Ottawa to call for full panel review of tar ponds cleanup

By The Canadian Press & Chris Shannon
Cape Breton Post
Mon., May 2, 2005

SYDNEY - The federal government is expected to order a full, independent environmental assessment of the $400-million plan to clean up the Sydney tar ponds, over the strident objections of the Nova Scotia government, The Canadian Press has learned.

The full panel review, which environmentalists have been demanding, is expected to be announced at a news conference in downtown Sydney this morning, said provincial sources.

Both federal Environment Minister Stephane Dion and Public Works Minister Scott Brison will be in attendance.

Gordon Harris, a spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Protection Agency, refused to confirm or deny that a full assessment, which could last as long as two years, is planned. But a senior source within the provincial government said federal environment officials "have been laying the groundwork for such a decision" over the last couple of weeks.

The province's public works minister said he's written a number of letters to the federal environment minister recommending that a comprehensive review, which would be a less stringent evaluation, be carried out instead. "This has been studied and studied," said Ron Russell. "The problem with a full panel review is that they can go on forever."

The Cape Breton Post learned Sunday that the provincial government won't be participating in this morning's announcement because of several concerns, including what it considers unrealistically tight deadlines and the risk of escalating costs. It's expected Russell will make a statement in the legislature this afternoon.

The province wants to conclude discussions on terms and conditions for the panel with the federal government within two weeks, after which cabinet will decide whether to participate in a joint panel review or follow some other course.

Sydney-Victoria Liberal MP Mark Eyking, who has been following the tar ponds cleanup file closely, said while there is a long history of full panel reviews taking too long, there is also evidence these reviews can move along at a reasonable pace. Eyking pointed to Labrador's Voisey's Bay nickel mining development as an example of a full panel review that kept the project moving. "If you have the right chairperson and setup, you can keep it going. I think it can be done, and it's been done in a short way," he said.

Last winter, an abandoned coal wash plant was chosen as the site for a controversial incinerator designed to burn PCBs and other toxins scooped up from the tar ponds, which is considered Canada's worst toxic waste site.

Panel could recommend another method

A mobile incinerator is expected to burn the most toxic material from the tar ponds and former Sydney Steel coke ovens site, both of which are the result of 100 years of steel-making.

A senior official in Public Works Canada, who asked late Sunday to speak on background, said that Ottawa's plan will attempt to address the province's concerns.

In a letter to Dion, federal Public Works Minister Scott Brison suggested that the full environmental review be allowed to proceed, but with a time limit of June 2006 for a final report, the official said.

Following through with a full panel review would make that timeline "extremely unrealistic," Parker Donham, spokesperson for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, said Sunday evening. Donham said there is no authority in federal legislation to impose mandatory deadlines on an independent review panel. Brison also apparently recommended that any potential alternative cleanup plan be proposed within "the existing budget envelope."

The move toward an independent review is being driven by the fear of court action by environmentalists, said a second federal source familiar with the file, but who also asked not to be named.

A round of public consultation was held in March, when a number of community groups, including the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, said they were in favour of a comprehensive review, which is conducted mostly in-house by the federal government.

Even as late as last Monday, the municipality, along with the Cape Breton District Health Authority, and other community representatives, came together to reiterate their stance for a quickened pace to the project. John Malcom, chief executive officer of the health authority, said Sunday only time will tell if a full panel review is the best course of action. "We're used to people talking about waiting times in health care. We'll start the clock ticking to see who's right whether a full panel can deliver and get this work started in the 18 to 24-month (period), or in fact what it's resulted in is further delay of the project," he said.

The Sierra Club of Canada is opposed to burning the sludge and favours a process of soil washing. It has called for a full panel review carried out by an appointed expert with extensive public consultation.

But provincial Public Works Minister Ron Russell said the Joint Action Group, a former community group that had been organizing the tar ponds cleanup since 1996, has already carried out a number of studies and held countless public meetings. One-third of the total cleanup cost $120-million- is being shouldered by the province.

The pot of money has already been set aside and the Conservative government is loath to spend any more, said Russell. "If you have a full panel review, they can say, 'We don't like the process you've got,'" he said. "There are other processes around, which are horrendously expensive." It's possible the environmental panel could recommend another method for the cleanup.