JAG demise not a million too soon

Costly process has exaggerated tar ponds problem,
and drawn government into unneccessary spending.

Letter to editor from Bruce MacDonald (Op-Ed.)
Cape Breton Post
Saturday, Sept. 27, 2003

Hip hip hooray! The ineffective and unnecessary Joint Action group as we've known it, is gone. It's about seven years and $60 million too late but it is encouraging to know that there are some federal, provincial and municipal politicians and departmental officials who have enough common sense and backbone to terminate this questionable, some say ridiculous, organization.

Along with the unfactual and at times greatly exaggerated local media stories, JAG has given this area a totally undeserved bad reputation for toxic pollution. There seemed to be a limitless supply of dollars available to this useless project when health care operations were crying for money for worthwhile facilities and treat- ment.

Why the expensive procedure to deal with Domtar tank's residue tar? Why special treatment of water in the tank, possibly the same type of water that runs off tar-covered parking lots after rain storms? Isn't this tar-type material similar to what is used to pave our streets? Why ship it away to be burned in the first place?

It seems mostly everything in the tar ponds process has had to be conducted in the most consultant-fee-attractive way because that is the way the process has been designed. How did the, tar ponds cleanup become the Muggah Creek watershed project? Had it to do with generating more studies and consultalit fees? You thought so-called cleanup was about pollution, didn't you. No, no!

It's always seemed to be about how can we be about to do something, and how can we commission another study or engineering plan, While continuing not to complete anything because that might kill the golden goose. Perhaps proportionately more profit has been made from the little Sydney tar ponds than from the Athabasca tar sands in the West.

Probably the ultimate in unnecessary JAG expense is the recent blueberry study. While the steel plant and coke ovens were operating, and for many years before and since, people picked and ate blueberries from Blueberry Hill at Whitney Pier with no apparent health problem. Enter JAG: a full-scale investigation of this non-issue is commissioned, complete with analyses by experts and government agencies, all with a price tag.

Since no harm was ever experienced by the hundreds or thousands who ate the berries over the years, this was another expensive consulting exercise to prove there was nothing detrimental, which all those who ate blueberries over the years knew in the first place.

Has anyone counted the JAG studies establishing that there was no harm from the tar ponds or coke ovens, when there was no harm indicated in the first place? Millions of dollars have been paid to consultants to prove no problem exists.

Why was encapsulation perfectly all right for the old city dump (with its great variety of polluted contents, many unknown) while encapsulation isn't OK for the tar ponds where the contents are documented and are no threat to anyone?

We have yet to have any documentation of any detrimental effect on the health of anyone as a result of exposure to the steel company, the tar ponds or the coke ovens.

So $65 million after this ridiculous exercise began, the area is no better off, nor does the end seem to be in sight. After all the supposed expert advice costing millions, the future course seems to have been chosen by the majority of fewer than 2,000 untrained people, some 10 per cent of Sydney's population, who did workbook questionnaires. How bizarre can you get? And how irresponsible can you be with scarce taxpayers' money?

In l999, I wrote an article in which I hoped "some politician, federal, provincial or municipal, will have guts enough to stop this JAG farce and its hemorrhage of money " Thank the Lord, JAG has been buried.

Some people believe JAG, the environmentalists and our local media have blackened the name of this community throughout North America and beyond, totally without justification in the form of proven detrimental effects on people from so-called toxic wastes. We should be glad to see the end of JAG.

On CBC Sunday Morning, a Halifax correspondent called Sydney, with its tar ponds, Canada's ugliest city. All the unfounded publicity has now surfaced in the Ontario election, giving us national notoriety. Parker Donham, spokesman for Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, who as a journalist probably helped spread the toxic waste stories, now complains that outside the province it's as if the material in Sydney has some magical, malevolent property that makes it worse than any other contaminated waste. But Nova Scotians should get used to it, he adds, because there is 1.1 million tonnes of contaminated material to go.

A delegate to the recent Kiwanis International convention, a person knowledgeable in environmental matters who worked on such projects as Love Canal, couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the Sydney tar ponds. What we have here is not a major pollution problem but a "small puddle," he said. After all the publicity, he was amazed.

With JAG dead, perhaps some logic, common sense and definite action will result, and not with millions in costs. With a few bulldozers, loaders and trucks, and the slag pile, the tar ponds can be filled and covered and become a valuable piece of parkland or industrial real estate. It's possible that conveyor belts from some of the closed mines could speed up the process.

Filling was the plan before JAG and the consultants got control. Let's get back to that plan, and the sooner the better.

Bruce MacDonald is a retired Sydney businessman