Panel Review Quietly Ago

After furiously lobbying against it,
province moves to sign on for panel

Cape Breton Post
Sat., June 11, 2005


That was a humdrum news report we published on the bottom of Page 1 on Wednesday, in view of the passion and politics that had juiced the issue until as recently as five weeks ago (Agreement for Tar Ponds Panel Ready for Public Comment). The octane has drained from the story now that the federally chosen environmental assessment track is accepted, albeit reluctantly by the province.

But thanks to the overwrought campaign to dissuade federal authorities from the full-panel route, we're left to wonder whether the province's pressing concerns were really that or only talking points. Provincial representatives were pointedly absent from the May 2 news conference at which two federal ministers announced there would be a joint panel review, subject to the province signing on. Later that day, Nova Scotia Public Works Minister Ron Russell told the legislature his government was "disappointed" with the decision and would decide over the next two weeks whether to participate or to pursue "a different course of action."

This different course, it was darkly hinted, might mean the province going it alone to fix the areas of the remediation site it considered provincial responsibility despite the May 2004 memorandum of agreement setting out a jointly funded $400 million cleanup plan to be implemented by the province and cost-shared $280 million federal and $120 million provincial.

The two weeks stretched to five, concluding this week with the announcement of a month-long public comment period on the draft joint agreement that sets out the terms of a three-member panel review. So what was accomplished in that time that wasn't on the table May 2? Nothing that's obvious from a reading of the draft agreement.

Russell expressed worry about two issues in particular in relation to the panel review—that the panel would recommend alternative approaches to the cleanup which would blow the $400 million budget, leaving the partners under the gun to come up with more money, and that the review couldn't possibly be done in the one year allotted to it by federal officials. "

On the first issue, there's nothing new in the draft agreement on cost containment and there are no overall dollar figures. The draft agreement contains the expected references to alternatives or mitigating measures having to be "technically and economically feasible" without defining what that means. The May 2004 memorandum has much more to say about cost containment.

On timing, the draft agreement appears to follow closely, if not precisely, the schedule outlined by the federal ministers on May 2, including submission of the final report of the panel a little more than a year from now. In the legislature, Russell had complained of the virtual impossibility of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, the project implementing agency for which he is responsible, completing an Environmental Impact Statement by the end of this year. The date for that in the draft agreement is Dec. 30,2005.

The cleanup plan is moving into a regulatory phase where its merits will be tested in a formal, open way, rather than debated endlessly through rhetorical skirmishes and talking points. A lot of this stuff is going to be dry as dust but what a relief that will be in a way. Let's get on with it.