Cleanup News A Big Break

Agreement on Muggah Creek will lift a psychological pall
The Issue: Announcement Coming Next Week
Cape Breton Post Editorial
Sat., May 8, 2004

Canadians have been assured over the years that the people of Sydney were desperately awaiting the cleanup of the Muggah Creek watershed. As proof, there would be TV video from time to time showing angry people shouting. But down at ground zero it wasn't always easy to say what if anything the community at large was thinking about the tar ponds. The subject became a kind of white noise, at the edge of consciousness, as people got on with their lives. But it's become a psychological weight too. One might pretty up the downtown and talk about urban rebirth in the old steel city but there was this Thing - this hideous, mocking embarrassment that seemed the very emblem of collective paralysis.

Well, just as every Canadian now is allowed to root for the Calgary Flames, the cleanup bandwagon is pulling into the station at long last and everyone's welcome to pile aboard. All past disloyalty, all loss of faith, all turning away in disgust, is forgiven.

News of an agreement between federal and provincial governments on a cleanup costing $400 million and up is the biggest break for Sydney in many years. It can't help but brighten the outlook in the unofficial capital of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, a change that will spill out beyond the boundaries of the former city.

There are bound to be conflicts and problems ahead, of course. Officials have been tight-lipped about the choice of cleanup methods but the guessing is the tar ponds solution will involve both encapsulation and incineration - approaches that have been bitterly attacked in the past. Governments have been stating a working estimate of $400 million, which is in the ballpark of the high end package favoured in the community consultation exercise last spring. But the costs attached to that Cadillac set of preferences were soon challenged as unrealistically low. Governments appear to have aimed at some mid-range in the available cleanup options.

It's believed the project will avoid a full panel federal environmental assessment that the Sierra Club has demanded, which could have taken up to three years. We've yet to learn whether there's anything planned to address the persistent calls for a relocation offer to homeowners immediately outside the cleanup perimeter, perhaps using the justification that the remediation work itself will give rise to local public health and nuisance issues.

And the last time we heard from Membertou, the Mi'kmaq band was feeling ignored and hinting at court action if it was not adequately consulted on the cleanup.

These and other issues will generate further debate, ending in hard feelings in some cases. But the news of a funding deal and adoption of a general plan of attack will trigger broad support in the community for the partners to proceed with all practical haste and get this done. The projection of six years sounds like a welcome, a bonus against the popular expectation that a cleanup would take a decade if governments ever did get around to doing it.

Among the many criticisms of the Joint Action Group process, which concluded a year ago with the submission of recommended options, was Mayor John Morgan's charge that the whole cumbersome edifice, including the several departmental bureaucracies linked to it, lacked a political driving force to energize the effort. Morgan's critique may have been opportunistic sniping from the sidelines, when the regional municipality itself was a formal and participating partner, but he did have a point. It is essential that the big cleanup be launched with the management structure and personnel to ensure that snags are overcome expeditiously, that contractors deliver, and that the whole complex undertaking stays on course and on schedule.