June 4, 2012 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Project continues to transform Sydney tar ponds

By MARY ELLEN MacINTYRE Cape Breton Bureau

Sydney - The former Sydney Steel plant's coke ovens and tar ponds were once collectively called the nation's most contaminated industrial site.

Some still consider it to be so. Still, today there is a meandering creek with clear water, green fields, sidewalks and freshly paved roadways. Breathe deeply and all you will smell most days is freshly mown grass. Depending on where you stand along the 100-hectare site, you might smell some car exhaust. But naphthalene? Sewer outfalls? Any number of pungent chemicals borne of close to a century of steel and coke making? Not a whiff. Well, maybe once in awhile if there's digging going on at the north pond.

Where once the Sydney Steel plant's noontime whistle or the boom of dumping slag figured prominently in the lives of residents, all that can usually be heard now at the site is an occasional twitter from a bird or the honk of a Canada goose. This is a pastoral paradise compared with what the former coke ovens, tar ponds and steel plant sites looked and smelled like a few short years ago.

Few who were there one steaming hot August day in 1996 can forget the moment the stench of sewer outfalls and chemically pungent sludge overtook the federal environment minister. Sergio Marchi blanched, staggered and almost retched. He declared the tar ponds site a national shame.

And so it was. But what is it now? What happened to an estimated million tonnes of toxic sludge covering 100 hectares and riven through by water that was filthy with sewage? Where did it go? Well, it really didn't go anywhere. "It is an amazing project and we're quite proud of the work that's been done and is being done," said Donnie Burke, an engineer with the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. During a recent tour of the site, Burke outlined the $400-million dollar project, which began in 2007 and is in the final stage of the cleanup.

The project is massive and includes a 100-hectare swath of real estate in the middle of downtown Sydney. Brooks pouring into the site known as the tar ponds from other contaminated areas, like the former coke ovens location, were rerouted and lined with rock after contaminated sediment was removed. The lion's share of the contaminated soil has simply been mixed with cement and solidified. After larger pieces like wood, metal and other objects (they are sometimes crushed, decontaminated and placed back into the area or sent to a landfill site) are taken from the area, a mixture of cement is folded into the contaminated soil, forming a solid base through which leaching is minimal. Once the clay capping is in place and the area is sodded over, engineers say the contaminates are in a virtually frozen state. Leaching that does occur is within Environment Canada standards.

Burke stood on a platform which provides a vantage point to look over the tar ponds site. "You can see the three stages of this area - the finished section, the just remediated area and the actual digging up of the last area to be completed at the mouth of the harbour," said Brooks. Toward the city, the completely remediated area was green and lush.

Future plans for the site include the possibility of an outdoor concert venue, bike paths, sports fields and walking trails. A land-use plan is in the beginning stages.

The cleanup has been in the works since the closure of the coke ovens was announced in 1985. However, while few would likely disagree with the esthetics, not everyone believes it constitutes a cleanup. "I've been saying from the very beginning it is a coverup, not a cleanup," said Bruno Marcocchio during a telephone interview Monday. "If you look at it, it does look lovely, but it is a terrible waste of opportunity and a terrible waste of $400 million because it's got a life expectancy of maybe 15 to 25 years." Marcocchio spearheaded a campaign to properly clean up the site in the late 1980s and 1990s. He rose to prominence in the early 1990s when, after foretelling the failure of a $60-million incinerator at the site, the device failed. "What will our grandchildren think of our efforts here? We didn't clean it up and return the estuary to its natural state," he said. "Grandiose plans won't change what it is, and we're going to turn our children loose on top of that mess?"