JAG rep quits tar ponds liaison group

By Tom Ayers
Cape Breton Post
Sat., May 2, 2009

SYDNEY - A longtime community volunteer has quit the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency's community liaison committee, saying it is ineffective at providing input on the $400-million cleanup of the tar ponds and coke ovens sites.

Francis Sirois, a member of the liaison committee since its inception four years ago and a 13-year representative of the Joint Action Group, said he decided not to renew JAG's committee membership in March, citing a lengthy list of problems.

Agency officials say they're sorry to see Sirois and JAG go and said the issue is a difference of opinion on what the community liaison committee's mandate is and should be. "The CLC plays absolutely no role whatsoever," Sirois said. "It was a waste of time for all of the participants."

The CLC was set up as a sounding board for community agencies and groups to provide feedback on tar ponds agency plans and activities. According to its terms of reference, the members are accountable only to the tar ponds agency, their constituent organizations and other committee members. It has no formal public information role, although it has held some public information sessions.

Groups represented on the committee come from the areas of business, health, labour, construction, environment, education, recreation, service clubs and religion.

Mandate clear says Chair

Sirois, who has been with JAG since it formed in 1996, listed several examples of CLC requests for information he said were denied or ignored. "Most of the time you gave your input and got a polite 'thank you'," he said.

For example, said Sirois, the agency has consistently refused to release designs on projects until they are 100 per cent complete. "In order to have input, it has to be done in a timely fashion; i.e. when the plans are made. Basically, they want to do it the way they want to. There's really no opportunity for input.

Sirois said he got the impression the tar ponds agency simply wants to get the job done with little regard for the important details that would ensure it is done properly.

He said the agency has already established a poor track record with subsidence at the cooling pond, a dispute over the size of stones used to build the Battery Point barrier and permeability problems with the barrier wall being built elsewhere on the site. "We only get one crack at this and once the $400 million is spent, we're not going to get any more," he said. "I'm concerned it's going to leave us with a monster."

Eleanor Anderson, executive director of the environmental agency ACAP Cape Breton and a member of the community liaison committee, said other CLC members and ACAP's board of directors have expressed concern over the amount of useful input the committee can provide. However, she said, ACAP has decided to remain on the committee for now and will reassess its membership on a regular basis.

"The CLC process has its challenges and it works differently for everybody," said Anderson. "We have evaluated whether we should be there and I guess our final decision for now is we want to be part of the solution."

The CLC's volunteer chair, Sydney dentist Alastair MacLeod, acknowledge the committee has had some problems, but said he is confident that it is providing a useful service connecting the tar ponds agency to various community groups. "We have a clear mandate and the committee members are pursuing it vigorously," said MacLeod, adding Sirois was a valued member.

"I regret very much that he is not going to be on our committee. I asked him to reconsider, but he has decided not to reapply. He's a highly educated person and invested a lot of time.

"I think the essence of the resignation is disagreement about the role of the CLC. The role of the CLC as I see it is we're not a lobby group. Our job is to link the agency charged with the cleanup to our community. "The overlying principle is that once we've expressed our comments, we move on. Francis has a different view. His view is that the CLC should enquire about the technical work of the agency and try to hold it to account of the CLC. That's a very different mandate than the one we have been given."

MacLeod said many of Sirois's questions and concerns have been addressed by the tar ponds agency, which has proven that it is listening and making changes when possible. "If there's an opportunity to amend things, then they do," he said. "If they can't, they say 'We can't do that' but at least they get to hear what the members think. "What (Sirois) asks for, he gets at length. I understand it burns up a lot of the agency's time . . . which frustrates the committee that wants to get on with the cleanup."

MacLeod and tar ponds agency president Kevin MacDonald said everyone is focused on getting the job done, but not by cutting corners. "There are several levels of scrutiny from government and environmental groups . . . (and) it is impossible for it to proceed in other than a proper and orderly fashion," said MacLeod. "Each element of the design is being critiqued by an independent engineer," added MacDonald. "That, in my opinion, is not the role of the CLC. "I think the time has come. We're in construction mode now and . . . I wouldn't say 'just get the job done.' It's get the job done on time and on budget. That's the definition of responsible job management. That's not a compromise."

MacDonald also denied the agency has a poor track record, saying the problems identified so far speak to "the positiveness of our quality assurance."