No promises to clean up tar ponds

Regan pledges to advocate for public money, but says minister will make decisions

By Tanya Collier MacDonald
Cape Breton Post - Front Page
Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2004

Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan sidestepped questions Monday concerning Ottawa's commitment to smoothing out a cost-share agreement with the province as this island waits for the cleanup of the nation's worst toxic waste site to begin.

"That's a question for federal environment minister David Anderson," Regan said during a brief media scrum at the Sysco General Office Building in Sydney. "It's his file."

As Nova Scotia's federal representative in cabinet, Regan said he's "interested" in the tar ponds and coke ovens sites and he'll advocate alongside Cape Breton's federal MPs Mark Eyking and Rodger Cuzner but he refrained from stating when Ottawa will sit down with the province to develop a new cost-share agreement to fund the sites' remediation. "It will be worked out in due course," he said.

Parker Donham, spokesperon for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, said the provincial government is "unequivocally committed" to cleaning up the toxic sites and is ready to begin negotiating an agreement with the federal government. "It's important we get those talks going quickly."

Donham said a 30 per cent provincial contribution and a federal contribution of 70 per cent is appropriate for the project but there has been some posturing around the issue. He added the provincial government has socked away $316 million to remediate Sysco properties, the tar ponds and the coke ovens sites.

Cliff Murphy, president of the Cape Breton Island Buildling and Construction Trades Council, said he was left with the impression that Ottawa is waiting for the province to take the lead in negotiating a new financial agreement.

Murphy and John Nash, president of the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, met with Regan early Monday after requesting a meeting with the federal minister two weeks ago to discuss their concerns about the future of the cleanup. "I don't want to see it stalemated or delayed because of passing the buck," said Murphy.

Nash said the business and labour leaders were able to outline some of the important aspects of the cleanup during the meeting including its health and social impacts, its economic stimulus and an enhanced ability to attract business opportunities to the area once the work is done.

Another benefit would be the creation of a specialized workforce with engineering and remediation expertise that could be employed during other remediation projects across the globe.

Nash said the community leaders told Regan they want the remediation work to begin as soon as "practically possible" and noted that inactivity at the site isn't good for the area.

Smaller projects such as a cofferdam as well as the redirection of Coke Oven's Brook are two possible projects that can begin immediately.

In earlier reports, Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking has said he expects the cleanup to continue under Prime Minister Paul Martin's regime although healthcare is often cited as a priority for the government.

In May, the Joint Action Group forwarded a recommendation to the federal and provincial governments to remove and destroy contaminated waste from the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens sites. The motion was created from a community consultation process that involved 1,754 Cape Breton Regional Municipality residents. They were asked to respond to a workbook outlining technologies available.

Since then, the JAG's memorandum of understanding expired as well as governments' funding to finance the group's operations. Members continue to meet on their own.

A community liaison committee was promised by governments soon after the MOU ended and efforts are continuing months later to create the 14-member group. Expressions of interest were called in November with stakeholders invited to submit their applications until Feb. 15. The committee is expected to ensure there is a two-way flow of information between project managers and the organizations represented in the group. Committee members will be permitted to ask questions and provide feedback. The group will have monthly meetings which will be closed to the public.

Regan also toured the Canadian Coast Guard College in Westmount during his visit Monday and met with Mayor John Morgan of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.