Scrutiny of tar ponds plan begins today

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Sat, April 29, 2006

Sydney - One of Canada's most hotly debated cleanup projects will be publicly scrutinized during three weeks of hearings which kickoff here today.

Opening the sessions is the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, a special operating agency for the province charged with carrying out $400 million worth of remediation work at the tar ponds and coke oven sites.

The agency is also responsible for an Environmental Impact Statement, a comprehensive document relying on scientific research and modelling to predict possible impacts if the agency's cleanup plans are implemented.

The agency contracted AMEC Earth and Environmental to pen the supporting document, which is at the heart of the hearings.

In January, the environmental firm concluded that cleanup work will have no negative impacts during or following the remediation. That statement will be put to the test by government departments, agencies, community groups, environmental groups, academics, and businesses for 21 calendar days, excluding Sundays.

Chairing the joint panel review is Lesley Griffiths, a co-principal of Griffiths Muecke Associates - a community planning and environmental consulting firm located in Halifax. She'll be joined by William Charles, a former dean of the Dalhousie University Law School, and Louis LaPierre, of the K.C. Irving Chair in Sustainable Development at the Université de Moncton. Panel members issued operational procedures for the hearings to curtail any unnecessary discussion.

The ponds, situated at Sydney's core, were contaminated when lax, or possibly nonexistent environmental laws allowed steelmakers and coke producers to dump material containing heavy metals, PAHs, and PCBs into the ponds. Now, nearly 700,000 tonnes of sediment is polluted and trickles into Sydney harbour.

As well, byproducts from the baking of coal and coke seeped into the bedrock at the coke ovens site, a 68-hectare piece of land adjacent to the ponds and bordering Frederick Street. The residential road in Whitney Pier was once a busy street until government offered 24 homeowners a buyout of their properties in 1999. Most accepted.

Cleanup efforts began 20 years ago. At that time, federal and provincial governments funded a project that involved dredging the ponds and pumping sediment through a pipeline connected to an incinerator designed to burn the sludge and generate electricity. However, the design was flawed. The goopy sludge got stuck while travelling along the pipe. The project, costing more than $50 million, failed.

About 10 years ago, the provincial government suggested capping the tar ponds with slag from the steel plant. That suggestion was quickly quashed by a frustrated community doubting government's intentions.

To appease the community, the Joint Action Group was formed. It involved community representatives, bureaucrats and stakeholders meeting regularly to study the sites, their impact, and to identify acceptable cleanup solutions.

Although many JAG volunteers remained focused on a solution from its inception, stormy relationships often marred the process.

However, JAG completed its mandate in May 2003, by recommending that government remove and destroy contaminated waste at the sites. Co-burning the toxic sludge at a power plant or cement kiln was the community-supported method of destruction. Pretreating the waste before its destruction was also selected.

In 2004, governments agreed to allocate up to $400 million in funding to remediate the sites. The plan is to dig up and destroy harmful contaminants in the ponds and coke ovens, treat remaining material in place, then contain the sites with an engineered containment system. It's expected the coke ovens will be remediated by 2011 and the tar ponds will be ready by 2014.

Today's hearing will begin at 9 a.m. and continue until 4 p.m. The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency will also respond to questions Monday and Tuesday from 1-9 p.m.

All hearings will be conducted at the Victoria Park Armouries, Ogilvie Building, on Garrison Road in Sydney. The concluding session will be Friday, May 19.

Photo not available for caption below

Right to left, Ron Marman, John MacPhee, Leo Carrigan and Cathy Theriault raise placards during a protest near Sydney's tar ponds, Friday. About 50 residents opposed to the Sydney Tar Pond Agency's PCB incineration plans gathered to muster support for another method of remediating the site's contaminated sludge.