Cleanup report looks sensible despite potentially fatal findings

Cape Breton Post
Sat., July 29, 2006


On the very first day of public hearings for the environmental review of the Sydney cleanup plan, assessment panel chair Lesley Griffith opened with a silly question. Were those trees she'd seen in the video animation showing what the tar ponds site could look like after completion of remediation? It wasn't so silly a question, as it turned out. In fact, Griffith's question about the virtual trees goes to some of the key findings by the panel whose report to federal and provincial governments was made public earlier this month.

For trees to grow on the site, the cap must be strong enough and designed to allow deep root systems. And underneath the cap the contaminated sediments left in place must be dependably solid enough to support trees or buildings or whatever goes on top.

Aside from a video representation, however, use of the sites is ignored in the cleanup plan proposed by the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, the provincial Crown agency in charge of the project. That isn't good enough, in the view of the three-member panel. The report concludes that "ensuring that the sites have the capacity to support viable and sustainable uses must be an integral part of the project design."

The report is suffused with this blend of technical acumen, skeptical analysis and old-fashioned horse sense. Many of the recommendations are stated with an evident authority that makes them impossible for governments to ignore.

Contrary to the proponent's assurances that it has presented a "walk-away solution," the panel believes permanent remediation of the tar ponds may not be possible; instead, the site will likely have to be monitored and managed for a long time - practically speaking, in perpetuity. The panel calls on the province to ensure long-term maintenance and monitoring through legislation, with "provisions for reporting and accountability."

On the single most controversial issue, the panel does not rule out the local incineration of soils and sediments from contaminated hot spots but does lay out an evaluation framework in which governments could very well end up rejecting it themselves without having it look like a political capitulation to hysterical local opposition. Incineration in this specific case could be nixed under current federal policy and regulation, all technical-like.

For all its hard-nosed clarity, the report does not give a clear and immediate answer on the crucial question: Is this plan sound enough in the main to justify governments committing the bulk of $400 million to implement it?

Much depends on what we make of the panel's skepticism about solidification and stabilization, a key part of the solution proposed for the tar ponds. The panel is not convinced that this is a proven solution in the context of a site comprising "organiccontaminants in organically enriched sediments in an estuary with potential groundwater and seawater influx" - a complex, multi-element reservation. The panel calls for further study into the criteria required and testing to ensure technical targets can be achieved.

Prominent environmentalist Elizabeth May, a candidate for the national leadership of the Green Party, thinks the panel has sounded the death knell for solidification and stabilization - and hence for a key element of the tar ponds cleanup proposal. Mayor John Morgan also sees potential in the report for "sending us back to the drawing board." These are not fanciful readings but it is impossible to assess the risk posed to the project by this area of the panel's findings without a more substantive response than we've heard from the proponent, which could take some time.

Should we blame this potentially fatal glitch on the panel and take it as proof that the federal decision to go with the full-blown assessment was a mistake after all? Only if the concerns raised are frivolous, naively idealistic or technically ill-informed. That is not the impression that jumps out from the pages of this report.