Friday, September 26, 2003 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Tar ponds cleanup: public scrutiny vital

By Bruno Marcocchio

THE HIGH readings of toluene and xylene that have been documented at various locations around Sydney this summer are all a mistake, according to Walter van Veen, consultant to the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency (Sept. 20 story). Van Veen would have us believe that a faulty canister in one sensor has resulted in repeated high readings at various sensors around Sydney.

As preposterous as this is, we will apparently have to take his word for it. The data upon which his assertion is based are not available to the public or media. There is something very rotten in the state of Denmark.

Residents in Whitney Pier and the rest of Sydney have been complaining about strong coal tar smells for weeks now, ever since work on the Domtar tank began. The smells continue, dependent on wind direction, even after the Tar Ponds Agency's assertions that it was all a big mistake. We obviously have a much bigger problem than the coal tars in our air. The smell emanating from the agency poses an even bigger risk to our future health than the high toluene and xylene readings.

The agency has usurped all regulatory authority and is now in control of what little remains of the public process surrounding the cleanup of Canada's worst hazardous waste site. It is the agency, not the federal or provincial departments of health or environment, which does the monitoring and reporting of any problems. Public involvement will be limited to representatives of community organizations that will be selected by the agency to advise, without public or media scrutiny, on decisions made behind closed doors. There seems to be a pattern here! The agency is in control of both information and community involvement without public or media scrutiny.

This is a far cry from then federal environment minister Sergio Marchi's 1996 promise of an open, transparent process that would involve the public, and avoid the failures that backroom decisions had led to in previous remediation attempts. We now have the foxes in control of both the media and the public in our toxic henhouse.

It is clear that nonsensical spin, not protection of our health, will be what drives cleanup attempts. This will not do. It is time for the agency to put reasonable measures in place to protect human health, including a voluntary buffer zone of 500 metres surrounding the site. Whenever these volatile compounds are disturbed, there will continue to be fugitive emissions. Continued denial of impacts outside the fence will lead to endless conflict and bad decision-making.

The admission that people are impacted and require protection is a necessary first step if the mistakes of the past are to be avoided. Implementing democratic scrutiny of government decisions by the public and media must also happen if we want good decisions.

Health issues are too important for the spin doctors. Real medical experts, a transparent and democratic process are long overdue.

Bruno Marcocchio is a spokesman for the Sierra Club of Canada.