Vapours show some flaws
A burp from the Domtar tanks prompts tests of credibility
The Issue: Both Sides Should Learn
Cape Breton Post Editorial
Thurs., June 10, 2004
We are reminded this week that the key remaining battelground
over the big Sydney cleanup is the hazards
to public health - real or imagined or alleged - from
the remediation work itself.
In the context of the cleanup, the debate is pretty well exhausted
over how Sydney's operating steel complex may have affected
human health. Most people would concede that workers' lives must
have been shortened or degraded under the appalling standards
in effect through the 80-year history of the industry, and that the
broader community may also have been harmed in less direct
ways. Quantifying these effects, or determining what should follow now,
is far more difficult. Perhaps someday a court will pronounce on these questions.
However, there is almost no case to be made that the tar ponds
and coke ovens sites as they sit today are causing ongoing harm
to the physical health of the people of Sydney. The only argument
of this sort with any legs is that contaminated soil through much
of the community is a present risk to public health. That issue has
been talked out, if not resolved, at least for the moment.
What remains are concerns - real enough in themselves, however
exaggerated - over how public health will be placed at risk
once big machines start mucking around and efforts begin to
destroy some of the most hazardous materials.
Think of the fuss this week over some high naphthalene readings
at air monitoring stations, which resulted in a temporary halt
to the removal of tarry sludge from the Domtar tank on the coke
ovens site. A minor, localized and short-term exceedance of the
project standard for one of the more benign of some 40 substances
monitored was sufficient for a small public protest and the reiterated
demand for a residential relocation program.
It was an approximate replay of the commotion over high
toluene readings last summer. Official suspicion at the time that
faulty monitoring equipment was to blame was greeted with derision
by the relocation lobby. Residents came forward to complain
of symptoms they confidently attributed to toluene vapours which
weren't actually there because the monitors had indeed been
putting out false high readings.
If relocation advocates and other cleanup critics persist in trying
to milk every opportunity so injudiciously, the public can only
tire of it, if that hasn't happened already. The authorities aren't
off the hook, however.
For starters, put the mayor on the notification list. Mayor John
Morgan was justifiably ticked off that he was not told of the naphthalene
problem. He may not have an official role in any of this
but he is the mayor, and there are residents who would call him
about their worries before they'd call a federal or provincial office.
The naphthalene problem dates back to May 27 or earlier,
though the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency didn't get monitoring results
until last Friday. Spokesman Parker Donham explained that since
work had been halted at the site there was no need to attend to the
matter until Monday, when the first public statement was issued.
That won't do. In this struggle for official credibility, monitoring
results, especially problematic ones, must be posted the day they're
received, even if officials can't immediately explain them and even
if it's 4 o'clock on a Friday and everyone in the office is croaking
for a cold one over the barbecue. Sacrifices must be made.
From the description of the probable causes of the aberrant
readings - a clogged filter and possibly an under-achieving fan
in the tank enclosure constructed to contain emissions - it
appears that this was an eminently preventable incident. Taxpayers
are paying through the nose on this project - $3.6 million to
decommission a single tank - in order to eliminate any conceivable
public hazard. There's $400 million more where that came
from. Contractors collecting top dollar on the cleanup must be
forced to deliver commensurate performance.