Cleanup In Limbo

Cabinet Representative Declines To Reaffirm Federal Commitment

The Issue: It's a question of what and when

Cape Breton Post Editorial
Wed., Jan. 7, 2004

Unless he was more forthcoming in private than in public, Geoff Regan did nothing on his visit to Sydney this week to reaffirm federal commitment to cleanup of the tar ponds. It's early days for him as the new minister of fisheries and oceans, but Regan has to understand that his role as Nova Scotia's representative in the Paul Martin cabinet work's two ways: he speaks for the province's interests within that sanctum, but he is also expected to represent federal positions when stumping in the province.

A statement about the importance of cleaning up the Muggah Creek watershed - consistent with federal statements, bureaucratic involvement and 'funding going back to the mid-'90s and earlier - was not too much to expect. Regan demurred, noting only that the cleanup file belongs to Environment Minister David Anderson. True, but it's also Regan's file as Nova Scotia's man in cabinet, which is the hat he was wearing in Sydney.

John Nash, president of the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, and Cliff Murphy, president of the Cape Breton Island Building and Construction Trades Council, raised valid concern before Christmas over what the new administration's stance will be on the cleanup. There was some hope in the dying weeks of Jean Chretien's tenure as prime minister that there might be an announcement on the heavy cleanup phase, since governments have had months to ponder the outcome of lengthy study and public consultations. Nothing came, which is perhaps just as well. Last-minute pronouncements on a cleanup would have looked like more-Chretien legacy stuff, easily shelved by the Martin crew.

Five days after being sworn in as prime minister, Martin ordered a freeze on major capital spending. There's been no definitive word since on what this means for Nova Scotia, or for the Sydney cleanup in particular.

Sydney-Victoria Liberal MP Mark Eyking has said he's seen no signal that the cleanup will be affected, but he expresses this more as his own opinion than as word from on high. Regan had an opportunity to clarify the question Monday, and didn't.

Earlier, Regan had said he expected Martin's capital project review would look mostly at projects not yet announced. That's a category that could easily include the next phase of the Sydney cleanup.

Eyking counts it as a plus that David Anderson continues in the environment portfolio under Martin, at least for now. He's held the job for a political eternity of 4 1/2 years, is familiar with the cleanup file, and visited the tar ponds as recently as October, 2002. Anderson referred then to the necessity of "making sure that the worst contaminated site in Canada is, in fact, cleaned up."

Parker Donham, spokesman for the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, took advantage of Regan's puzzling equivocation Monday to declare that the provincial government is "unequivocally committed" to the cleanup and ready to start negotiating a cost-sharing deal. Of course, the province's starting bid would be a 70-30 federal-provincial split, which is an equivocation in itself since Ottawa has been suggesting 50-50.

Murphy, after a private chat with Regan, had the impression that Ottawa was waiting for the province to take the lead in negotiating an agreement. If both governments are so ready to go, all we can suggest is that someone pick up the phone.

Commitments of the sort required, and repeatedly made, on the Sydney cleanup overarch changes in ministers, government leaders, and even governments. Federal and provincial governments are either committed to seeing this cleanup through or their word is worthless. What we want to know is the how and when.