Residents protest discovery of airborne chemical

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post - Front Page
Wed., June 9, 2004

High levels of naphthalene recently emitted during work at the coke ovens property has some residents demanding a voluntary buffer zone of at least 300 metres from the toxic site.

The call came one day after the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency reported that unacceptable levels of the chemical that give mothballs their unique smell was detected in an air sample taken May 27 near Curry's Lane in Whitney Pier. The agency sent a news release to media Monday reporting the exceedance.

The 11 days it took before the incident was reported to the community led a small group of angry residents to demonstrate at the steps of the Nova Scotia Environment Department in Sydney Tuesday.

"The community was the last to find out," said Bruno Marcocchio a concerned citizen and a Sierra Club of Canada official. "It shows the contempt they have for human health. They'd rather spin the information than warn citizens."

The dozen or so residents questioned environment officials about where the department's loyalties lie - with the provincial agency or with residents surrounding the site. "Our regulator is failing us completely," said Marcocchio.

Residents concerned about other chemicals

Terry MacPherson, a spokesperson for the regulatory department said it answers to environment legislation, and no one else.

The department is presently reviewing the incident and is expecting a summary in the coming days of air monitoring results taken around the site.

Eric Brophy, a concerned resident and member of the Joint Action Group, said naphthalene is one of the most discernible chemicals because of its distinctive odour.

"My fear is that if they admit to that, what other emissions were going on." He said he also objects to the work not being stopped as soon as the exceedance was detected. "If it's been going on for weeks, why didn't they shut it down."

Parker Donham, a spokesperson for the provincially run Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, said results from the air sample collected in May didn't arrive at the provincial office until Friday. Since work wasn't conducted over the weekend, officials had until Monday to determine how to handle the naphthalene exceedance of three parts per billion.

"Our system for ensuring the safety of the community works," said Donham. "We monitor very intensively. We had a single exceedance of a single chemical - a relatively benign chemical. "We stopped work, and we're working to resolve the problem and we will resolve the problem before we start work again."

Naphthalene was the only exceedance reported by AMEC Earth and Environmental for the 24-hour air samples it collected from monitoring stations surrounding the site.

Donham said the people who object to every attempt at cleaning up the site will never be satisfied. "We stop work, we notify the community, we notify the proper authorities and we take action to correct the problem," he said. "What would people have us do? Do they want it cleaned up or not? "

Clean Harbors Canada Inc., an Ontario company, is cleaning out the Domtar tank. Before work began more than a year ago, a containment structure was built around the tank to control emissions while the water, sludge, and solids were removed.

"We go the extra 100 miles to protect this community from the slightest shadow of a suggestion of a hint of anything dangerous," he said. "Nevertheless, when we carry out those activities as we're mandated to do, Bruno Marcocchio goes nuclear every time we do. "And that's just crazy. It doesn't help matters. "It's not going to make it easier for this community to clean up this problem and get on with life."

Brophy agreed that adding the extra protection around the tank did give surrounding communities an assurance that their safety was a priority. But the reported exceedance puts that assurance in jeopardy. He also said that if people's health is being jeopardized, they should be moved. "How much of a chemical does it take before your health is impacted," he said. "Every time you're in contact with these chemicals, it adds to the body burden. It's accumulative."

The contractor is now attempting to correct the air emission problem - likely triggered by a new method of heating coal tar oil in the tank, Donham has said. It plans to replace the activated charcoal in the air handling system and to make sure that the exhaust fan is working to its design capacity.

On the United States Environmental Protection Agency Web site, it's noted that short-term exposure to naphthalene through inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact is associated with hemolytic anemia, liver damage,and neurological damage. Cataracts have also been reported in workers acutely exposed to naphthalene by inhalation and ingestion.

Long-term exposure of workers and rodents to the chemical has been reported to cause cataracts and damage to the retina. Hemolytic anemia has been reported in infants born to mothers who sniffed and ingested naphthalene (as mothballs) during pregnancy.

Available data is inadequate to establish a causal relationship between exposure to naphthalene and cancer in humans although the EPA has classified the chemical as a possible human carcinogen.

Air quality standards enforced throughout the tar ponds and coke ovens cleanup project to date are designed to detect problems early, before harmful effects occur, Donham has said.