It’s a big coverup

Ottawa, Nova Scotia unveil $400-million plan to bury the Tar Ponds

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Mon. Jan. 29, 2007

MEMBERTOU - It may not be perfect, but Sydney finally has a funded solution for its toxic waste sites.

During a well-attended federal and provincial announcement Sunday in Membertou, government officials unveiled an eight-year plan to cap the tar ponds and coke oven sites and keep harmful PCBs in place. Both incineration and landfarming were dropped as remediation options for the project.

"As a Nova Scotian, I am particularly proud of the new government’s initiative in protecting and improving our environment,” said Peter MacKay, minister of foreign affairs and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. "And it is with great pride that, with my colleagues’ support, our government is taking concrete steps to address this major environmental concern.”

MacKay paraphrased Elvis Presley, describing the announcement as a time of a "little less conversation and a lot more action.” He said Ottawa will work to ensure that both human health and the environment are protected throughout the work. "The interests of all Nova Scotians are in good hands."

Angus MacIsaac, provincial minister of transportation and public works, took time to list projects already completed to allow the major project to begin. "It seems as though every time I come to Sydney, new cleanup work has been carried out," he said. "The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency has done solid work on a long list of necessary preliminary cleanup tasks."

The comments angered former Joint Action Group chairperson Dan Fraser who attended the event. "Minister MacIsaac gave credit to the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency for something that hundreds of volunteers came out for from our community," he said. "Those volunteers spent thousands upon thousands of hours to see those stacks come down, to see that landfill closed, to see all those studies carried out, to see that there would be a sewage treatment plant put in at the end of the line. It was totally ignored as far as the citizens are concerned." Fraser said it was concerned citizens who managed to get governments to commit $400 million to remediate the sites. "He doesn’t even recognize the citizen input," said Fraser. "I think that is very unfortunate."

Dr. Ron MacCormick, who presented at panel hearings held in Sydney assessing the project plan, said he was relieved to hear incineration was dropped and that the project is moving forward. "The community has gone through way too many years of waiting and studying," he said. However, MacCormick, an oncologist, said he did have a minor concern. "Monitoring of the site should be forever, not just 25 years," he said. "I think we’re going to have to push government for an act to ensure that."

Membertou Chief Terry Paul was one of four leaders from Cape Breton’s First Nation communities at the event. "We couldn’t get a better announcement," said Paul. "It’s finally, really going to happen. The cleanup is going to get done and in a way that we were hoping that it would happen." Paul said he wasn’t in favour of incinerating PCBs removed from the sites. "It’s better to be safe." Containing the contaminants in place should help communities feel more secure, he said.

Mark Parent, provincial minister of environment and labour, said his department is working to manage 40 of the 55 recommendations forwarded to government by members of a joint review panel in July. One of the department’s first moves is to add to its staff, said Parent. "We’ve been looking at a contingency plan for how to deal with this for a long time. It’s exciting for us, but it’s also a challenge. "

A team of up to eight people will be selected to perform environmental monitoring and to oversee the project. Parent said the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, which is a provincial Crown corporation, will require industrial approvals throughout the life of the project, including approval to stabilize and solidify the sites. "We’ve accepted that the process (solidification and stabilization) is a good process but we want to see some pilot testing done before it proceeds fully," said Parent.

Since the province is a funding partner and also a regulator, Parent said a remediation monitoring oversight board will be created to give the public added confidence in government’s activities. "We feel that we have the expertise but we want to give the public confidence that along with the community liaison committee, that this oversight board would be put in place," he said. "It doesn’t oversee the project, it oversees us." Parent said the board will report directly to him and he will make that information public.

The department accepted the recommendation for long-term maintenance of the sites and will address that through regulation. Any legislative needs will be assessed when the project nears completion.

The tar ponds, located in downtown Sydney, span 33 hectares and contain 700,000 tonnes of contaminated sediment. The coke ovens span 68 hectares and includes a tar cell filled with coal tar.