Domtar tank ready, project can move to next stage

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Thurs., July 8, 2004

Mechanical problems that caused naphthalene to escape during work at Sydney's coke ovens site are fixed. Now contractors are waiting for government approval so they can get started on the project once again.

"It'll start up ,when the Department of Environment and Labour and the medical officer of health (Charl Badenhorst, Cape Breton District Health Authority) gives us the go-ahead," said Parker Donham, spokesperson for the provincially-run Sydney Tar Ponds Agency.

The contract lead for the project - Conestoga Rovers & Associates - revised its plans so work performance would improve on the site. That draft plan was discussed at length Tuesday and additional recommendations are now being considered by the health and environmental officials. Some improvements expected are additional airflow tests and more precise hand-held air monitoring units.

Work at the Domtar tank - a $3.6-million project - halted in June after air monitoring results showed an unacceptable exceedance of naphthalene. The chemical is used to give mothballs their distinctive smell.

Since that time, charcoal in the air handling system was replaced and a fan was repaired. The containment structure over the tank was also sealed and the airflow system is now operating above capacity, said Donham.

Along with mechanical problems, the agency's communication system was also enhanced. Community complaints are now reported electronically and forwarded to three senior agency officials as well as the environment department, the island's medical officer of health and officials with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

The agency's communication system came under attack once residents living near the site learned the agency knew of the exceedance three days before the community was informed. "Clearly, I made a mistake," said Donham.

The agency got the lab results on a Friday afternoon and, since work wasn't to be done over the weekend, a decision was made to hold the news until the following Monday. "I thought I could announce the solution while explaining the problem," said Donham. "I'll never make that mistake again."

He said he also feared media would question the timing of an announcement made on a Friday afternoon. "That's when you put something out that you're trying to hide," explained Donham. He added that the exceedance in May "didn't put anyone at risk."

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

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 annd damage to the retina.

Hemolytic anemai has been reported in infants born to mothers who sniffed and ingested naphthalene (as mothballs) during pregnancy. Available data are 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.