JAG inept at community relations work: memo

Donham's note to MP says recommendations unrealistic

By Tanya Collier MacDonald
Cape Breton Post
Monday, June 26, 2003

A caustic memo never meant for public eyes dismisses as "inept" the Joint Action Group's community relations work and suggests the six-year process of finding cleanup solutions has produced wildly unrealistic recommendations.

The note, obtained by the Cafe Breton Post, has the spokesperson for a provincial team overseeing the cleanup effort attacking JAG for recent community consultation efforts held, in Point Aconi.

Written by Parker Donham, spokesperson for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, the note outlines a host of criticisms.

Sydney-Victoria MP Mark Eyking confirms the note was prepared for him by Donham for a meeting Eyking had with Environment Minister David Anderson June 12. I knew some of it was a little strong," said Eyking. "I'm disappointed it's out there because it was a personal note to me - or at least I thought it was."

This spring JAG held a work shop for residents around Nova Scotia Power's Point Aconi power plant to gather feedback on cleanup options proposed for Sydney's tar ponds and coke ovens sites. Fewer than six people participated.

Since then, news that waste from the toxic sites could be incinerated at the power plant has stirred the community in that area into action.

JAG has listened to concerns voiced through subsequent information sessions with the residents, has held two work shops and is planning three more in outlying communities.

But the one staged in Point Aconi at the beginning of this month raised the ire of Donham, who wrote that the open house gave critics an opportunity to frighten local residents with false claims about the incineration of tar ponds sludge in the power plant fuel mix, known as co-burning. "This inept start to engaging the Point Aconi community makes the political job of selling a solution that much harder," Donham's note says. "It may well spook Nova Scotia Power into rejecting any participation in a co-burning option."

JAG is promoting "unrealistic expectations within the community with encouragement from Environment Canada, it promotes a cadillac cleanup solution of dubious feasibility and affordability. The options evaluation report prepared for JAG pegs the cost of this option at $450 million. In-house risk analysis carried out over the last three weeks concluded that the actual cost of this option will approach $1 billion.

The note contends that cost has never been a factor for JAG or Environment Canada. "Technically feasible and fiscally responsible cleanup options do exist," Donham writes. "But the constant promotion of unrealistic options by JAG and EC [Environment Canada] impedes the process of finding such a solution."

According to the note, the province regrets the removal from the cleanup process of Public Works and Government Services Canada, which the province sees as having a more realistic view of what must be done. "The province finds it disheartening that PWGSC has been pulled off the file last week. With that decision, the lead remains firmly in EC's hands and EC continues to encourage JAG's increasingly unhelpful interventions in community consultation (driven, in part, by JAG staff, fearful of losing their jobs).

"All this wastes an enormous amount of time, at a time when everyone agrees it would be to our advantage to move the project to a decision at the federal level before November."

Donham doesn't apologize for bluntness. "I don't think they thought they were getting someone who spoke in cautious, bureaucratic, sanitized language," he told the Post.

He said the words he wrote Were not the policy of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency and didn't reflect its view of Environment Canada or JAG. Donham said it was a personal note to Eyking - a memo between friends. "It uses the casual, blunt language and exaggeration friends sometimes use amongst themselves"

Donham said the memo was meant solely for Eyking and it wasn't approved by anyone in provincial government, although a senior official did read it before it went to the MP. Donham declined to reveal that person. He added his words wouldn't withstand rigorous fact checking. But it does represent some frustrations that I feel."

Dan Fraser, JAG chairperson, said he is aware of the briefing note and addressed it last week during a meeting of the executive committee, the tri-government group that oversees the $62 million cost shared agreement for the cleanup. "I received it in a plain envelope with no return address or any indication of where it came from," said Fraser.

The letter disturbed him and he believes it will also concern every volunteer and government representative who has participated in JAG since 1996.

Fraser said JAG is "an advisory committee to government, and throughout our existence we depend on our government partners to provide us with accurate and complete reports."

He said the lead contracting party for cleanup work under the cost-shared agreement is the province. That work includes the Remedial Action Evaluation Report done by CBCL Ltd. under the direction of the project management consulting firm, Conestoga Rovers & Associates. The scientists and engineers provided JAG with a shortlist of options for the tar ponds and coke ovens sites, and included timelines and costs for each.

"Now (government) has done some in-house fine-tuning and they have determined it's more than twice the cost," said Fraser. "Shouldn't that have been done well before we went out to the community?" He added that "what's significant is that we are the receivers of this document. We depended on it. We depended on the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency the lead agency to approve it, give it to us, and then it was presented to the community. Now it would appear to me that Sydney Tar Ponds Agency is criticizing their own approved document."

Fraser said consultation with Point Aconi residents was not inept but a "necessary beginning and a logical continuation of our public participation process. "This is clearly an issue for our government partners to resolve." Garth Bangay, Atlantic regional director general of Environment Canada, said he was disappointed by the note. "This is very unfortunate. I'm very disturbed that anyone in the province would write a note like this. It's dishonest and is not supported by the facts. Obviously it will strain relationships. But we have a job to do." Bangay said it's important for people to understand that "Environment Canada has at no time promoted any of the options. We have taken a very neutral view all through the public consultation."

Further discussions with First Nations are still required and no decision will be made by the federal government on the direction of the cleanup until at least the fall, he added.

As for the $1 billion figure mentioned in the memo, Bangay said he couldn't comment on work done by Public Works and Government Services Canada but added the federal government is now carefully looking at the cleanup costs.

Dollar figures reported to the public previously didn't include such expenses as an environmental assessment, project management, and a variety of other costs associated with the project, he said.