Saturday, June 7, 2003 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Governments pull plug on JAG funding
Money runs out in September

By Tera Camus / Cape Breton Bureau

Sydney - JAG's days are numbered.

As of Sept. 18, the government-backed Joint Action Group overseeing the cleanup of Sydney's two toxic waste sites will no longer be funded.

In a letter Friday to JAG chairman Dan Fraser, the provincial and federal governments said the citizens advisory group they created in 1996 did what it was supposed to do - give the community a say in how one million tonnes of hazardous waste produced by steelmaking in downtown Sydney is handled.

The community's message was relayed just one week ago - JAG members voted unanimously that government dig up the waste and burn it at an off-site cement kiln or power station. Government has yet to approve the recommendation.

"This has often been a difficult and demanding journey," the letter said. "JAG members can take . . . pride in bringing it to a successful conclusion."

The letter was signed by David Darrow, head of the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, and Garth Bangay, Atlantic director general for Environment Canada and came three days before JAG was to meet with government officials to discuss its role when the cleanup begins, sometime in 2005-06.

The group receives about $330,000 a year - most of it going to pay five full-time and three part-time staff. The Cape Breton Regional Municipality also provides JAG with about $200,000 in services like accounting and office space.

The group has also received more than $62 million, most of which was used to pay for studies of toxins and for removal of a few surface structures like the old coke ovens batteries.

Government will now assess JAG's work, which wore out hundreds of volunteers and saw repeated verbal and physical clashes between environmentalists and government bureaucrats over the years.

"It will be important to assess the lessons learned through this process," the letter said, suggesting officials will meet with JAG on Monday to discuss ways to keep the public involved.

Mayor John Morgan said the outcome of that meeting will be interesting. He said if JAG continues without funding, it could better serve as a watchdog.

"The JAG structure . . . is greatly influenced by the federal and provincial governments," he said. "When delays occurred on decisions, the community didn't have an organization clearly independent . . . and often JAG acted as an apologist" for government.

In the meantime, government wants JAG staff to prepare a budget to last until Sept. 18.

Contacted at home, Mr. Fraser said he was disappointed government has decided to pull out.

"If it doesn't have a strong agreement with government, the community won't have a voice," he said. "We weren't there to protect the interests of government but to protect the interests of the community."

Environmentalist Debbie Ouellette, who was among the families evacuated from Frederick Street after arsenic was found in basements, disagreed.

"It was never community-driven. It was government- driven," she said. "To tell you the truth, it's a relief. We spent a lot of hours there . . . and there was a lot of wasted money and a lot of high-paid consultants who did absolutely nothing."