The Sydney Tar Ponds Cleanup Fiasco

Hazmat Magazine: Oct 1, 2000
Written by Connie Vitello

The year is 1998. A young girl rides her tricycle along the shores of Muggah Creek as a group of boys play stick hockey on the stretch of black earth that looks like a frozen lava flow. No fence prevents the children from touching the charred soil that smells like benzene, as does the creek. An old man with worn hands and tired eyes watches as the wind whips up coal dust from the yard of the huge steel mill that looms silently behind them.

For over 80 years the property has been home to the Sydney Steel Corporation (SYSCO), a steel mill that is still in operation today. And the old man, now 70, is Dan Yakimchuk - one of thousands of people who worked for SYSCO, once Sydney, Nova Scotia's largest employer.

The spot where the coke ovens stood is polluted to a depth of 24 metres with immeasurable quantities of carcinogens and toxic heavy metals. The nearby estuary of Muggah Creek contains an incredible 770,000 tonnes of toxic sludge. The creek flows through the site, known at some points as Coke Ovens Brook, which is quite shallow and almost dried up by the toxic sludge.'

The Sydney Tar Ponds have been called "Canada's Love Canal" - residents needed urgent protection from chemical exposure but the government instead bartered their long-term health in exchange for the short-term benefit of jobs.

When the government finally acted, it set in motion an ad hoc process that squandered tens of millions of dollars on botched cleanup efforts. Throughout this time, bureaucrats (who often had a conflict of interest) arbitrarily chose which people deserved relocation and which places needed cleaning up. When SYSCO became a government-owned entity in 1967, the regulator and the regulated company were one and the same. This explains in part the inadequacy of decisions that led to needless human suffering and numerous untimely deaths.

Today a chain-link fence prevents children from playing in the worst toxic hot spots. As for the cleanup, there's no end in sight.

No smoke, no baloney

Dan Yakimchuk has led the struggle to clean up the site and for him the issue is extremely personal; he lost his mother, father, brother and sister to cancer that he believes was triggered by the pollution. Even his skeptical former co-workers agree today that they were foolish to ignore his warnings years ago about the dangers lurking in their workplace.

Any description of the steel industry as it existed before the era of modern regulations reads like a Dickens novel. Picture the four hundred coke ovens in operation, along with four 275-tonne capacity blast furnaces and ten open-hearth furnaces. Workers toiled in hot and dangerous conditions without safety equipment or protective clothing. To be fair, SYSCO (formerly the Dominion Steel and Coal Company) was probably neither better nor worse than its competitors, luring poor immigrants into low-paying jobs for which they were nonetheless thankful.

In their book Frederick Street: Living and Dying on Canada's Love Canal, Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May calculate that the company lost more than 300 workers in onsite accidents between 1901 and 1993 (most in the first half of the century). This does not include additional deaths in homes or hospitals that stemmed from injuries at the plant. Nor does it include the unknown number of cancer deaths that began with occupational exposures. "When SYSCO became a government-owned entity in 1967, the regulator and the regulated company were one and the same."

Dan Yakimchuk's grandfather, Richard Baker, was typical. He worked at the plant for most of his life before being crushed to death between two railroad cars. Mr. Baker told the family of deadly blast furnace backdrafts and gas explosions; of injuries from molten metal, poison gas, heavy equipment, cranes and conveyors, high-voltage current and noise. Airborne contaminants caused frequent vomiting among his co-workers and the constant expulsion of black phlegm from lungs and noses.

Residents around the plant lived under a constant rain of orange ore dust from the plant's smokestacks that coated clothes and lungs. But they grimly accepted management's philosophy, "No smoke, no baloney!"

The workers unionized in December 1936 and lobbied for change. It took until the 1950s for the company to establish a compulsory safety program and provide hard hats, safety glasses and proper boots. Even then, workers had to wait until the 1970s for much-needed safety gloves and masks.

The poor safety records of yesteryear come as little surprise, but SYSCO's actions in the modern era - and the government's complicity - are another matter.

The company became publicly owned in 1967 but few if any of the funds that government poured into SYSCO went toward safety improvements or environmental protection. Undue risk was part of the corporate culture and government ownership made little difference. "Cancer was prevalent, but it was just seen as part of life," says Mr. Yakimchuk. "The workers would travel to Halifax for radiation treatment, then return to the ovens as soon as it was finished." (The workers could claim compensation for only one condition: pneumoconiosis or "black lung.")

When Mr. Yakimchuk was elected to city council in 1970 he decided to learn more about the contaminants he suspected were killing workers and residents. He obtained information from the U.S. Department of Labor that described the toxic emissions from steel plants, and coke ovens in particular. The data showed the toxins were deadly, as he told anyone who would listen. But, to his surprise, people didn't want to know and he became an object of contempt. "The workers would travel to Halifax for radiation treatment, then return to the ovens as soon as it was finished." "It was difficult, but the truth had to get out," Mr. Yakimchuk says. "The lawyers, the clergymen, the police officers all lived long lives. Most of us steel workers were lucky if we lived long enough to collect our first pension cheque."

In the 1980s, Sydney residents began to discover the extent to which the steel mill pollution not only blackened their laundry but also their air, water and soil.

A steady migration of chemical sludge from Muggah Creek into Sydney harbor and the open sea had long been noted. In 1980, the federal Department of Fisheries & Oceans published a study which revealed that lobsters in the area carried Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs, some of which are cancer-causing), PCBs, mercury, cadmium and lead at levels 26 times higher than those of lobsters caught in the dirty water of Boston Harbor.

Further Environment Canada tests estimated that daily discharges into the harbor included phenol (735.5 lbs.), ammonia (10,447 lbs.), cyanide (919.4 lbs.), thiocyanate (2,058 lbs.) and oil and grease (995 lbs.).

In 1988 Mr. Yakimchuk and two other workers released a study that confirmed statistically what had long been suspected: that 74 of 117 deaths of coke oven workers in the previous decade were caused by cancer. It showed that the level of PAHs from SYSCO's coke ovens exceeded that of all 14 coking operations at Dofasco and Stelco's large steel plants in Hamilton, Ontario combined. According to the study, workers inhaled carcinogens equal to smoking 35 packs of cigarettes a day!

Money to burn

In 1981 the government committed $96-million to a modernization plan that earmarked $14-million for pollution control in the blast furnaces and rolling mills. The installation of new electric arc furnaces would have had a much greater effect, but the coke ovens weren't mandated to close until 1998. The extent of the contamination was staggering. Preliminary studies performed in 1984 suggested the tar ponds contained the equivalent of 594,000 tonnes of dry weight toxic waste, with between 4.4 and 8.8 million pounds of PAHs. Neither the government nor consultants addressed the issue of PCBs - which are persistent and even harder to destroy than PAHs - despite their presence in the lobster. Unlike most of SYSCO's toxic legacy, PCBs are not generated from b aking coal so their presence likely stems from illegal dumping.

In 1986 the federal and provincial governments embarked on their greatest folly: a plan to clean up the tar ponds using incineration technology. The ten-year project would utilize twin fluidized-bed incinerators (at a cost of more than $50-million) to burn 770,000 tonnes of sediment. "Workers inhaled carcinogens equal to smoking 35 packs of cigarettes a day!"

The government hired Acres International to perform environmental assessments. Acres focused almost entirely on the problems created by the PAHs and not the PCBs. Even though PCBs had been banned for years, they were routinely dumped into sewers that led to the estuary by another crown corporation, Canadian National Railways, on the opposite bank of the creek. Acres drew its preliminary test samples from random boreholes. These suggested that PCBs were present only in small trace amounts. Acres proposed three possible approaches, one of which was incineration - the option that would employ the greatest number of people.

A new provincial crown corporation, Sydney Tar Ponds Cleanup Inc. (later renamed Sydney Environmental Resources Ltd.) was established in 1991 to manage the project. The incinerator was built by "Superburn" - a consortium that had never undertaken such a large project. A one-of-a-kind dredging device was also required. SYSCO urged the government to employ as much of its workforce as possible and received several cleanup contracts. In the end, the incineration system was a disaster. The furnace contained a "hot spot" and the system's pipes were continually clogged. Fans regularly burned out bearings and this necessitated several retrofits of the shafts. The location was also problematic. The incinerator was built within SYSCO's complex in order to take heat from the mill's boilers and blast furnaces. This meant that the 30-metre stack was upwind of a nearby elementary school! The dredging plan also failed. A Mud Cat machine mounted on a boat was supposed to pump the toxic sludge to a pipeline that would carry it approximately one-mile uphill and down to the incinerator. But it turned out that the sludge was not "pumpable" at all.

The biggest bombshell hit in October 1992. A further round of tests in the south tar pond (where dredging was to begin first) revealed that it contained about 4,000 tonnes of PCB-contaminated sludge. Federal regulations specify that PCBs above 50 parts per million (ppm) requires special handling and destruction at temperatures of at least 1,200 degrees Celsius. The tar ponds suddenly had PCB concentrations as high as 633 ppm! (The Superburn incinerator was designed to destroy PAHs and so operated at a maximum temperature of only 900 degrees Celsius.) Instead of being penalized for this fiasco, the bailouts continued and the province assumed SYSCO's $700-million debt. Hoping to make the company attractive to potential buyers, the province also bought an additional 2,400 hectares of SYSCO's land in 1993.

The incinerator sits idle now, a monument of government waste. The province is maintaining it, at considerable cost (an estimated $1-million per year), as there is a possibility that upgrades may be employed and the incinerator reopened.

Money to bury

With $55-million in provincial spending down the drain and only 6,000 of the 770,000 tonnes successfully burned (less than one per cent), the province decided it had only $20-million left to spend. It needed a "Plan B." A scheme to encapsulate the waste was authorized in 1995. The contract was awarded to the consortium of Nova Scotia-based Jacques Whitford Environment Ltd. (JWEL) and International Technologies (IT) of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In January 1996 the consultants estimated that there were 5,000 tonnes of PCB-contaminated soil at the site. By May this was revised upward to 25,000 tonnes. When the amount was revised again to 45,000 tonnes the province decided that the PCBs were a federal problem since CN Rail owned about 70 per cent of the contaminated land. The province halted further testing until the feds provided cleanup funds. At the same time, the steelworkers union and community members protested against the encapsulation plan, complaining that the slag that was to cover the waste was itself laced with toxins. "In the end, the incineration system was a disaster." And so the plan to encapsulate toxic waste with toxic waste was shelved.

To this day there is still debate over the exact amount of pollutants that exist in the area. According to Edward Furimsky, Ph.D. of the IMAF Group in Ottawa, the reported amounts of the potentially toxic materials account for only a fraction of the actual amount. He estimates, based on increased coke productions between 1972 to 1975 and other factors, that the amount of toxic waste may actually exceed 11-million tonnes if all toxic materials onsite are added together - tar, BTEX, particulates, contaminated soil and slag, contaminated ground and surface water and toxic vegetation.

JAGged edge

By 1996 the past piecemeal remediation efforts had ground to a halt. "Plan C" was initiated after federal Environment Minister Sergio Marchi toured the tar ponds site in the summer of 1996. Uncharacteristically for a politician, Minister Marchi told the media that if the toxic mess had been in his backyard in Toronto, Ontario it would not have taken so long to get a proper cleanup. On August 12, 1996, Minister Marchi, federal Health Minister David Dingwall, Nova Scotia Transportation and Public Works Minister Donald Downe, Nova Scotia Health Minister Bernie Boudreau and Nova Scotia Minister responsible for Economic Renewal Ritchie Mann met with community leaders in Sydney.

The multi-stakeholder Joint Action Group (JAG) was formed to conduct broad-based public consultations and devise an effective remediation plan. JAG negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding between the various parties signed on September 19, 1999. Governments at every level announced $62-million in JAG funding over three fiscal years ending March 31, 2002. This includes support for the JAG Secretariat, study and assessment projects, and Phase I remediation projects. (See sidebar.) According to Germaine LeMoine, public information officer of JAG, the unprecedented public involvement of independent citizens in the cleanup plans is expected to ease deep-seated suspicion and put solutions back within reach. Some observers see the JAG process as a precedent-setting example of great cooperation for problem solving. Unfortunately for the JAG, others say it's mired in personal conflicts and bureaucracy - that it operates in an exclusive manner that alienates the very community members it was originally designed to help. "The slag that was to cover the waste was itself laced with toxins."

Mr. Yakimchuk's wife Clotilda is a nurse and leading community activist. She says the clubby JAG is not user-friendly for the public, many of which are skeptical that real progress is being made. "Politicians and bureaucrats routinely pull rank and intimidate the community members with legal and scientific jargon," she says. She also complains about meetings that run on interminably on weeknights when people need to rise early. One JAG consultant (who wishes to remain anonymous) says the level of delay and dawdling on a cleanup of this magnitude is unprecedented. Marlene Kane, a member of JAG since its inception, is very concerned about future plans. She notes that the proposed hazardous waste incinerators are located 600 metres from residential properties and the site chosen for a new elementary school complex (where the former school was). This contradicts the federal guidelines that restrict incineration facilities to within 1,500 metres of occupied public buildings and residences.

Today, the SYSCO plant's workforce is down to 700. Despite efforts to sell the operation, each deal has fallen through and speculation is rife that the plant is set to close. The houses bordering the site sit empty, their owners relocated. But homes on the surrounding streets are still occupied even as the toxic waste continues to seep into their neighborhoods.

Their occupants wait for the cleanup. And they wait. And they wait.