Sludge city - Sydney gunk to be incinerated south of Montreal

by Ken Hechtman
The Montreal Mirror
Nov. 27 - Dec. 3, 2003

"We have the highest cancer rate of any city in Canada because of the Tar Ponds," says Sydney, Nova Scotia, Sierra Club campaigner Bruno Marcocchio. As proof, he cites a 1998 Dalhousie University study that found cancer rates in and around Sydney to be 15 to 46 per cent above the provincial average, directly correlated to how close to the Tar Ponds people live. "We don't think sending our problems to Montreal is an acceptable solution."

He's talking about the decision by the provincial Tar Ponds Agency (TPA) to ship tons of what the Sierra Club calls the worst toxic waste in Canada to an incinerator in St-Rémi, some 30 kilometres south of Montreal. Fifty years' worth of sludge from the coke ovens of Sydney's decommissioned steel mill have formed two lakes, each four city blocks long. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans discovered unsafe levels of PCBs, mercury, lead and other toxins in lobsters caught in the nearby Sydney Harbour in 1980, and shut down the lobster fishery in 1982.

"Incinerators convert pollutant into airborne pollutants," Marcocchio says. "They produce dioxins and furans when they burn PCBs or other chlorine-containing organics." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Dioxin Reassessment paper of September 2000 explains the mechanism in excruciating detail. "They're the biggest single source of dioxins in the environment," says Marcocchio. "The only other incinerator licensed to burn PCBs is in Swan Hills, Alberta, and there's been so much dioxin found in the soil around it, there's a federal advisory not to eat the wildlife." According to Marcocchio, and the World Health Organization, dioxins are linked to cancer, birth defects and auto-immune problems, while furans are chemically similar but slightly less toxic.

He also claims that standard maintenance procedures call for disabling the incinerator's pollution control equipment at the first sign of trouble. "During what they call ‘upset conditions' - temperature drop, mechanical problems - the scrubbers are bypassed and material is vented directly into the air," says Marcocchio. "The ashes left behind are also full of toxins, primarily heavy metals. Fly ash is what makes it out of the smokestack and into the air. Bottom ash is what's left behind in the furnace. Bottom ash gets buried in landfills where the heavy metals leach out into the groundwater."

The Sierra Club and the Council of Canadians as well as local organizations fought a losing battle for a disposal method that would meet three criteria. The toxins must be completely destroyed, zero emissions must be released during the process and the residues must be completely contained. The method they found was the Canadian-developed hydrogen reduction process of Eco Logic, Inc. "The toxins could have been destroyed on-site, safely and cost-effectively, without polluting your community. It's a no-brainer," Marcocchio says.

Eco Logic, founded by Canadian government scientist Doug Hallett, has proven its methods by neutralizing nerve gas for the U.S. Army as well as chemical industry waste in Australia and Japan. The process is the chemical opposite of burning, reduction rather than oxidation, and its reaction products are recoverable methane gas and salt water.

Marcocchio wouldn't, however, speculate on the rationale for incineration. "I suspect it was a politically motivated decision. You'd have to ask the TPA because I'm not privy to what went on in closed door meetings. I will say this: political patronage is no way to run a toxic cleanup - human health has to come before throwing money at your friends."

The TPA, however, dismisses the Sierra Club's claims, calling them exaggerated, unscientific and manipulative. Parker Donham, the Agency's communications consultant, says independent tests they conducted show that residents aren't suffering from health problems, and the material being burned at St-Rémi is a non-toxic sealant.

Read Parker Donham's response (Letter to Mirror: Dec. 3-10)