Shots Traded Over Review

Summer winds down without word on the type of cleanup assessment
The Issue: Delay feared from broad review
Cape Breton Post Editorial
Mon., Sept. 13, 2004

Professional propagandists on either side of the Sydney cleanup issue got to practice their craft last week in a brief burst of fire over the type of environmental assessment that should be done. Sydney Tar Ponds Agency spokesman Parker Donham labelled the comments by Sierra Club of Canada executive director Elizabeth May, and Atlantic campaign director Bruno Marcocchio, as "the same old tired rhetoric," claims that are "not just stale" but "demonstrably wrong."

This was after May had reiterated some familiar objections to tar ponds incineration and chided governments for refusing to undertake either widespread remediation in the community or relocation of residents. Marcocchio added that the joint government plan announced in May, proposing that only relatively small amounts of contaminated material be removed and destroyed, is "a coverup, not a cleanup."

Old and tired this may be, in the sense that we've heard it all before, but the demonstrable error has yet to be established in any formal way. Claims and counter-claims will get some sort of final test but the hot question since the announcement has been whether the forum will be a full panel environmental assessment or a less demanding comprehensive review.

The Sierra Club comments were in apparent reaction to the move by the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce and JCl: Cape Breton to mobilize a coalition of like-minded groups to push for a quick start to the cleanup, beginning with the lighter of the two assessment options under consideration.

This has been characterized as a time issue, which may be misleading. May insists that a properly constituted and instructed panel could do its job in as little a time as six months, or certainly within the time-frame set out for environmenal assessment. The more significant issue is that the comprehensive review is categorized as a self-directed process, where it's up to the proponent to show that its plan is sound and environmentally responsible. The government plan would be the central reference point of the review. The full panel assessment, by contrast, offers a better chance of getting consideration for alternatives and issues not addressed in the proponent's project, offerimg at least the hypothetical prospect of getting rejected alternatives back on the table.

That sends shudders through the fast-track constituency which imagines the project being Altered for fundamental redesign and another round of funding negotiation, though the potential for such an outcome shouldn't be exaggerated. May was hoping, and apparently expecting, that a fall panel review would be announced within days of the project unveiling and that the actual panel would be able to work through the summer with a wide-open agenda. "If we wait until the project is defined," she said at the time, "we're not able to thoroughly access and explore the options which are more appropriate from an environmental and health aspect."

Obviously that hasn't happened. It appears we'll have to await the submission to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency of the detailed project description in mid-October before we'll know what sort of assessment will be ordered.

Just because the Sierra Club claims there are better, practical alternatives to the government proposal doesn't mean there are. May's claim that Sydney can have what she calls a top-of-the-line cleanup in place of the burn-and-bury scheme proposed, for the same price of $400 million just doesn't sound credible at this point.

The community indicated in spring 2003, in the wrap-up of the Joint Action Group process, that it favoured removal and destruction (without local incineration) of contaminated materials from the tar ponds and coke ovens site. Well, like, duh, who wouldn't? Government officials later claimed that, for one thing, the costs cited in that community consultation were wildly understated. The project as subsequently announced tends to bear this out.

The solutions have to be realistic. Regardless of the review process chosen, we should expect that those in charge of the assessment will appreciate that point.