. There is no acceptable technology for removing them, so they will have to be managed over the long term."

The hearings resume Monday at 1 p.m. and continue until May 19, after which the panel has 55 days to report to the provincial and federal environment ministers with its conclusions, concerns and recommendations.