Monday, May 17, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Tar ponds come full circle
Move to clean up toxic mess 'sounds like a plan from 1996'

By TERA CAMUS / Cape Breton Bureau

SYDNEY - Everything old is new again when it comes to Sydney's notorious tar ponds.

Ottawa's announcement on Wednesday to provide 70 per cent of $400 million to burn Sydney's most hazardous waste and bury the rest was not very different from what was announced by the province in the early 1980s and in 1996, before both governments launched a seven-year, $65-million public consultation exercise for advice on what to do.

"I believe they're hell-bent on burning and burying this site," said longtime tar ponds activist Don Deleskie, who attended most of the news conferences announcing cleanups over the past three decades.

The one million tonnes of pollution left by 100 years of steelmaking includes heavy metals, PCBs, volatile compounds and cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Not much of the pollution covering 100 hectares at the tar ponds and nearby coke ovens has moved in 30 years.

In the early to mid-1980s, government contractor Acres International offered three options to address Sydney's industrial waste left by the public and private sector - burn it, bury it or remove it.

The federal and provincial governments, with their closed-door community group, picked incineration. But after spending $55 million and 10 years trying to get it to work, they came back to town with a new plan in 1996.

The incinerator, located by an elementary school, failed to work because engineers didn't account for the uphill one-kilometre climb and the gooey nature of the sludge, which kept getting plugged inside the pipeline. Its location also violated federal law.

"Wednesday's plan sounds like a plan from 1996," New Democrat MLA Gordie Gosse said.

In January 1996, then-provincial Liberal cabinet minister Gerald O'Malley came to a secured news conference to outline a $20.4-million plan to bury the site with slag from Sydney Steel. But labour and environmental groups crashed the news conference and drove him out of town, swearing and threatening him on his way out the door.

"We're going from a cleanup to a cover-up," Bruno Marcocchio shouted at that news conference.

This time, this week at the Victoria Park military base - where police and RCMP were plentiful and Mr. Marcocchio unusually tame - the public was locked away from media by Environment Canada to hear details of the project.

Reaction in the community room was not good, according to several people this newspaper spoke to later, especially with word that another hand-picked community group will define the project behind closed doors for regulatory approval this fall.

One source who has worked for the province on this issue said neither government deliberately attempted to delay a cleanup, as suggested by Mayor John Morgan about the seven-year Joint Action Group process that ended in September.

"JAG became a multi-headed monster that was too vague, too hard to control and too vocal," he said, noting the province wanted out years ago.

If anything, he said, JAG volunteers were deceived into thinking there were more than three of those 1980 options. In the end they fruitlessly offered 10 options that would cost $1 billion.

But government did promise Wednesday that no on-site burning will take place, as recommended by JAG in Sydney or Point Aconi.

"This (cleanup) is . . . more federal than it is provincial," he said. "The feds have the money, so they have the weight . . . the unpredictable side of this is the municipality."

In 1996, Ottawa put a stop to the province's burial plan, saying it was a Band-Aid solution. Officials worried the toxic brew, if buried, would still produce gas and toxic leachate in the community.

Acres International in 1980 also warned about the toxic runoff from a burial plan.

Provincial officials said this week a plant would need to be built to treat the toxic runoff for some time after most of the 700,000 tonnes of sludge was treated and topped with an engineered landfill.

Environment Minister David Anderson said the cleanup will be done right, using the best technology.

Mr. Gosse, a former coke oven worker, said the history of this toxic wasteland has left the community tired.

"I'm representing very good people who are in very bad circumstances," Mr. Gosse said. "I think people back home are tired, yes, they're giving us money but people are skeptical, there's been so many announcements.

"I think many are taking a wait-and-see approach."

Yet the one announcement many want to hear still hasn't been made. There was no mention Wednesday of how the public will be protected from gas or dust emissions when a dig begins. Many homeowners share property lines with either the government-owned tar ponds or coke ovens.

"Where does our government get the right to criticize other countries about human rights when they're slaughtering people here?" Mr. Deleskie said. "People are at the point that they see so many of their loved ones dying and they're sick and tired of hearing about the tar ponds . . . because they know it's the thing creating all this grief."

Sydney has one of the highest cancer and disease rates in Canada.

A cleanup is now expected to begin in 2006, but only if the project announced this fall passes a stringent environmental screening process.