Cleanups good for Cape Breton economy

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
Thurs., Mar. 18, 2010

In the second of a three-part series, the Cape Breton Post examines the environmental, social and economic impacts of environmental cleanup projects around the island. The final article, Friday, explores the legacy expected to be left behind. SYDNEY — Cleanup projects, by definition, should remove hazards from the environment and leave citizens feeling safer. Ideally, they should also help the local economy.

Topics :
Cape Breton University , Cape Breton Development , Crown agency , Cape Breton , Sydney , Atlantic Canada

Keith Brown, vice-president of development at Cape Breton University, said remediation projects are improving the environment and have already injected half a billion dollars into the Cape Breton economy and created hundreds of jobs.

A decade after the closure of the steel plant and coal mines, the region is still struggling, but it is making the difficult transition from a resource-based economy to one that is more diverse. "We’ve seen a forced, dramatic restructuring of the economy of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality," said Brown, who is also a business professor and a former vice-president of the Cape Breton Development Corp., the Crown agency originally established to shut down the coal mines. "Ten years later, the economy is more vibrant than many people said it would be when they looked 10 years into the future. "This isn’t a vibrant economy. It needs dramatically more diversification to support the people who live here. The economy is better than many people expected and not as good as people hoped."

The end of heavy industry threw thousands of Cape Bretoners out of work and left many wondering what the future could possibly hold. While steady population decline continues to be a concern, the island hasn’t been abandoned completely.

The latest figures from the tar ponds agency show the design engineer portion of the cleanup alone has cost government about $30 million over two years, of which about 40 per cent was spent directly in Cape Breton. As well, the figures show the contract has created 277 full-time jobs, of which 41 per cent were directly created in Cape Breton, with wages and salaries of about $5.5 million.

By the end of 2009, the agency said, a total of 38 contracts worth $211.4 million had been awarded. Nearly all of the contracts’ 22 service providers were located in Cape Breton, and four were aboriginal.

Alastair MacLeod, a retired dentist and chairman of the community liaison committee overseeing remediation of the tar ponds and coke ovens sites in Sydney, said cleanup projects around the tar ponds and former Sysco steel plant are already having an impact. "The most striking change that happened in the cleanup, and God knows there’s many ... is the creation of space," he said. The heart of Sydney used to be an industrial brownfield, yet it is slowly but surely being transformed into an active industrial park, with recreational space being one of the possible future uses. "I’m staggered at the amount of opportunity that the space suggests," said MacLeod.

The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency is having a future-use study prepared, and MacLeod said it is hoped the plan will be ready for public input this month.

With a quick look on either side of the Victoria Street overpass that divides the tar ponds and Sysco site from the former coke ovens lands, the immediate impact is obvious. The coke ovens land to the east is definitely a work in progress, but the former steel plant — which was a mess of scrap and demolished buildings — is gone.

Remediation of the former steel plant site is about 25 per cent complete, with 120 acres developed into an industrial park containing 14 tenants and more than 100 workers, 43 of whom were former steel plant employees.

One of those tenants is All-Tech Environmental Services, started in 1993 by Terry Smith of North Sydney. Smith, an environmental engineering technology graduate of Cape Breton University, said he launched the company with work removing asbestos and demolishing structures on the former steel plant site. All-Tech now has offices throughout Atlantic Canada and employs up to 48 people — most of them Cape Bretoners — and the company has secured a $3.95-million air monitoring contract at the tar ponds cleanup. "Being a native of Cape Breton, it brings great pride to employ this many staff and we have been in a hiring mode over the past three years with the recession and all," Smith said.

Elsewhere, with more than 3,200 kilometres of underground workings over nearly 20,000 acres of property, the coal mines of industrial Cape Breton physically comprise the largest cleanup project on the island. They fell under the Cape Breton Development Corp.’s control for the last 40 years, until the Crown agency was absorbed by Enterprise Cape Breton Corp., which is tasked with finishing the cleanup. According to Devco’s last annual report, about $22 million was spent on property cleanup and maintenance in 2008-09, and about 80 per cent of that went to local contractors, consultants and other suppliers. The annual report also lists last year’s payments to retired miners, severance, workers compensation and post-employment benefits that totalled about $30 million. Those payments will continue into the future under ECBC.

Meanwhile, the Department of National Defence cleanup of contaminated soil at the Pine Tree Park residential subdivision at the former radar base in Whitney Pier is estimated at a cost of $11.2 million. DND says some of that work will be available for bid by local contractors and workers through its MERX tendering website. All-Tech has won one of the contracts, the tender for demolition and removal of asbestos from the housing units has already closed, worth an estimated $680,000, and others are expected to be announced soon.

But economics aren’t the only consideration, and the cleanup projects have not been without hiccups. Some of the projects and their proponents have stumbled along the way, providing critics with ammunition for their arsenals of opposition. For example, some people have complained that the tar ponds and coke ovens project is not a cleanup, but a coverup. The government is removing water from the tar ponds and mixing the remaining sludge with cement. The final solidified mass will be capped and covered with topsoil and the land made available for future use.

One of the test sites, the former cooling pond, was stabilized and solidified, but shortly afterward began to subside. Critics said this was an example of why the cleanup would not work. Others have complained about the dust and smell coming from the tar ponds site, while air monitors — operated by All-Tech — detected dust and volatile organic compounds below established site levels. The tar ponds agency has taken note of the issue, though, and recently issued instructions to its contractors to make sure dust control measures are adequate for the coming construction season.

And the strip mine at the former Prince Mine site in Point Aconi has upset area residents with blasting, runoff of untreated mine water and ruined wetlands they say were never part of any mining. All of those incidents have left some Cape Bretoners with a lingering feeling that cleanup officials are bound and determined to move ahead without regard to people’s concerns. They fear officials are essentially imbued with a "get ’er done" attitude that blinds them to the possibility of further environmental, social and health damages from the remediation activities. "Actually, I get the opposite sense," said MacLeod, adding the tar ponds cleanup is so highly regulated "there could be more regulators than people actually doing the cleanup. The caution with which this is being approached, I think, is historic in Canada."

Donna Stubbert, a member of the local group Citizens Against Strip Mining, said officials — particularly with the provincial environment department — have shown a lack of regard for local concerns in the past. But despite the negative impacts from strip mining, she added, there are signs the government is finally getting the message. "I think that we have had some success with it," said Stubbert, pointing to the three-year extension of the moratorium on strip mining. Still, she said, the mining company in Point Aconi continues to use explosives that shake people’s homes and the remediation doesn’t appear to be done well. "I don’t have a problem with cleanups being done, as long as the community has input into it," Stubbert said. "If you’re going to do it, do it properly."

The bunker C oil spills in the waters off Cape Breton in the 1970s haven’t had much impact yet, but they could in the future. Fuel from the tanker Arrow was partly dissipated by heavy wave action, but bags and barrels of contaminated seaweed, wood, sand and rock collected onshore after the spill are now buried at six different sites in Richmond County and several more in Guysborough.

Although much of the oil was recovered from the tanker Kurdistan, both spills washed up along the Cape Breton coastline from Point Aconi to the Strait of Canso. According to the federal government, the Kurdistan spill alone killed up to 25,000 sea birds and damaged $800,000 worth of fishing gear, but left no lasting environmental impact. The Kurdistan spill also generated nearly one million plastic bags and 1,500 barrels of material contaminated with thick, viscous oil that are now buried in Richmond and Guysborough counties, as well as several sites in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

However, the containers of buried oil spill remnants will eventually degrade, said provincial inspector Paul Curry. "I wouldn’t expect to see leakage, per se, but it would be material exposed to the soil," he said. That’s why the province set up a group last year including officials from environment, natural resources and the department of transportation to collaborate with the federal government on a joint strategy to monitor and deal with the dump sites for the long term.

Curry said officials have completed phase one environmental assessments on the Crown-owned landfill sites, and the group plans to carry out further assessments on private and municipal sites later. "We hope in the future we can go back on the sites and get more details on intrusion," he said. "It’s safe to say we’re looking at a longer-term strategy for monitoring these sites."