Cleanup gets big green light

Cape Breton Post
Mon., Jan. 29, 2007

The heavy phase of the Sydney cleanup is going ahead, and that is all that a process-fatiqued community needed to hear from Sunday's big political rollout. The longer the study and assessment went on, the less interested the public seemed to be in the details.

The one exception was the plan to dispose of the most heavily contaminated materials in a temporary incinerator. Opposition to incineration had clearly taken root, and by the time the federal-provincial environmental assessment panel reported last July that option was essentially dead. Now it's official.

Hotspots of PCBs and PAHs will stay in place and the whole of the tar ponds will be firmed up and capped. It's a long way from the pastoral tableau of a recovered estuary that people were allowed to imagine at an earlier stage of conceptualizing, but public expectations have been slowly settling back to earth.

The cleanup now approved to proceed will effect an immense improvement across the industrial blight that scars the former steel city. Though the solution may look more cosmetic than substantive it does promise to reduce the already low public health risk from industrial contaminants. Truth be told, the sheer ugliness of the sites is what bothers most people at least as much as nebulous health concerns.

General approval to proceed could have the ironic effect of allowing the public, no longer frustrated by waiting for the big green light, to get interested again in the detail. There is much that has still to be worked out. Formal government responses, unveiled Sunday, to last year's report of the assessment panel are disappointingly vague on several key issues.

The panel, which reported in July after 17 days of public hearings, said it was "not convinced" that solidification and stabilization technology "is proven for use in the tar ponds context." The government response is to treat what sounds like a serious reservation about the feasibility of the whole approach as merely a technical issue of finding the right mix of materials. How is confidence in the method justified?

Governments accept the panel's insistence that future use of the sites must be integrated into project design. Engineering of the cap depends on intended future use, while the range of possible future uses depends on the characteristics of the cap. How these related issues are to be resolved remains unclear.

The cleanup has come full circle from the mid-'90s when the collapse of the first tar ponds incineration scheme led to a search for an approach that would shift at least some power and control outside of the cozy club of bureaucracies and contractors that had failed so miserably. Thus we had the Joint Action Group and later the environmental review panel, both attempts to bring influence and scrutiny to bear on the problem from outside the circle of usual suspects.

There will be oversight and public liaison bodies in the implementation phase too but bureaucracies and contractors are now firmly back in charge, not they were ever really sidelined. Public consultation can be invaluable, and has been in this case, but at the end of day governments will trust their own people and the experts they hire. There is no way around that.