Former steelworker says tar ponds cleanup is political tug-of-war

By Tanya Collier MacDonald
Cape Breton Post
Tues., Mar. 30, 2004

A political tug-of-war between the provincial and federal governments is frustrating to one man who sparked the cleanup of the tar ponds and coke ovens more than 20 years ago.

Donnie MacPherson, who worked at the coke ovens for 25 of the 30 years he was employed at the Sydney steel plant, said both governments have political agendas when it comes to splitting the cleanup cost.

"I think both the provincial and federal governments are looking for the cheapest way out," he said. Not surprising since government first opted to keep the degree of contamination at the sites a secret, he said.

He recalled when an environmental assessment was done on the site between 1973 and 1974. The results of those findings were kept confidential until he was able to get his hands on the information nearly 14 years later. "I hope I played some small part," said MacPherson.

His efforts were on behalf of steelworkers he felt were being treated unfairly by workers' compensation at the time, and, the corporation denying the plant was a hazardous work site. MacPherson, who suffers with industrial bronchitis, said the number of workers dying from cancer and respiratory ailments at the time were too many to ignore. The amount of emissions spewing out of the smoke stacks alarmed him too. "This was ignored," said MacPherson. "That's the tragedy."

Saturday, federal Environment Minister David Anderson issued a press release responding to comments made last week by Cecil Clarke, Nova Scotia's energy minister.

Anderson, who declined an interview with the Cape Breton Post, said in the release that the federal government's involvement with the operation of the coke ovens facility was limited to a five-year period during its 80-year life span. "The pollution that now rests on federal property was caused by emissions from the steel and coke facilities operated primarily by the province of Nova Scotia and private interests regulated by the province. "The tar cells that rest on the coke ovens site were created in the mid-1940s and early 1960s, not during the period of federal ownership," it read.

He also said the government of Canada subscribes to the policy that the polluter should pay for the cleanup. "The regulatory authority which allowed such contamination is next in line of responsibility. "That said, because of the nature and size of the problem in Sydney, the federal government has been assisting the province of Nova Scotia. We have been supporting the province in the remediation and will continue to do so because we feel it is the right thing to do."

Anderson said Ottawa remains committed to the cleanup.

On behalf of the provincial government, Clarke responded to Anderson's comments Sunday by inviting the federal government to start cleaning up the contaminated sites at the tar ponds and coke ovens immediately.