Coming clean

A look at environmental cleanups underway across Cape Breton as region makes transition from industrial and resource-based economy

Cape Breton Post
By Tom Ayers
Wed., Mar. 17, 2010

In the first of a three-part series, the Cape Breton Post examines the current state of environmental cleanups around the island. Part 2, Thursday, looks at the environmental, social and economic impacts of the cleanup projects. The final article on Friday explores the legacy expected to be left behind. SYDNEY — Cape Breton’s visual landscape no longer includes orange clouds reflecting heat and light, and carrying iron ore dust, from the former blast furnace. Nor does it include miners’ black faces.

Topics :

Devco , Princess Mine , Franklyn Mine , Sydney Mines , Cape Breton , New Waterford

The steel plant and coal mines closed around a decade ago, but it will be some time before anyone can call the island completely green again.

As the region makes the transition from an industrial and resource-based economy, a surprising number of environmental cleanups are underway. One of the largest remediation projects — the Sydney tar ponds — is now swinging into high gear with the first full season of solidification and stabilization.

The cleanups all have their detractors, but there are signs some of the land is slowly returning to life and many officials and citizens are optimistic for the future. "The physical environment is going to be better because of the elimination of the irritants from our air," said Alastair MacLeod, a retired dentist and chairman of the community liaison committee overseeing remediation of the tar ponds and coke ovens sites in Sydney, "but the social and recreational environments represent significant opportunities for the future."

Tar ponds most costly, most transparent

"The physical environment is going to be better because of the elimination of the irritants from our air but the social and recreational environments represent significant opportunities for the future." - Alastair MacLeod, chairman of the community liaison committee overseeing remediation of the tar ponds and coke ovens sites in Sydney, "

The tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup is the most expensive remediation project underway in Cape Breton. The federal and provincial governments have committed $400 million — creating local jobs and economic spinoffs — and the work is expected to end in 2014.

Apart from being the most visible — and notorious — cleanup, it’s also the most transparent.

The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, tasked with overseeing the project, regularly posts updates on its website covering all aspects of the cleanup, as well as minutes from monthly meetings of the community liaison committee.

The website also publishes daily air monitoring reports and is loaded with the history of the tar ponds and coke ovens sites, including ongoing and past cleanup efforts.

At the same time, more than a dozen former coal mine sites under the former Cape Breton Development Corp. continue to be cleaned up after Enterprise Cape Breton Corp. took over Devco this year.

Thirteen coal mines to be remediated

Devco’s last annual report showed 13 locations covering 7,400 acres to be remediated in the area that used to be known as industrial Cape Breton.

The cleanup projects are necessary, officials say, to eliminate the possible hazards associated with subsidence, which occurs when the ground sinks on top of old underground mine workings.

The sites are federally regulated and include the Franklyn Mine group and Princess Mine near Sydney Mines, Victoria Junction and its tailings basin near Sydney, the Summit mine site near New Waterford, Lingan, No. 25 (Gardiner), Gowrie, Broughton, Louisbourg, and Dominion Nos. 4, 6 and 11 (around Glace Bay).

They are all in various states of cleanup and are expected to be finished and under long-term maintenance by 2012, according to the Devco report.

Fourteen of 24 properties in the Franklyn Mine group in Florence and Bras d’Or are ready to be disposed of, and cleanup at the former Princess Mine site in Sydney Mines is also nearing completion, with seeding of up to 74 acres of the 99-acre site beginning this year. The former Princess washplant area is now a green field that sports walking trails, a pond that can be used for skating in winter, and interpretative panels telling the story of the site.

ECBC hopes to have a plan this year to finish reclaiming the area around Edwards Pond, which would finish off the former Princess Mine site.

Mine water pumped and treated

ECBC also inherited from Devco the Neville Street mine water remediation project that controls water under the communities of Glace Bay, Dominion and Reserve Mines. Under the project, rising mine water is pumped and treated to clean up contaminated groundwater and keep the ground stable.

Automated remote water monitoring systems have also been installed at the Sydney Mines and New Waterford mine pools.

Several other former coal mines are also in various stages of cleanup and reclamation under supervision of the provincial Department of Environment.

The largest active mine reclamation project is the former Prince Mine at Point Aconi, which covers about 285 acres. Cleanup of the former Devco property has been granted to Pioneer Coal, which is about midway through its seven-year surface mine project.

The company received provincial approval to extract the remaining coal and sell it to Nova Scotia Power, with a royalty paid to the province for each tonne of coal removed.

Brad Langille, an inspector with the provincial environment department, said the operation is considered a classic surface mine operation in which the company digs down to the coal from the surface and uses the overburden material to fill in behind as the operation moves across the property. Langille said Pioneer Coal has been hauling on average 1,500-1,800 tonnes of coal per day off-site.

The property is being reclaimed as the coal operation moves forward and a final approval will be required before the reclamation can be considered satisfactory. "It’s progressing quite well, but that’s not to say what the future will bring," he said. Every project runs into situations that can’t be anticipated, Langille said, adding Pioneer Coal has not found as much coal as it hoped due to previous bootleg operations on the site.

The company had also planned to use an automated continuous miner that would dig coal and transport it by conveyor belt, he said, but a roof collapsed on the machine last fall and it had to be abandoned underground.

Langille said the only other active coal mine reclamation project in Cape Breton is at the Greenhill Developments property on Pitt Street in Florence. That project is on private land and is about a tenth the size of the former Prince Mine site. He said the project, which began around 2005, is nearly complete and although it is on private property, the owner "is still under the same obligations as anyone else" to reclaim the site to an acceptable standard.

Smaller cleanups around alder Point and Little Pond are also in the final stages of reclamation, including the Merrit Point property which the department is having cleaned up under court order.

From steel plant to business park

The former Sysco steel plant property in Sydney covers about 500 acres north of the tar ponds site, and Nova Scotia Lands Inc. has cleaned up and developed about 120 acres of that, converting the former heavy industrial lands into a business park with 14 tenants to date.

Structures across the site have been taken down and scrap metal recycled, and more than 100,000 tonnes of contaminated material have been solidified and capped at the north end of the property, and smaller amounts are expected to be done as they are uncovered.

NSLI president Gary Campbell says remediation work is continuing, including stabilization and solidification of contaminants, but the cleanup will progress depending on demand for developed industrial lands and provincial budgets.

The agency also assumed responsibility for cleaning up two Sysco properties in Sydney Mines including a former coal mine site at Tobin Road and the former steel plant site on the Northside. Both properties have undergone phase one environmental assessments, meaning the sites have been examined and remediation planning has started, but the cleanups won’t proceed until the province sets a budget for those projects, said Campbell.

The Pine Tree, the Arrow and the Kurdistan

The Department of National Defence is also spending about $11.2 million to clean up soil at Pine Tree Park in Sydney’s Whitney Pier neighbourhood after it was discovered that heating oil had contaminated the ground affecting 40 residential units at the former federal radar base. DND is tearing down the residential units and replacing about 58,000 tonnes of topsoil, with work expected to start this year and finish in 2013.

Meanwhile, the provincial environment department is monitoring the storage of thousands of tonnes of material coated with bunker C oil collected after the wreck of the tanker Arrow off southeast Cape Breton in 1970 and the wreck of the tanker Kurdistan northeast of Sydney in 1979.

The materials, including seaweed, wood, sand and rocks collected along Cape Breton beaches after the spills, are stored in plastic and steel containers buried in private, municipal and provincial landfill sites in Guysborough, Richmond and Cape Breton counties.