Real 'cleanup' begins at last

Cape Breton Post
Thurs. July 2, 2009

In case you missed it, the big Sydney cleanup is underway - unless, of course, it isn't. A $52 million contract was announced last weekend for the stabilization and solidification of the north and south tar ponds, the largest single job to be awarded for the $400 million federal-provincial cleanup of the tar ponds and cokes ovens site.

It's become increasingly obvious over the last couple of years that various physical activities were going on around Sydney's infamous industrial blight, but in many minds the cleanup - the real cleanup - won't be underway until the tar ponds themselves are tackled. After all, the project's usually called the Sydney tar ponds cleanup, and the agency in charge takes that name.

So this is the big enchilada, the genuine article, the real McCoy - except that not everyone's willing to acknowledge it as a cleanup at all. To the inveterate critics of the government-driven cleanup plan, it's a cover-up because none of the contaminants - not even the hotspot PCBs which initially prompted some official alarm - will be removed or destroyed. With the rejection of the incineration option, stabilization and solidification, followed by capping, became the entire solution.

Federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who grew up in Cape Breton and earned her environmentalist spurs here, voiced the standing criticism of the plan, which comes down to two assertions: 1) that the work may do more harm than good by stirring up sediments and releasing volatile, potentially hazardous compounds into the air; and 2) that cement-based stabilization and solidification won't work because of the high proportion of coal-based contaminants in the ponds.

The first point appears to ignore the pollution monitoring standards and operating techniques and procedures developed for the project to protect the surrounding community from harm. These precautions may be critiqued for their adequacy but they can't simply be ignored.

The second point touches a valid question that has been there from the beginning. The federal-provincial panel that conducted the overall environmental assessment of the cleanup plan in 2006 saw a lot of unanswered questions about stabilization and solidification and spent some time describing how that key part of the plan needed to be further refined and tested.

A good deal of work has been done since then, enough to convince the project managers at least that they could award a master contract that includes some additional work to refine the precise mixture of cement and other materials that will work best in the ponds. John van Zutphen, co-owner of J&T van Zutphen Construction Inc. of Mabou, majority partner in the new consortium Nordly's Environmental which has won the contract, says there is a formula that will work "but we need to refine that formula to make it more efficient." He suggests the mixtures may differ a bit from one area of the ponds to another.

Although this is an area requiring further clarification, it is no longer a valid criticism simply to claim that stabilization and solidification won't work when strength criteria have been developed that will have to be met as the work proceeds.