Saturday, May 8, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

$400m tab limits tar ponds options
Figure likely restricts cleanup to incineration or cement cap

By TERA CAMUS and AMY SMITH / Staff Reporters

An estimated $1-billion tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup option picked a year ago by Sydney residents looks like it's off the table.

Dan Fraser, former chairman of the now defunct Joint Action Group, said the $400-million federal-provincial announcement expected next week won't be enough to cover what JAG selected following a seven-year public consultation exercise that cost taxpayers well over $65 million.

"I'd say the money precludes the solution we put forward to government more than a year ago," Mr. Fraser said Friday.

JAG, created by Ottawa and the province in 1996 to let citizens decide how to tackle Sydney's toxic mess, submitted a $500 million-$600 million proposal after years of study and bickering among bureaucrats and environmentalists.

Cleanup options included everything from digging up and incinerating the heavy metals and volatile compounds to burying portions of the site under cement or slag to building a dam to stop the flow of pollution into Sydney Habour.

But in a memo leaked last June, Parker Donham, spokesman for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, wrote to MP Mark Eyking that JAG's pick was too expensive and unrealistic.

"With encouragement from Environment Canada, JAG promotes a Cadillac cleanup solution with dubious feasibility and affordability," Mr. Donham wrote. "In-house risk analysis carried out in the last three weeks concluded the actual cost will approach $1 billion."

Next week's cleanup announcement is expected to commit Ottawa to providing $280 million and the province $120 million.

In Halifax on Friday, Mr. Donham's boss, Public Works Minister Ron Russell, said he was surprised by the $1-billion estimate.

"The figure that I've alway heard is somewhere in the vicinity of $400 million and it could vary either up or down by a small amount," Mr. Russell said at Province House.

"When I say small, I mean maybe $10 million or $20 million, something of that nature, depending on the methodology that's used."

Mr. Fraser said JAG endorsed 10 cleanup methods but given the money expected to be announced next week, he guessed they are narrowed closer to two:

- Digging up the tar ponds' heaviest contamination that contains too many polychlorinated biphenyls for incineration. There are about 50,000 tonnes of PCBs among the 700,000 tonnes of fuel-based carcinogens known as polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons. (* See correction below)

- Burying other portions of the two sites with slag or cement, deemed a temporary solution by Ottawa when JAG was formed.

Whatever solution is picked, Mr. Fraser and others agreed it's time for government to outline the project and launch a federal environmental review that could take years before an ounce of waste is dealt with.

"I think the community has wasted far too much time on this and let's just get it done safely and quickly."

Mayor John Morgan of Cape Breton Regional Municiplaity said the best thing JAG ever did was dissolving last fall after delaying a cleanup for seven years.

"There was no cleanup mechanism ruled in or ruled out," he said. "Seven years ago, government went to JAG and said pick a cleanup mechanism, and seven years later JAG goes back and says we think virtually every cleanup mechanism is acceptable to some extent . . . giving senior levels of government a perfect reason not to be proceeding with the cleanup.

"I think the ending of the JAG process was a significant advancement in opening the door to cleaning up the site."

But from an economic perspective, $400 million will give the area a big needed boost, Mr. Morgan added.

"I'm happy there's going to be a significant investment on the sites."

Sierra Club local president Bruno Marcocchio said he's encouraged about the cleanup money but hopes Ottawa controls how it's spent.

"Obviously it's not enough to clean up both the tar ponds and coke ovens sites."

He said Ottawa appears to be committed to technologies that are "protective of human health," adding he wants some of the money used to buy out 1,000 homeowners who live within 300 metres of the contaminated sites.

Studies by JAG and others have shown that disturbing the toxic goo will likely release volatile gases and contaminated dust if no controls are in place.

Cape Breton South MLA Manning MacDonald said from what he understands from Ottawa, $400 million for the cleanup should be enough.

"They are talking about a technology that will be able to do that (for that amount)," The Liberal MLA said Friday. "I have no reason to doubt these people."

Cape Breton Nova MLA Gordie Gosse also thinks the work can be done for $400 million. The New Democrat said people in his riding just want the project to start.

"Now they have the money in the bank. That's the big thing for the people at home."

Mr. Gosse also hopes the deal includes money for relocating those who live near the two sites.

* The correction below appeared in Sunday's Herald (May 9)

The Sydney tarponds are estimated to contain 45,000 tonnes of soil or sludge contaminated by PCBs. Incorrect information appeared in a story in Saturday's edition.