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.