Friday, May 7, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Pier residents top priority


We have had years of talk about the tar ponds, steel plant, coke oven and Sydney harbour site remediation and who should pay for it. But there has been virtually no discussion about the long-term, secondary fallouts of toxic and other harmful effluents. Many of these have negatively affected the short- and long-term lives and health of Whitney Pier residents, who suffer from well-documented residual effects of steel-making.

However, is a class-action suit the best recourse for settling the legitimate, long-outstanding claims of Pier citizens? Not if settling humanitarian claims has the same priority as selecting the process to clean up the tar pond and coke oven sites.

By ignoring their own environmental regulations and subsidizing the practices and operations of this steel industry site for so long, the feds and province are responsible for the total remediation of the primary and secondary (contiguous) sites affected by steel operations. They seem to agree on this politically, but principles and criteria for compensation, plus a cost-sharing agreement are missing. It would be signed by each level of government (including the Cape Breton Regional Municipality) to compensate claimants for residual fallouts, such as chronic disease, corroded and contaminated properties.

Until now, it has appeared Whitney Pier residents might get some compensation in 10 or 15 years, if any funds were left over. Now it's payback time - for a high-level negotiator has been appointed to think outside the box that this cleanup has been kept in by political bafflegab. With no more politicized Crown corporations to waffle over the plans to clean up the steel plant and adjacent Pier sites, something good might happen in our lifetime.

The appointment of Alphonse Cormier, an assistant deputy minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, places the planning in the mainstream of government departments and with bureaucrats who have established, networked relationships, and who actually talk to each other.

For over 100 years, the feds and province let various Sydney steel-plant owners bull ahead to produce steel, with no contingency funds allocated for eventual remediation of the site, or for the humanitarian health care of plant employees and downwind Pier residents, many of whom bore the costly brunt of steel-making effluents.

Therefore, shouldn't the Pier residents come first in the negotiator's priorities for closure, while they are still living? He can get an early agreement on the health and upgrade standards and claims to which Pier homeowners are entitled, if he musters the political will and installs the processes to do so.

He has excellent bargaining chips, because all levels of government regulations concerning the environment, health and safety standards were broken to perpetuate steel jobs, when politicians turned a blind eye to the unhealthy discomfort of Pier residents and steel workers.

But the clock is ticking on the quality of life years and solvency available to rapidly aging Pier citizens. Since most of the cause and effect demographics concerning steel-making illnesses and deaths are now available, the people-settlement criteria for cancer, lung and other effluent-related diseases should be the highest priority. Then a date can be set for processing all claims (i.e., Dec. 31, 2007). To meet this date, the standards and schedules for settling personal claims must be available this fiscal year.

The adjacent site of the whole Whitney Pier community must also be dealt with fairly and decisively without more political grandstanding and bureaucratic quibbling, like the many-years-overdue Sysco retirement package was subjected to.

Property devaluation and toxin damage to soil, paint, roofs, lawns and gardens of residents should also be settled within three years. Then Pier residents can start, and finish, their upgrades and make claims for remediation for upgrading their property and/or relocation, without hiring a lawyer.

Many Pier residences can be cleaned up with minor repairs and several coats of paint for a cost of less than $500. New maintenance materials in excess of $500, but less than $1,500, purchased within seven years after the plant closed officially, might also be claimed, along with soils to balance the nutrients of lawns and gardens.

The remediation of the steel plant site's adjacent community could provide an economic stimulant if it got underway this year, when unemployment levels in the Pier are high. To speed up the process, standards that recognize legitimate claims for remediation and assistance should be developed promptly and approved simply, without political intervention from the CBRM, or any other level of government.

Jim Peers lives in Sydney.