Coal-tar oil could have been used

Debbie Parkes
The Montreal Gazette
Thursday, October 23, 2003

Hundreds of tonnes of coal-tar oil from Sydney, N.S., that were incinerated in Mercier could have been put to legitimate use in industry, The Gazette has learned.

Stelco Inc. was prepared to accept the material for use at its steel refinery in Nanticoke, Ont., company vice-president (corporate affairs) Tim Huxley confirmed.

But the plan was quashed after Environment Canada ruled under Canadian Environmental Protection Act regulations, the material would have to be labelled hazardous waste. The "waste" designation meant it could not be used at the refinery.

In the end, Clean Harbors Canada, the company contracted to dismantle the abandoned Domtar Inc. tank in Sydney that contained the coal-tar oil, decided to send the oil to the company's incinerator in Mercier, over the protests of residents.

Clean Harbors approached Stelco about taking the oil. "Stelco couldn't accept it because it isn't allowed to accept material under a waste manifest. It's that simple," said Terry Fellner, the senior director with Clean Harbors Canada responsible for the Domtar tank cleanup.

Stelco's Nanticoke refinery operates under a certificate of approval from Ontario's Environment Ministry, and that certificate doesn't allow Stelco to burn material classed as waste, Fellner and others explained. They said it made no difference that numerous tests showed this coal-tar oil to be no more toxic than the coal-tar oil Stelco regularly uses to extract liquid iron from iron ore. It still had to be shipped as hazardous waste, even though coal-tar oil is normally shipped without any hazardous-waste manifest requirement, Fellner and others said. The waste designation was a problem for Stelco. Although Ontario's Environment Ministry might have granted Stelco permission to use the material, the process would have taken months, Huxley and others said. "Once it became a protracted exercise, the plan no longer fit the needs of Sydney residents who were trying to get on with their lives," Huxley said. So the plan was abandoned, he said.

"A shame," Mercier Mayor Jean-Luc Colpron said yesterday on learning the coal-tar oil could have found a more productive use than being burned in his town's backyard.

Michel Préville, spokesperson for the Coalition pour la décontamination de Mercier, an group that opposes the burning of toxic materials in Mercier, called the situation "unbelievable." Fearing the coal-tar oil might contain PCBs, the coalition lobbied the town to have it independently tested.

Those tests and others carried out for the Quebec Environment Department detected no PCBs, which came as no surprise to Parker Donham, spokesperson for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. Repeated tests have been carried out on the coal-tar oil, and "there are no PCBs in this stuff whatsoever," Donham said.

The Nova Scotia government set up the tar ponds agency to manage its end in the provincial-federal cleanup of the Sydney tar ponds. At the request of Sydney residents, the agency also agreed to oversee the dismantling of the Domtar tank - a six-metre-high apparatus with a diameter of 28 metres - into which were dumped the remains of several smaller tanks left on the site of the Domtar plant when it shut down in 1958. That tank is about one kilometre from the tar ponds and has nothing to do with them, Donham stressed, adding this is a point that often eludes critics.

Huxley was reluctant to point fingers. "It's just yet another story of people trying to do things best, but sometimes the results are kind of obscure."