Tuesday, December 23, 2003 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Sydney groups fear tar ponds on backburner

By John Gillis

Fearing the tar ponds cleanup is not a priority for the new Martin government, two Sydney groups want to meet with federal cabinet minister Geoff Regan.

The Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce and the Cape Breton Island Building and Construction Trades Council wrote to Mr. Regan on Monday asking for a meeting early in January to discuss funding for the long-awaited project.

"The future of our community depends in large part on what happens with the tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup," Cliff Murphy, president of the trades council, said in a news release. "It's a crucial issue, and we must impress upon Mr. Martin's government the need to get on the job."

He said recent statements by various officials cast doubt on the amount and timing of federal participation in the cleanup of the toxic waste, generated over a century of steelmaking.

Last week, Prime Minister Paul Martin announced measures to temporarily freeze government spending, with the intention of directing billions of dollars more toward health care. He froze major capital programs, capped the size of the civil service and ordered a wide review of Ottawa's finances.

Local Liberal MP Mark Eyking said the cleanup wasn't likely to be on the chopping block.

The tar ponds, North America's largest toxic waste site, have long been targeted for environmental cleanup. The industrial wasteland is bordered by homes, schools, playgrounds and ball fields.

Business and labour leaders are concerned the stigma attached to the tar ponds and old coke ovens is impeding economic development and job creation.

"For Cape Breton's economy to replace coal mining and steelmaking with new economic activities, we must put the tar ponds problem behind us," said John Nash, president of the chamber. "Without an early start to the cleanup, we cannot hope to attract the new investment and local entrepreneurial activity needed to generate wealth and employment on the island."

Both the chamber of commerce and the trades council took active roles in the seven-year process that culminated last May in a recommendation to government that the waste be dug up and burned in a coal-fired incinerator.

More than 900 public meetings and 100,000 volunteer hours went into the community cleanup recommendation.