Tar Ponds Recap

After three weeks of meetings, only one thing is clear, the tar ponds must be cleaned up

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Sat., May 27, 2006

Sydney - When it comes to the gargantuan task of cleaning Sydney's toxic sites, this community is clear on at least one thing - it must be done. From that point on, hopes of solidarity fades and the pains of a deeply fractured society emerge. That reality played out during three weeks of joint review panel hearings that ended May 19 in Sydney. The hearings, chaired hy Leslie Griffiths and backed by panel members Louis LaPierre and William Charles, gave willing residents and other stakeholders an opportunity to publicly make a last cleanup pitch or to publicly state their concerns.

Sessions were often informative, emotional, and almost always technical. At the end, nearly every aspect of the complex project was discussed. Following are some snippets of reports, questions, concerns, and research presented at the hearings.


The need to develop a buffer zone before remediation work begins was a recommendation repeated during the sessions. Debbie Ouellette, a former Frederick Street resident, spoke with experience when she said government money should be available to protect human health and properties. Nuisances like dust, noise, and non-hazardous odours expected during the lengthy cleanup project (up to 10 years) would bother fewer people if buyouts were available, she said.

Tim Lambert, Sierra Club of Canada expert, said it's not a new idea. In fact, Sydney Council made a similar recommendation in 1974. It was reported in historical notes that councillors were concerned about residents "plagued with heavy coal dust fallout, high levels of noise pollution and industrial waste. It is the intention of the municipality to clear this area out."

Elizabeth May, Sierra club member, said at the very least, a temporary move should be considered. "There's no technology that I've heard of that could allow the remediation of the toxic waste in the tar ponds and coke ovens to take place without off site risks to people in adjacent neighbourhoods who have already been extensively contaminated in the past," she said.


Plans to incinerate PCBs got a resounding rejection from residents living on Grand Lake Road. Resident Ron Marman attended every hearing and often exercised his right to ask questions - especially when discussions turned to a mobile incinerator operating at the neighbouring Victoria Junction wash plant.

"The human problems as well as mechanical problems associated with an incinerator is an unnecessary risk," said Marman. "We must take into account the general health problems of this community. After a long history of heavy industry, residents already have health problems. Any amount of further air contamination is a serious problem."

Marman said there would also be social impacts that shouldn't be underestimated. As well, an incinerator can only hurt tourism, enrollment at Cape Breton University, as well as the assumption of a pristine environment at Lingan Golf and Country Club. "It does not make sense to contaminate one site to clean another."

His concern was backed by the Cape Breton District Health Authority and Oncologist Ron MacCormick. The health professionals said they believe Cape Bretoners won't accept incineration again. "It is a visible reminder of coke oven and blast furnace emissions, and it definitely does not improve air quality," said MacCormick. "It is potentially hazardous if there are technological problems, especially with release of dioxins and furans."

During the final days of the hearings, panel members focused most of their questions on a cleanup plan without incineration.


A Sydney Tar Ponds Agency expert said there would be few new technical considerations or cost implications if PCBs are solidified and stabilized in a cement mixture at both sites.

"I've successfully stabilized PCBs and left them in place in Alaska," said Don Shosky "You won't destroy PCBs using stabilization but you'll lock them up, bind them, and isolate them from the environment."

Increasing the strength of the encapsulation system isn't a requirement but may aid in expanding future site uses, he added.

Shosky added that getting contractors to bid on stabilization is easier than incineration. It's also easier to predict when the project will be complete - the simpler the process, the less chance for breakdown and malfunctions. Once it's in place, the success of the solidification and stabilization process is partially reliant on end land use and control measures taken.


Once the sites are capped, the role they will play in Sydney's future remains unclear. However, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality presented a convincing argument for remediating the sites to compliment future port development.

In its presentation, municipal leaders eliminated residential use, recreational use and commercial use. Once remediated, the sites could be mixed in with the municipality's plan to develop a seaport to airport corridor (Sydney Harbour to Sydney Airport). The 13.9 kilometre corridor would link four modes of transportation, link several community assets, and provide a commuter route between Sydney and Glace Bay

The municipality's recommendation was supported by many in.the business community, including Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce.


With some exception, handling cement and moving mounds of earth with excavators and dump trucks is work traditionally done by men. But when a project is funded by taxpayers and extends over 10 years, efforts should be made to employ women. In fact, there should be a policy.

Chairperson Lesley Griffiths made the point that more employment opportunities for females should be made available during the life of the project, even if it means establishing training opportunities in the non-traditional female trades.

Frank Potter, the agency's acting chief-executive officer, said that a business capacity study now underway will help the agency identify training needs and ways to encourage women to participate in the project.


Once channels are dug, drainage is operating, contaminants are stabilized and solidified, and the cap is on, how will anyone know what's happening down below?

That was a question posed to the agency throughout the hearings. Monitoring will proceed during construction, but once that's over, a second monitoring phase will begin. The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency said it will be checking leachate lines to make sure no water is getting in. If water does enter, it will be tested and treated if dirty or discharged into channels if clean. Visual inspections of the cap will be ongoing to spot cracks, subsidence or erosion. The agency will also be inspecting all discharge areas.

On the coke ovens sites, there would be a series of monitoring wells and a long-term water system.

Sydney Tar Ponds Agency fails because it only assesses risk from the project: expert


Vendors lined up to present cleanup technologies during the public hearings. Among them were: TD Enviro Ltd., proposing clean soil process technology; Kipin Industries, proposing a synthetic fuel process combined with plasma technology; and Bennett Environmental presented its incineration solutions. Cement associations also presented information on the solidification and stabilization process.


The Portland Cement Association gave examples of remediated sites where solidification and stabilization technologies were used. Among them was a Columbus MGP site. Contaminants were treated in place, with minimal occupational and vapour exposure. After evaluating the 10-year structural integrity of the solidified mass, it was concluded that groundwater didn't penetrate, the liner's integrity remained the same, there was no physical or chemical deterioration, and leaching did not occur.


Panel member Louis LaPierre was often focused on how encapsulation systems are impacted by storm surges, rising water levels and other natural occurrences. As well, how confident the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency is in the proposed cap keeping contaminants from reaching the ocean.

A coffer dam off battery point is expected to protect the cap from eroding, and the portion of the cap closest to the ocean will be more solid than the rest. Government regulators, both provincial and federal, have recommended additional monitoring to ensure the ocean is protected.


Panel member Louis LaPierre was often focused on how The Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources said keeping an inventory of cyanolichens (a plant) will give the community a visual warning that air quality is deteriorating during cleanup work. Cyanolichens are important indicators of air quality - like canaries in a coal mine. Nova Scotia has one of the richest lichen floras in North America, suggesting that the province's air quality is fairly good.

And, because the tar ponds currently provides wildlife habitat, efforts should be made to restore or compensate a loss of wetland. The department suggests that a plan be developed to restore adjacent coastal wetlands for displaced wildlife.


Studies have shown that living next to a toxic site can develop cumulative stress disorder in some residents. The physiological effects can be accelerated aging. "Chronic cumulative stress is not simply a quality of life issue but also has implications on life expectancy," Doctor Ron MacCormick, told the panel.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted research on Super-fund sites in the United States and the results backed MacCormick's comments. The study started with the assumption that health is an intertwined, inseparable entity made up of biological, psychological and social factors. Researchers found that residents displayed feelings of uncertainty and a loss of control. It was also found that communities tend to split into factions, which Cape Breton may be experiencing.


Stated simply, long-term exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals is like paying taxes. Although a lone tax won't hurt most pocket books, lumped in with all other taxes Canadians pay, it can be the final tax hike that closes a business or leads a family into bankruptcy. Long- term exposure to chemicals can be like that. Jim Argo, expert with Save Our Healthcare Committee, said the project as proposed by the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency fails because it only assesses risk from the project and doesn't consider prior lifetime exposure to hydrocarbons, PAHs, Dioxins, and metals. It doesn't assess the cumulative health impact on Sydney and surrounding areas, he said.

It was a concern also expressed by resident Eric Brophy. He feels that a community health assessment needs to be done before the project proceeds.


The chief executive officer of Membertou reminded members of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency that the First Nations community wasn't fully consulted on Sydney's cleanup plans. "The greater the impact, the greater the duty to consult," said Bernd Christmas.

He referred to case law from 2004 that supports the community's legal right for consultation. However, it shouldn't be a problem. "All of this can be overcome by allowing us to have an active role in the cleanup," he said. "We're extending an olive branch of co-operation."


While this community waits for a green light from government, the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency has started some preliminary work.

The most recent contract, building a rock barrier between the tar ponds and Sydney harbour, was awarded to J & T Van Zutphen Construction of Port Hood. The barrier will prevent contaminants from reaching the harbour during cleanup efforts.

Other preliminary jobs are: the relocation of a Whitney Pier water main; relocation of Coke Ovens brook; and the cleanup of the Sysco cooling pond.


Members of the independent panel will use information gathered during the hearings and research already conducted to give their unbiased recommendations on how Sydney's cleanup should proceed. "We assure you that we have listened intently to the information exchange throughout the process," Chairperson Lesley Griffiths said during her closing remarks. The panel commitment to submit its report to the federal and provincial ministers on or before July 13.

The deadline keeps with the terms of a joint panel agreement signed in May, 2005. However, it's unknown when that awaited report will be made public.

Picture not available :
Lawrence MacDonald, a lifelong resident of Intercolonial Street in Sydney sits on his patio to talk on his cell phone. MacDonald has lived next to the Sydney tar ponds all his life.