Friday, March 28, 2003 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Tar ponds cleanup group's budget, future up in air
Morgan: 'Time for JAG to pack it in'

By Tera Camus / Cape Breton Bureau

Sydney - Uncertainty looms over the group handling the cleanup of Sydney's toxic tar ponds and coke ovens.

Citizen members of the government-funded Joint Action Group voted this week to approve a $647,000 operating budget for 2003-04 but its provincial, federal and municipal government funding partners did not.

"They didn't abstain from voting," contravening the organization's bylaws, chairman Dan Fraser said. "They just didn't vote."

But JAG member Donnie Gauthier wanted to know why.

"It would be nice to have a comfort zone to know we're . . . not wasting our time here," he said.

Health Canada spokesman Richard Morykot said representatives from all levels of government, which have provided JAG with $62 million since it was conceived in 1996, met last Friday to begin talks about the future.

"It's no surprise the next phase . . . will have new challenges, different challenges," he said. "We have to consider what the makeup will be and we will be discussing different viewpoints from the experiences we had here."

That experience has included clashes - sometimes verbal, sometimes physical - between environmentalists and government bureaucrats and JAG's paid staff. One founding member, Bruno Marcocchio, was kicked out after government threatened to pull its support from JAG.

One provincial government source says the province wants out of JAG while the federal government is agreeable to staying on board, but with reduced funding. The municipality also wants out.

"I think it's time for JAG to pack it in," Mayor John Morgan said.

The future "has yet to be determined," is all provincial spokesman David Darrow would say.

JAG's mandate was to find solutions to clean up one million tonnes of toxic waste produced by a century of steelmaking in the heart of Sydney, then let the community decide.

Several weeks ago, JAG began asking the public to fill out a 28-page workbook to pick a solution from among 10 options, most of them involving a variety of incineration or burial schemes.

So far less than 400 books have been turned in by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality's 117,000 residents.

On Wednesday, a live radio show publicly criticized JAG's six years of work for producing basically the same options that were available in 1996. Some callers poked fun at the 28-page "colouring book," which even JAG officials say takes about two hours to complete.

JAG was formed after a 10-year, $55-million incineration project that failed to work due to engineering flaws.

Months before JAG was created, the province wanted to bury the tar ponds and pave it over. The community expressed outrage at the time of the announcement and the federal government called it a band-aid solution.

Glace Bay activist Mary Ruth MacLellan said JAG's time was a wasted effort.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," she said.

Member Eric Brophy says if government wants to disband JAG, it better give notice since the organization's mandate automatically renews in three months.

Present funding for the group is set to last until September. JAG employs less than 10 people, including a chairman, program co-ordinator, public information officers, outreach officers and secretaries. Salaries account for $325,000.

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