Tar Ponds and mud-slinging

May responds to Nova Scotia government ‘attack’ ad on Sierra Club

OP-Ed / Guest Column By Elizabeth May
The Hill Times - Pg. 12
Monday, Mar. 15, 2004

In last week’s issue of The Hill Times, a Nova Scotia Government agency spent over $1,000 to attack the Sierra Club of Canada in a paid advertisement. The ad was not the usual sort of government communications. Like an electoral campaign decision to "go negative," it was belligerent in tone and nasty in substance. An individual, Parker Donham of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, signed it.

That Parker Donham, formerly a respected journalist, is reduced to using taxpayers’ dollars to buy advertising space to attack us is sad enough.

That he did so in the cause of denying that the toxic waste in the Sydney Tar Ponds and former Coke Ovens site are a threat to children’s health is scandalous.

The inaccuracies in the ad are many and serious. Donham persistently refers to the study, recently published in the peer reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, as a Sierra Club of Canada study. While it is true that Sierra Club of Canada funded the laboratory analysis, the study was neither conducted nor authored by the organization. It was conducted by an independent scientist, Dr.Timothy Lambert of the University of Calgary.

The purpose of the study was to test levels of household dust in three neighbourhoods near the tar ponds and coke ovens. Although household dust testing near toxic waste sites is routine in other jurisdictions, (the United States, Alberta, Ontario), no level of government had tested the dust in Sydney homes. Rather, the government’s health risk assessment relied on a hypothetical model of how much lead, arsenic and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) would likely be in the dust based on the excessive contamination of outside soils. Even this calculation deviated from norms established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Dr. Lambert operated entirely independently in conducting his research.

He volunteered his time (hence, Donham refers to him dismissively as a "Sierra Club volunteer".) It was understood that he would publish his results whether they showed a health risk or confirmed the government’s claim that household dust is not a risk to families. He found there was a risk of lead contamination to children from the dust alone.

Donham devotes most of the ad to assertions that we deliberately omitted something -- a study he describes as "having already tested the blood of Sydney children." The "study" referred to be Donham was random blood and urine testing. It was not peer-reviewed, nor published, other than on the government website. The testing was based on those who came forward to request testing. It was not systematic, nor did it concentrate on the neighbourhoods in closest proximity to the toxic sites. Nevertheless, and contrary to Donham’s claim that not a single person had elevated lead levels, the provincial health officer reported at the time that fifteen people, mostly toddlers under six, had elevated lead or arsenic.

At the time of the testing, Parker Donham was a journalist writing in the Halifax Daily News. He was as contemptuous of government denial then as is he the architect of it now.

"Just because the steel plant and the coke ovens showered adjacent neighbourhoods with … thousands of tonnes of cancer-causing chemicals every year for a century is no reason to think this has anything whatever to do with Sydney residents having the highest cancer rates in Canada…. Just because federal and provincial health inspectors have checked residents for only two of the twenty-odd notorious carcinogens Sysco spewed into the air and groundwater for the last 100 years, and just because their tests come up positive only if exposure occurred within the last 72 hours, is no reason to suspect public health and safety are not uppermost in their minds…." (July 15, 2001)

In a column on May 30, 2001, he lambasted "the two governments' long record of equivocation, inaction, incompetence, and delay."

The late Parker Donham, the journalist, would have asked why it took an NGO to fund studies routinely conducted elsewhere by governments. It is a shame he is no longer with us.

Elizabeth E. May is Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada. In May 2001, she went on a 17-day hunger strike in front of Parliament Hill to demand relocation of families at risk in Sydney. The families have not been moved as governments claim there is no risk.