Sunday, May 2, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Province prepared to start coke ovens cleanup-Russell

By AMY SMITH and STEPHEN MAHER / Staff Reporters

The Hamm government says the province will start cleaning up the Sydney tar ponds on its own if it must.

Ron Russell, Nova Scotia's public works minister, says the province could begin work on what it believes is its share of the project, the coke ovens site, "very, very soon."

"There is a tar pit there that I think the feds recognize as their responsibility," Mr. Russell said in an interview. "But we could certainly start on the coke ovens."

Mr. Russell says that is the province's fallback position. Its preferred option is for Ottawa to pay for 70 per cent of the cleanup, with Nova Scotia picking up the other 30 per cent.

"We'd much rather continue to work with the federal government on a cleanup of the entire site," he said. "It's better to organize the work if both levels of government are working in co-ordination rather than each one going their separate ways."

Mr. Russell says he's hoping federal election fever will result in a favourable announcement from Ottawa on tar ponds funding.

"You never know when you are going to get lucky, and if you are going to get lucky, just pre-election is a good time," the minister said. "I think it would be nice if the feds made an announcement in the next few days."

Mark Eyking, the Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria who has been pushing the tar ponds file in Ottawa, says negotiations haven't even begun, so the province shouldn't be talking about what will happen if they break down.

"We just picked our negotiator," he said. "I find it hard to believe, that kind of tactics, that kind of talk."

Mr. Eyking says he's been working hard since his election in 2000 to convince the federal government to set aside money for cleaning up the tar ponds. The Martin government, in its budget this spring, earmarked $500 million over 10 years for cleaning up contaminated sites in which Ottawa shares some responsibility, including the tar ponds, the only such site specifically mentioned in the budget documents.

"This generation has both the responsibility and the opportunity to leave this land better than we found it, and that means cleaning up polluted sites," Finance Minister Ralph Goodale said in his budget speech. "As a priority, we will focus on the tar ponds in Sydney."

But federal officials could offer no specifics on how much money Ottawa will contribute to the cleanup. They say there are no other shared liability sites, but that doesn't mean the tar ponds can count on getting all $500 million.

Ottawa isn't insisting that the province pay for half of the cleanup, Mr. Eyking says.

"I don't think 50 per cent will be enough," he said. "I always convey that we'd be there at least for 50."

Mr. Eyking says he thinks in the end the province will be satisfied with the money Ottawa puts on the table.

In February, federal Environment Minister David Anderson said Ottawa is responsible for just 40 per cent of the site but would pick up half the cost of the roughly $400-million project. He warned there could be less federal money for other Nova Scotia projects if Ottawa gives too much to the tar ponds.

Premier John Hamm has argued there is a deal for a 70-30 split. According to the 1999 Canada-Nova Scotia-Cape Breton Regional Municipality cost-sharing agreement, "level 3, phase 1 remediation will be funded 70 per cent by Canada and 30 per cent by Nova Scotia."

The province says the 70-30 split is roughly how the ownership of the site is divided.

Ottawa owns the tar ponds, an open waterway leading directly to the Atlantic Ocean. It also owns portions of the former coke ovens site, where coal was cooked to make the coke that fired the provincially owned steel plant for decades.