Governments plowing ahead with ‘cleanup’that will have to be done again

By Marlene Kane
Cape Breton Post
Fri., Apr. 20, 2007

Recently, governments announced their latest plans to "clean up" the Sydney tar ponds using a "proven" technology. This plan is not a cleanup, nor has it been proven on the tar ponds.

Using a process called stabilization and solidification, 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge in the tar ponds will be mixed with well over 100,000 tonnes of cement and slag, then hidden under 600,000 tonnes of geo-materials. How disappointing that the best "cleanup" government could come up with is to bury it — sweep it under the rug and hope everyone forgets what’s really under there. What they’re proposing cleans up nothing.

As presented by the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency during the joint environmental panel review hearings last year, solidification should increase compressive strength of the sediments to support heavy equipment during remediation and for future uses. Stabilization should reduce the risk of contaminants leaching into the environment. However, preliminary stabilization and solidification testing on tar ponds sediments indicated just the opposite.

Out of 23 samples tested for compressive strength, all failed but one. Instead of increasing in strength, samples got weaker over a two-week period. Instead of reducing the leaching of some contaminants, mixing the sludge with cement actually increased the leaching by a significant amount. More recent testing also showed increased leaching of contaminants following stabilization and solidification treatment.

There were also concerns that stabilization and solidification would destabilize certain contaminants that are considered stable now. The panel was not assured that PCBs would be stabilized following stabilization and solidification, which is all the more worrisome now that governments have decided to bury all PCBs in the tar ponds rather than remove them. Unfortunately, more recent stabilization and solidification testing failed to address the panel’s concerns about PCBs because the samples tested did not contain any PCBs.

It is expected that when cement is mixed with the tar ponds sludge, there will be a chemical reaction that releases heat, causing increased contaminant emissions. Although the air quality impacts from this action have not yet been determined, government has already decided none of this will be performed within an enclosure to protect the surrounding community. While workers will wear protective gear, residents will have to rely on air monitors for protection — the very air monitors that failed us repeatedly in the past.

It was not surprising that the panel stated in its conclusions that it was not convinced the stabilization and solidification technology is proven or suitable for use in the tar ponds. The panel said further testing is required before funds are provided or approvals issued to proceed with stabilization and solidification. Environment Canada obviously came to the same conclusion when it too recommended further testing.

A cement industry representative stated during the panel hearings that stabilization and solidification on organics, the type of sediments within the tar ponds, remains a challenge. The panel also heard that new methods for treating organics are evolving. It’s challenging, it’s evolving: I thought it was proven.

So while STPA presented stabilization and solidification as a proven, permanent, walk-away solution for the tar ponds, there is absolutely no proof that it will work to begin with, never mind in the long term. And far from stabilization and solidification being a walk-away solution, the panel cautions that we may have to manage this site forever. Unfortunately, there won’t be any money left to do that. How did this project come so far based on an unproven technology and test results that raised more red flags than green ones?

STPA continually mentions there have been 950 public meetings since the condemned burial plan of 1996, and that the time for talk is over. These officials said: "No community in Canada has ever had so much voice in a major environmental cleanup." If that were true, why did governments completely ignore the community’s preference for a real cleanup? Instead, governments chose a method which is not yet proven on the tar ponds and which is not a permanent solution.

Eventually this site will have to be excavated and remediated properly by future generations. The difficulty then is that the job will be much more expensive to do, the material much more difficult to get at, and there will be a lot more than 700,000 tonnes to remediate. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be wasted covering up the problem instead of cleaning it up, and Sydney will still be home to Canada’s largest toxic waste site.

Marlene Kane lives in Sydney.