Saturday, June 28, 2003 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Herald file
Bruno Marcocchio, president of the Sierra Club, says residents should be worried.

Residents fear studies flawed
Those living near toxic sites worry that if price-tag figures are wrong, health data may also be inaccurate

By Tera Camus / Cape Breton Bureau

Sydney - Are residents safe living on or near toxic soil?

That's what some Sydney residents are asking after learning that government consultants hired through the Joint Action Group miscalculated the $450-million cost of removing toxic waste from the tar ponds and coke ovens for off-site burning.

The price, which didn't factor in taxes or startup costs, is now estimated to be $1 billion, says a leaked provincial memo.

Premier John Hamm said Friday the higher cost "obviously will figure into the mix as to how we go forward."

But residents worry now that other studies, including JAG's health studies, may be seriously flawed.

Those studies used complicated equations to determine lifelong risk from chemical exposure for hundreds of people who live atop or near toxic waste. Numbers were generated by testing for toxic substances in soil locally instead of the using established lower levels in the Canadian Soil Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Environmental and Human Health.

The federal guidelines, based on past studies of human and animal exposure to chemicals, give provinces suggested levels for controlling toxic chemicals in air, water and soil. The guidelines state that site-specific health-risk assessment can be done effectively, but when using soil not contaminated by manmade substances.

Under JAG, consultants took soil samples from North Sydney, even though it's less than 10 kilometres across the harbour from the former Sydney Steel plant, and four kilometres from Sydney Mines, where another steel plant operated for 20 years. Both plants didn't use pollution controls.

Bruno Marcocchio, president of the Sierra Club, said residents should be worried.

"I think the real frightening part is it's clear that no one has any handle on what will be done (to clean up the toxic waste), when it will be done, how it will be done, or how human health will be protected," he said.

"It's frightening that after seven years, and millions of dollars spent under the JAG exercise, to realize that we're no further ahead . . . and human health continues to be ignored."

The rationale for using North Sydney, according to the study, is because it's not considered downwind of Sydney. According to historic air studies, prevailing winds from Sydney blow toward North Sydney 28 per cent of the time. Sydney Steel operated for 100 years.

But JAG chairman Dan Fraser says the peer review process used by government to check health calculations was sound.

"There is no problem there," Mr. Fraser said. "There were peer reviewers who had nothing to do with government. . . . Fine, they were paid. But they are still people who have a profession who are not going to stick their necks out because they've made some money and say it's OK when it's not."

Health studies showed hundreds of people living on toxic soil in a Whitney Pier neighbourhood and elsewhere in Sydney theoretically have an elevated risk of getting cancer and other diseases from exposure to their yards and basements. Government last year began removing soil and fixing basements to reduce potential risks.

Cape Breton Regional Mayor John Morgan said it's time for government to stop "hiding behind JAG" and be clear on its health-risk calculations, the acceptable methods under consideration for cleanup, and to get on with the job. Government's cleanup effort started more than 20 years ago.

Mr. Morgan said JAG, created in 1996 to allow the community to decide how to clean up Sydney's toxic waste, failed to do its job.

"It's important to be clear. Is the (incinerator) facility acceptable? Is the Point Aconi power station acceptable or unacceptable (for incineration). Now they're taking a very political stance, saying that they're not going to answer that question. . . . They didn't do their jobs, they didn't do what they were asked to do."

Ann Ross, who lives on contaminated soil in Whitney Pier, just wants out.

"They're telling us we're safe to live in our homes for the next 70 years but they can't figure out the cost to clean it up after all this time?" she said. "You can't believe them. . . . How can you have any faith or trust in government studies? You can't. They are not accountable to the public because they don't care about people down here."