Province dropped cleanup ball

Cape Breton Post
Sat.,Nov. 8, 2008

Sydney - Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Minister Murray Scott dismisses problems in the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency as " bumps in the road" and accuses MLA Gordie Gosse (NDP–Cape Breton Nova) of peddling "negativity" by tabling a $60,000 government-commissioned report documenting the slew of administrative failings. That’s not a tone that encourages public confidence that the critical issues so urgently analyzed in the early part of the summer have been resolved.

Internal memos by senior provincial officials, including Scott’s deputy, speak of concern over schedule slippage and rising costs that led to the review by management consultants Grant Thornton. The resulting report, dated July 18, underlined what was at stake if the agency’s internal dysfunction was not quickly repaired. " There is little flexibility left in the budget and/or schedule for additional overages," the report warned. "It is essential that management address the root causes of these issues in a timely manner...."

It’s easy now for Scott to exude breezy confidence that "overall, the project will be on time and on budget." He means in 2014, six years away, when the $400 million cleanup is supposed to be finished. Scott sees a big, puffy pillow of time and money sufficient to allow the cleanup to find its way back on track. Besides, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be the minister answerable if that doesn’t happen.

But a point that bears repeating is that in the view of the consultants, as of mid-July the cleanup already had largely exhausted its flexibility. Money is being committed at a furious clip, with some $100 million in contracts expected to be let this year. There’s a tender out on a $40 million brook diversion and the call is expected soon for solidifying and stabilizing the tar ponds sediment, which for many will represent the crux of the whole effort.

Scott may not have as much time as he seems to think he does to correct problems that include a "schism" between the agency’s two divisions, engineering and support services. So far the only visible move to remedy what the reviewers describe as a universal loss of confidence among stakeholders in the agency’s leadership is the replacement of the president. Kevin MacDonald’s appointment was announced in late August but we’re told that because of time required for the transition he’s actually been on the job only a couple of weeks. Who’s been doing all the fixing recommended in the report which sees a take-charge kind of boss, along with empowerment and accountability among other key players, as the key to focusing the agency on project execution?

Ultimately, responsibility for the identified failings rests squarely with the provincial government, which was eager to take charge of the cleanup upon signing the final federal-provincial funding agreement in 2004. The province was anxious to strut its stuff after having handled the Sysco site remediation with scarcely a bleep of public controversy. The province then proceeded to drop the ball by paying far too little attention to setting up its agency for a uniquely complex task and failing to ensure that it got the tedious administrative nuts and bolts in proper place.

It’s going to take more that a few airy assurances from the minister that all this has been repaired.