Tar ponds odour problem canít be blown off

Project agency shirking responsibility to manage emissions - The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency is required to manage odours coming from the tar ponds site while the work of stabilization and solidification (SS) is underway.

Letter by Marlene Kane
Cape Breton Post
Fri., May 21, 2010

The powerful stench surrounding the site, and reaching far beyond, tells us whatever is being done isnít working. SS, the mixing of more than 100,000 tonnes of cement powder into 700,000 tonnes of hazardous waste in the ponds, cleans up nothing, since no contaminants are destroyed, but it has an impact on the air we breathe and will continue to do so over the next four years. To perform SS, the south pond has been drained using temporary water diversion pipes and ditches around the perimeter. Many of us are familiar with how disgusting the tar ponds smell when that protective layer of water is drained and the tarry, black sludge is exposed.

Making matters worse, not just one but a number of excavators are in there working on different areas, churning up sludge that hasnít been disturbed for decades and mixing it for hours with cement powder, which causes a chemical reaction that increases the heat to a very high temperature. This exothermic reaction substantially increases the amount of contaminants being driven off into the air. Some of these contaminants we can smell, while others are odourless, and many are carcinogenic. This chemical reaction and off-gassing continues long after the real-time air monitors are turned off following each work day.

Not that those monitors have detected what we smell (or donít smell) anyway; despite strong odours, the monitors typically detect nothing. They have proven to be completely useless, except as a public relations tool to enable the agency to say how much monitoring is taking place. The only monitors that have detected any exceedences are the few stationary air monitors which operate for a mere 24 hours once every six days, regardless of whether work is being conducted. Chances are good that nothing will be detected on that sixth day because there are only two of these monitors and both are located on the same side, so if they arenít directly downwind of the work area the day theyíre on they wonít detect anything.

If you wanted to check the results of these stationary (ambient) monitors, those results are often six months late in being posted on the STPA website. A number of years ago these reports were posted within a few short weeks as "data only," but STPA refuses to do that now.

The tar ponds are a highly polluted, hazardous waste site which contains PAHs, PCBs, heavy metals (lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium) dioxins and furans, volatile and semi-volatile organic contaminants, and many other contaminants. Given that this is obviously not a regular construction site, and more emissions are being generated from the SS work, all workers should be required to wear protective breathing apparatus, but theyíre not. Itís not surprising that unprotected workers have complained of a foul taste in their mouths. Even the clouds of dust leaving the site from SS work and truck traffic are of concern.

A wide range of contaminants can adhere to dust particles, including chlorinated organic chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins. To better protect the community and on-site workers, we asked that this work be done under cover and under negative pressure so that these emissions could be captured and filtered. Even Environment Canada says the off-gases caused from SS mixing should be collected at the surface and treated. Itís not much to ask, considering the hundreds of millions of dollars being squandered. STPA and governments have refused, saying their computer predictions and air monitors indicate it wonít be a problem Ė even though, according to STPA, every expert it spoke to said the problem of damaging the air would be at the digging-up end, not at the destruction end (had governments chosen to destroy the contaminants, according to the communityís wishes). Imagine what those experts would say now, knowing the sludge is being not only dug up but mixed and churned with cement powder, using an excavator bucket, for hours at a time. In an attempt to reduce the dust and emissions, millions of litres of water are wasted to spray the work area. Even when it is raining heavily, the odours are not suppressed. And as the weather warms, the smell gets stronger.

G. Fred Lee, PhD, who testified during the environmental assessment hearings, says: "While odorous chemicals are often characterized as a Ďnuisance,í it has been well-established that they can, and do in fact, have adverse health impacts on some individuals. "Further, many chemicals that are not odorous, but are hazardous, can be released from hazardous chemical sites like the Sydney tar ponds when the area is disturbed, such as during remediation as being practised by the STPA. Thus, the absence of odours does not mean that there are no airborne health hazards."

So while STPA busies itself downplaying the impact of odours, referring to them as merely a nuisance and inconvenience, the problem is much more than that, especially to those living close to the site who are exposed 24 hours a day and who often canít even open their windows. Whatís worse is that after needlessly exposing us to these airborne contaminants over the next four years, nothing will be cleaned up but it will all be covered up to help us forget that there is 800,000 tonnes of hazardous waste under the grass our children are playing on.

Marlene Kane