Cleanup Sees Next Hurdle

Push is on to ink a cleanup deal before events conspire for delay

The Issue: Province Threatens To Go It Alone

Cape Breton Post Editorial
Sat., Mar. 27, 2004

There's one obvious reason the Nova Scotia government wants a Muggah Creek cleanup agreement with Ottawa in place before the next federal election, which could come this spring. Prime Minister Paul Martin and his harried Liberals might conceivably lose or be reduced to a minority, which could affect priorities. The federal commitment to the cleanup, at least in principle, is probably safe in any event, since all parties seem willing to adopt this poster child of industrial blight. But, even so, the election itself would most likely delay the signing of any agreement until fall at the earliest, even if Martin wins his majority. He would still have to organize a new government.

Cleanup promoters have been contending with political timetables since the Joint Action Group submitted its recommendations to government almost 10 months ago.

First there was hope that Jean Chretien would add tar ponds cleanup to his legacy list by completing an agreement before stepping down late last year as prime minister. That didn't happen.

Then the Question was whether the long-standing federal commitment to the project would be handed off smoothly to the incoming administration, a question settled when Martin retained incumbent David Anderson as environment minister and included mention of the tar ponds in the February throne speech. This week the commitment moved another political step to the budget.

Now the trick is to beat the election call with a federal-provincial agreement on technology, management and funding, and this race could come down to a photo-finish. The two governments appear to be working out technology and price - about $400 million over the better part of the next decade - but they're publicly at loggerheads over an issue that everyone saw coming: cost split.

There was little new information Thursday from Cape Breton North MLA Cecil Clarke, the energy minister and provincial point main for political issues in this region of the island, except for the rather bizarre threat that the province could go it alone on cleanup of its own properties if Ottawa continues to balk at paying 70 per cent of the overall cost.

Anderson has offered 50-50, suggesting that the federal government's being generous because it really owns only 40 per cent of the problem. The province insists that Ottawa, in one way or another, is responsible for the more expensive portions of the cleanup. The province has presented its case publicly in some detail; Anderson, meanwhile, avowing disdain for public negotiating, leaves the federal position looking sketchy and arbitrary, so that it's easier for people to see the province's point of view.

As a political pressure tactic, Clarke's threat to go it alone can be applauded. When the cleanup method is essentially decided and funding is provided for on both sides, it would be unconscionable to allow the project to stall in the congestion of unrelated political events. The province declaring that it can remediate its properties for $160 million is a graphic way of presenting its contention that Nova Scotia's fair share is 30 per cent.

Yet if the solo threat were to translate into separate provincial and federal cleanups, with yellow police tape separating the two, the community would surely revolt in outrage and the rest of the country would die laughing. We get the point, and we hope Ottawa does too, but this is posturing. Clarke's threat does however raise a more cunning notion that by going it alone the province might elude an onerous and cumbersome federal environmental review.