JAG blamed for too much and credited with too little

Critics should either help or stand aside

Letter to editor from Francis Sirois
Cape Breton Post
Saturday, Oct. 4, 2003

During the course of the project to remediate the Sydney tar ponds and the coke ovens site, many people have expressed their gut feelings. Last Saturday's article by Bruce McDonald is an example (JAG Demise Not a Million Too Soon, Weekend'Feedback).

Mr. McDonald is as uninformed today as he was in a 1999 article. He refuses to learn about the realities of the sites and has had a head-in-the-sand posture from the outset.

The "Just bury it and forget about it" idea is exactly what the people of Sydney objected to when the last cleanup attempt ground to a halt and governments decided they needed to get the community on side. The Joint Action Group was the mechanism created for community input.

A local gasoline service station owner has had to shut down for four months to replace a leaking storage tank. The Nova Scotia environment department found hydrocarbon content in the soil to be 10 per cent above the remediation level and cleaning the site will cost $400,000 in addition to shutdown costs. This is the regulatory standard that must be applied to government sites as well as to small business, without fear or favour. The blathering of the uninformed changes this reality not one iota.

Here are some highlights from the latest JAG public opinion poll, performed in the spring by a professional polling organization (results deemed accurate to within 3.97 points)" * 87 per cent of residents felt overall that JAG was effective; * 88.2 per cent indicated JAG was representative of the community; * 83.8 per cent felt comfortable. accepting recommendations for the cleanup from JAG; * 85.9 per cent would prefer to see JAG continue.

Based on this, the government decision to terminate JAG funding fails the test of common sense. In my opinion, it was a cowardly retreat.

Mr. McDonald seems obsessed with the $62 million "wasted" by JAG. In his view, the work was manipulated to provide maximum fees to consultants. If it were true it would represent serious corruption. To make such claims is irresponsible.

Thanks to JAG, the disposition of the money is available for all to see. I encourage anyone interested to access the Web site (www.muggah.org) to see how the $62 million is being spent (33 per cent remained as of March 31).

Some 56 per cent of the money was being spent on construction and demolition leading to the big cleanup. Of this, more than half was of direct benefit to Cape Breton Regional Municipality; the sewer collector was on the back burner for 20 years until JAG made it happen.

Another 32 per cent was spent on studies required to define and characterize the site; 4.6 per cent was appropriated by governments for "oversight"; and four per cent was spent by JAG for its offices and secretariat. The JAG secretariat cost is inflated because a third of that cost is for in-kind services such as office space.

The 1,754 people who took the time to attend the workbook sessions and to understand the alternatives represented a cross-section of key representatives of up to 96 organizations in this community - not including other individuals of varied backgrounds who participated. The scope and breadth of feedback are unprecedented and confirm community support for JAG. This also speaks volumes for the professionalism and dedication of JAG's secretariat staff.

Mr. McDonald's comments about the Domtar tank suggest it is acceptable to dump contaminated fluids anywhere. He didn't volunteer to have the sludge and solids dumped in his back yard. There are disposal regulations, and even governments have to comply.

His speculation about Athabasca tar sands is just as inane and uninformed as the rest of his article. Expansion projects and innovations will double production within a year. The conglomerate of Suncor and Syncrude have improved their operating costs from $22 a barrel at start-up to $7 now, with world prices above $30. These efficiencies were brought about by hiring consultants to do studies. I doubt that the executives at Suncor and Syncrude consider the money spent on consultants to have been wasted.

The $14,000 blueberry study was a result of concern by long-time Whitney Pier pickers of Blueberry Hill, just north of the coke ovens site, about whether, over time, their well- being could be adversely affected. People already knew the blueberries were not an instant poison. Maybe Mr. McDonald, believes that there is no actual contamination unless you are killed outright.

This small project proved not only that Blueberry Hill was safe but that other sources sampled from the Northside and supermarket supplies were also safe. It was a small price to pay to address some of the fears about the site and its history.

Mr. McDonald seems to think the site is harmless. The south arm of Sydney Harbour was closed to fishing in 1982 not because of a whim; sampling of lobsters, mussels and a variety of fauna indicated levels of contaminants harmful to people and frequently much higher than found anywhere else in scientific reports.

During the sampling of species on the site's water- courses, virtually all of the few varieties of minnows captured had cancerous lesions on their bodies. The site may not today have air emissions of concern, but the evidence of serious ecological impact will remain until the site is cleaned up.

Proving that ecological harm to the environment also results in direct human adverse impacts is still decades away but most rational people would prefer to see real actions to reverse and remove the causes and impacts.

Mr. McDonald's "knowledgeable" Kiwanis convention person, who presumably, worked on Love Canal and considered the tar ponds a puddle in comparison, must be suffering waterway envy. Love Canal is a 6.5 hectare site with 20,000 tonnes of contaminants, albeit very nasty ones; the-tar ponds and the coke ovens site are 103 hectares and have 1.2 million tonnes of contaminated sediments and soils.

Love Canal's costs have exceeded $250 million US, and so far the site has been only capped. It is still on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list of sites to be remediated. Mind you, this was the first of the Superfund sites, and every mistake possible was made. Since then, the environmental cleanup industry has learned how to do cleanups safely and efficiently.

A well-engineered design of proposed cleanup options for Sydney should cost no more than $350 million and take no longer than seven years. Once the sediments and soils have been dehydrated and pelletized ; in an emission-controlled facility on the site, the hydrocarbon-rich concentrates can be transported to whatever facility is chosen for co-combustion in a manner that is safer than that now employed to transport fuel to that type of facility.

JAG did not create the perception that Sydney is a dangerous place to live. That impression was well under way before JAG existed. To my knowledge, no public statement by JAG ever added to it.

Some high-profile "environmentalists" have been very creative with the facts in their efforts to get action out of governments. Some media stories tended to linger on negative aspects of the tar ponds story, neglecting all the positive ones. One out-of-town newspaper writer in particular was persistently inaccurate.

JAG had no control over what these people said or wrote. If Mr. McDonald has a problem with how Sydney has been portrayed in the media, he should take it up with the people responsible.

The saddest thing about his article is the eagerness to give up control of a vital aspect of the future of Cape Breton Regional Municipality to some nameless, faceless technocrat who lives and works somewhere else. Surely by now we have had enough of that approach.

The younger generation has grasped that we must make our own way in the world, and to do that we need local control over our own destiny. Those of us who do not plan to help should stay out of the way.

Francis Sirois of North Sydney is a long-serving
member of the Joint Action Group.