Agency Works Odd Miracle

Environment Canada transforms useable fuel into hazardous waste

Cape Breton Post
Friday, Oct. 24, 2003


If the definitive history of the big Sydney cleanup is ever written, there will surely be mention of this week's illustrative anecdote about the coal tar oil that became hazardous waste with the stroke of a pen.

As first reported in the Montreal Gazette, Stelco Inc. was prepared to accept shipments of coal tar oil from the Domtar tank cleanup project and use it as a fuel in its Nanticoke, Ont., steel plant, about an hour's drive from Hamilton. The Stelco plant routinely ships in and burns coal tar oil of similar composition and has an Ontario environment ministry permit to do so.

In this case, though, Environment Canada slapped a hazardous waste label on some 1,000 tonnes of coal tar oil that was about to be drained out of the tank where it has sat for more than 40 years on the site of the former coke ovens.

That was one stage of the $3.6 million Domtar cleanup contract awarded to U.S.-owned Clean Harbors Canada, a waste handling and disposal company with expensive and controversial operations in Ontario and Quebec.

If this sounds familiar it's because a related controversy broke out last fall when residents near Sarnia, Ont., rose up against a plan to ship the bottom residue from that same Domtar tank to a Clean Harbors hazardous waste dump near them. The Liberal MPP for the area, Caroline Di Cocco, even paid a visit to Sydney to bolster her case against the plan.

By now, of course, the very name of Sydney, attachid to "tar ponds," has become a rallying label for those opposed to the importation of waste into their communities for incineration or burial. A frustrated Parker Donham, spokesman for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, puts it this way: "It's as if there is a skull and cross bones connected with anything from Sydney, and it's not fair." Any material from Sydney is presumed to have some magical, malevolent property that makes it worse than any other contaminated waste, he said.

And it's not just in other provinces that this happens. People in the vicinity of the Point Aconi power plant had precisely the same negative reaction to the mere suggestion that tar ponds sludge might be burned there as part of the big cleanup. Assurances that the plan, which would displace a corresponding amount of coal, would not mean more emissions - or emissions that would be any more hazardous - fell on deaf ears. During the campaign for the Oct. 2 Ontario election, Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty declared he would stop any plan to bury untreated waste from Sydney in his province and would toughen up environmental regulations that critics say have turned Ontario into a hazardous waste dump. McGuinty, by the way, won that election and was sworn in yesterday as premier.

Evidently Environment Canada designated the Domtar coal tar oil a hazardous waste not because of what's in it, but because it had sat there so long in a derelict tank on an abandoned industrial site. Because of the label, Stelco couldn't burn the oil, and it had to be shipped to a hazardous waste incinerator in Mercier, Que., provoking there the now predictable public outcry against any stuff from Sydney.

The story will confirm in some minds that the tar ponds is as much a psychological mess as it is a physical blight. Canada's "worst toxic waste site" has become the trigger for public hysterias far exceeding any rational justification, and the fears have been stoked at times by no less prestigious an agent than Environment Canada. In this instance the department has managed to label a perfectly usable fuel a hazardous waste from, you know, that awful place where they're all dying of cancer.