Cleanup gets to hearings

Most contentious cleanup issues go to public hearings in a week

Editorial Comment Cape Breton Post
Sat, April 22, 2006

The issue: Incineration most obvious red flag

The start of public hearings a week from today by the federal-provincial panel doing the environmental assessment on the most contentious aspects of the $400 million Sydney cleanup is a momentous event in the life of the project and the community. There were moments in the convoluted 10-year journey - not even counting the first failed cleanup that collapsed in the early '90s - when it was hard to believe this final public process would ever come.

Even now there remains legitimate anxiety that some fatal issue will solidify over the next month to stall or derail the whole enterprise. But it must be noted that over the last nine months the panel as well as the proponent, Sydney Tar Pond Agency, have shown a resolute determination to hold the process to its aggressive timetable.

The documentation generated over the last year, starting with the 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement and followed by voluminous exchanges posted to the panel's online registry (Go to and refer to CEAR reference number 05-05-8989) testifies to the prodigious labours going on behind the scenes to expedite the review. True, most of people involved are being well paid for their work but there are also countless volunteer hours going into preparations for the hearings where issues of significant concern to many in the community will get their final airing.

For a few contrarians, of course, this is all further evidence of a wasteful foolishness that has been allowed to encumber what should have been a relatively simple pollution remediation. The more the solution comes to resemble straightforward encapsulation with a few ancillary flourishes, the more merit there would seem to be in the idea that there must have been an easier, quicker, cheaper and less traumatic way to get here.

For the sake of perspective, though, it should be understood that regardless of the process followed, this project would have consumed much time and effort on technical assessments and engineering. Even a cursory look at the EIS gives a sense of the thousands of questions that have been addressed, and no one should seriously suggest that such attention to detail wasn't necessary.

There may well be surprises at the hearings but the most obvious issue in contention remains the plan to burn thousands of tonnes of material containing polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PCBs and PAHs) in a temporary incinerator at Victoria Junction, near Cape Breton University. Clearly there is widespread public aversion to incineration, reflected in regional municipal council's 14-1 decision earlier this year to support stabilization and solidification of the entire tar ponds sediment, which the EIS offers as the only feasible alternative to incineration.

So if covering the tar ponds, PCBs and all, is safe and effective (and it's obviously cheaper), why burden the community with the stress of the incineration controversy and incineration itself? The proponent's reply, essentially, is that removal and destruction of PCBs where practical is consistent with federal policy and international agreements to which Canada is a party.

That is a disappointingly remote and abstract rationale for imposing incineration over vociferous and genuinely fearful local opposition. But remember that Ottawa's paying the lion's share for the cleanup and would have to acquiesce to leaving the PCBs in place, a solution not easily squared with current federal policy. Unfortunately, we seem to be left with the proponent adamantly defending a highly contentious solution that owes little of its rationale to what's best for the community in this specific case. Perhaps the panel can bring some fresh wisdom to the question.