Tar pond emissions a health hazard

Cape Breton Post
Letter by Marlene Kane
Sat., Nov. 21, 2009

On Aug. 26 I wrote to Kevin MacDonald of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency to report very strong odours coming from the tar ponds area that day and on many occasions before that. I asked how the agency planned to deal with these airborne contaminants that are affecting the public, even before the work of mixing the tar ponds sludge with cement powder had begun.

Two months later, on Oct. 27, I was advised that a response had been placed on the Glad You Asked section of STPA’s website. This much delayed response didn’t answer my question.

I didn’t ask for a description of the multi-million-dollar air monitoring system and how it should work in theory. I asked how STPA planned to deal with the fact that it’s not working and residents are already being exposed to fugitive emissions from the tar ponds site.

Whatever theoretical approaches STPA may have for suppressing contaminant releases into our air and for detecting them once there, these are not working in practice. Besides noticeably strong odours, clouds of dust have been observed leaving the site on many occasions, and the air monitors picked up very little. This situation will only get worse now that contractors have started the solidification and stabilization part of the coverup project.

STPA relies on real-time air monitoring to alert officials when project activities are causing contaminant emissions which exceed the criteria they’ve put in place. What this simply means is we are constantly being exposed to toxic emissions from this hazardous waste site as work crews muck around in it and drain it of water, but these emissions are at levels the government and consultants have deemed acceptable to our health.

The work is halted or adjusted only when those levels exceed STPA’s criteria – providing the air monitors detect the problem to begin with, that is.

Regrettably, these air monitors are the community’s only protection. They are falling short in many ways and are failing to alert us of the problems at the time they happen.

There have been many examples over the years when real-time monitors failed to detect exceedances of toxic contaminants in the air we breathe from activities on site.

A recent example we know about was the failure of real-time monitors to detect an exceedance of benzo(a)pyrene, an odourless, carcinogenic PAH compound. Instead, this exceedance was detected along Intercolonial Street, on a different kind of monitor called a stationary monitor.

Unfortunately, even though STPA tells us in its August 2009 newsletter that it provides 24-hour-a-day ambient air monitoring at these stationary monitors, it doesn’t. The stationary monitors operate for only a 24-hour period every sixth day, and the results, which must be analyzed in a lab, aren’t known for at least a week. By the time STPA got around to putting a notice in the Cape Breton Post to advise readers of this exceedance, three weeks had passed by. How useless is that?

The real-time monitors are useless because they failed to detect this problem at the time, and the stationary monitors are useless because they operate once only every six days and the results take too long to reach the community. As well, there are only two stationary monitors located around the whole perimeter of the tar ponds and both are located along the west side, between Prince Street and the harbour. If the wind is not blowing towards those monitors on that sixth day, they won’t detect a problem.

The exceedance of benzo(a)pyrene could have gone on for days and we would never have known. And since this carcinogen is odourless, we wouldn’t even smell it.

I’ve also asked STPA why the stationary monitor on Intercolonial Street, the one located by the residential area closest to the tar ponds site, is not measuring three important types of airborne contaminants (PM10, PM2.5 and VOCs) that are being measured at the Alexandra Street station, the station farthest from the site. These contaminants have been intentionally excluded from the most important monitoring station.

I asked that question in 2008 and again on June 29 this year, along with a few other air monitoring questions, all of which STPA is refusing to answer. I can’t even check for myself to see whether STPA has rectified this deficiency because the stationary monitoring reports are five months late in being posted to the website.

By STPA’s own admission, fugitive emissions from this site will increase once the tar ponds sludge is mixed up for hours at a time using backhoes in an attempt to homogenize the sludge before adding cement. Then it will be mixed again while cement powder is added to the sludge during the solidification and stabilization process, with higher emissions due to heat produced in this chemical reaction.

All this is in the open air while residents are living, working, shopping and playing around this site. This will go on for years and we will still be left with a highly contaminated site. Not one molecule of contamination will be cleaned up.

So while the STPA touts its elaborate monitoring plan and methods for suppressing dust and odours, these aren’t working. Despite all the bells and whistles STPA tells us are in place, contaminants are still affecting residents of this community. The only way this ridiculous project should proceed is under enclosures, with negative pressure and air filtration to better protect the surrounding community.

The project’s design engineer has done a number of solidification and stabilization jobs under cover in urban areas, so this should present no problem.

If STPA and governments can afford to blow $8.5 million on a building that will be decommissioned in five years, and hundreds of millions on a cleanup that cleans up nothing, they can surely afford better protection for the residents.

Marlene Kane