Domtar Tank Snags Again
Cryptic explanations won't work
to quell environmental controversy
THE ISSUE: NEW BRUNSWICK CHANGES ITS MIND
A department of the New Brunswick government served up an illustration this week of how not to deal with the public on controversial environmental issues such as the proposed disposal of contaminated sediment from the dismantled Domtar tank on the coke ovens site in Sydney.
Initially the Department of Environment and Local Government had agreed that Bennett Environmental Inc. could use the 1,500 tonnes of material, held in 23 rail cars in Sydney, as part of the commissioning run for its new $30 million high-temperature thermal oxidizer — an incinerator, if you prefer — at Belledune. Not surprisingly, for it has happened before, the idea of importing material in any way associated with "the infamous Sydney tar ponds" inspired determined local opposition at the receiving end.
In late 2002 and early 2003, opposition mounted in the Sarnia area of Ontario against a plan to ship 3,800 tonnes of Domtar site material to a hazardous waste landfill there.
In a brief news release Tuesday, the New Brunswick department explained that it had "reviewed the information submitted" by the incinerator operator and determined that the company cannot accept Domtar material. The department does not believe the material meets a condition of the January 2003 Environmental Impact Assessment Determination which authorized the Belledune plant to "to import creosote and non-chlorinated hydrocarbon soil only."
Instead of saying precisely why it now believes the material fails the criteria, and why it earlier believed otherwise, the department has chosen to be cryptic, leaving open the interpretation that it acted less on technical grounds than out of irrational foreboding or a desire to placate local activists. Paul Fournier, regional director with the department, said additional information came to light but wouldn't say what it was exactly or where it came from.
Such foolish efforts to play cutesy with the media do more harm than good because it looks now like the regulator doesn't have a rationale it can defend for what it has just done. So anyone can just fill in the blanks, which is what Parker Donham, spokesman for Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, does in suggesting that it's the "stigma" of Sydney, irrational though that is, that has resulted in this latest impasse. It's a suggestion that doesn't show government regulators in a good light — at least, not New Brunswick's.
It's true, of course, that environmental organizers in Sarnia or Belledune will use any evocation of the "infamous Sydney tar ponds" for whatever frisson of apprehension that generates among their local public. Sydney is not their concern, of course. They are in long-term battle to stop the importation of hazardous waste (or merely waste that others don't want) into their communities, a crusade that is not patently irrational in iteself.
Donham is right that the Belledune experience underlines the difficulty—mounting to impossibility—of exporting large quantities of contaminated materials as part of the solution to Sydney's big cleanup. But there is perhaps another lesson as well: it is that the proponents and operators of the cleanup solutions have to be thorough and precise in meeting regulatory standards and conditions, and their own promises. When they're not, their opponents will be only too eager to catch them.
The approval for "creosote and non-chlorinated hydrocarbon soil only" indicates a regulatory intention to be strict about the limits during the testing phase at Belledune. Did Bennett try to finesse the Sydney rail cars through? It would be helpful if the New Brunswick government would tell us.