Before recommending cleanup options, JAG did its homework thoroughly

Letter to the editor from Francis Sirois
Cape Breton Post Weekend Feedback
Saturday, Feb. 14, 2004

Hydrocarbon residuals extracted as part of the tar ponds cleanup could be burned in a power generating plant if Nova Scotia Power Inc. actually decided to co-operate
Bruno Marcocchio's claims that the Joint Action Group failed its mandate (Weekend Feedback: On the Contrary, JAG Failed Its Own Mandate - Feb. 7) is typical of this Sierra Club employee who may be a bit upset that his cause celebre is disappearing. Rest assured that, just like a weather vane, he will be against anything that any organization proposes if it doesn't meet his personal expectations.

Within months of the creation of JAG, his antics led to his ouster. His knowledge of JAG's activities appears frozen to that time. He cites Edward Furimsky from 2002 as saying that extensive sampling would be needed. In fact, JAG launched a whole series of projects to define the site's problems.

More than 120,000 lab analyses were performed in conjunction with the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment Phase 2 and 3 investigations for the coke ovens site and adjacent areas. For the tar ponds, some 30,000 lab analyses were added to confirm and further add to the extensive data that already existed.

Within the tar ponds, bore holes were dug at every 50 metres. Detailed maps of the contaminants were created, including ones showing the distribution of PCBs.

In the tar ponds there is no single "30,000 ton PCB hot spot" which will be ignored in the cleanup, as Mr. Marcocchio claims. Instead there are multiple, well-mapped, very thin layers of PCB-contaminated sediments in four areas of the north pond.

It has been estimated that of the total 35,000 tonnes in the north pond, 18,704 tonnes will be detectable at the more than 50 parts per million (ppm) which is considered PCB material.

PCB was just an insulating oil used in older generations of high voltage transformers. None of it was produced on the site and none was found on the coke ovens site. Nevertheless, obvious quantities of it were dumped into the tar ponds.

PCB-contaminated sediments represents a rather minor percentage of the whole cleanup job for the site - some 1.2 tonnes overall.

For some reason, Mr Marcocchio and the Sierra Club of Canada are pushing the Eco Logic process because it is a so-called "closed loop" system. The reality is quite different. I did attend the recent Eco Logic presentation by Beth Kummling to six people but Mr. Marcocchio wasn't present; facts are not his forte.

The Eco Logic two-step process actually includes three emission stacks: two stacks fed by recycled gases, presumably 100 per cent purified by the second-stage injection of pure hydrogen, to heat both the thermal desorption leg and the hydrogen gas phase reduction segment; a third stack is used on the tail end to burn off gases that are not recycled (some 15 per cent). At a closely supervised U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pilot project at a New Bedford Harbour Superfund site in Massachusetts, the amount of dioxins and furans present in the off-gas actually increased in the Eco Logic process compared to original concentrations in the input sediments in two of the three monitored tests.

Maybe more telling on actual effectiveness is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tested and funded just about all technologies that existed for some 15 years, including Eco Logic's, for huge stockpiles of contaminants, waste munitions, experimental weapons, and the like. After all these tests, the army chose to go to full scale with plasma arc technology preceded by a thermal desorption leg to concentrate and reduce volumes to be treated at the new Nevada disposal site. When pilot scale tests were conducted on samples of the tar ponds in 2001-02, Eco Logic bowed out, claiming it needed several times the basic $50,000 grant that was offered to all the candidate technologies to verty their effectiveness on two barrels of actual sludge.

The gas-phase hydrogen reduction process, preceded by a thermal desorption step, is indeed a very elegant technique. I don't doubt that for chlorinated contaminated sediments such as PCBs or pesticides (which we don't have on the site), this process is a possible solution. In the 15-plus years of its existence, the Eco Logic process has been used to treat a combined worldwide total of some 3000 tonnes of contaminated materials. Although recent improvements in the process, particularly in the thermal desorption leg, make it a viable option for the treatment of some of the recoverable 20,000 tonnes of PCB-contaminated materials from the tar ponds (part of JAG's recom- mendation on usable alternatives for these contaminants), this treatment train is not a proven technique for the scale of this cleanup.

Technically I also question that for the bulk of the PAH-contaminated sediments (40 per cent of which by dry weight are just coal and coke fines in the tar ponds) the injection of more hydrogen into gases with already saturated hydrogen molecules is even a desirable approach.

Once dehydrated (as part of the recommended co-combustion treatment train), the extracted hydrocarbon residuals are indeed a recyclable source of fuel for blending into the similar fuel stream used by power generating plants or cement kiln centrals.

Who knows? If Nova Scotia Power Inc. actually decides to co-operate, this might even help stave off yet another electricity bill increase. Dare I dream of a five to 10 per cent reduction in my electrical bill, proportional to the site's potential contribution in the supply of a safe and usable fuel, once the material is pre-treated?

The recent federal announcement of $500 million for the cleanup of a limited number of Canadian sites - in particular the coke ovens and tar ponds, which won't start until some time in 2005, allowing for a federal environmental review and other preparations - is due not to Mr. Marcocchio or to any of his Sierra club members who are now anxious to take the credit (a noise factor more than anything)

Many thanks are due to JAG chair Dan Fraser, all of JAG's volunteers and the secretariat for ensuring sound standards were indeed put in place to ensure that a safe cleanup will be conducted on the site. Thanks must also go to MPs Mark Eyking and Rodger Cuzner for their untiring efforts to ensure that JAG's community-based recommendation did not die in the backrooms of Parliament.

This much needed economic boost to the area needs ongoing support by all parties and individuals.

Francis Sirois of North Sydney is a long-serving JAG member