Governments can't ignore list of cleanup conditions

There's no sign key recommendations are being adopted

Letter to the Editor by Bruno Marcocchio
Cape Breton Post
Sat., Dec. 16, 2006

The Nova Scotia and federal governments promised that the cleanup of the Sydney tar ponds, Canada's worst toxic site, would be guided by seven years of community consultation by the Joint Action Group. A consensus on three points emerged from this consultation: 1) we wanted a permanent solution; 2) we wanted to use proven technologies; and 3) we did not want another incinerator after the problems, including lack of enforcement, at the municipal incinerator.

The Joint Review Panel that assessed the proposed cleanup plan issued its report July 16 with 55 recommendations, including conditional approval of the plan subject to several key caveats and recommendations. The question is: Will Sydney Tar Ponds Agency and the Nova Scotia and federal governments pay attention to the panel report?

The panel did not accept the proponent's claim that its plan is a permanent or walk-away solution. The panel warned that the tar ponds site may need to be managed in perpetuity. This implies that the long-term costs of this temporary fix may dwarf the $400 million cost of this proposal.

Rather than cleaning up the problem permanently, the proposed cover-up of the ponds would leave our children saddled with the long-term costs of this quick and dirty solution. This is tragic and unnecessary since the soil-washing process preferred by most residents is both safe and a permanent solution. It would also create the most jobs for Cape Breton residents.

Another key panel finding is that stabilization and solidification is not a proven technology for the tar ponds. The panel directed that further pilot studies be carried out and specific targets reached before stabilization and solidification is approved for use.

This conclusion came after the panel heard that all but one test sample of sludge did not set up like cement due to the high organic content of the waste. STPA continues to claim that this is a proven technology despite the panel's warnings. There is no indication so far that the required pilot studies have been carried out. It seems the wishes of both the community and the panel are being ignored.

The panel also has serious doubts about the coke ovens land-farming proposal. After noting that STPA admits that soil PAH levels were not reduced, the panel directed the agency to re-evaluate the need to undertake landfarming. The panel clearly stated that landfarming is not a proven technology. 'As there are other potential adverse effects associated with landfarming, such as impaired air quality in residential areas, the panel fails to understand the need for this remedial activity''

The panel expressed concerns about incineration as well, noting that "studies have made the panel aware that the risks of incineration are real and that precautionary measures are required." The panel directed the proponent "to conduct dispersion and risk assessment modeling once... details of the incinerator design are finalized."

Unfortunately, the panel chose not to insist that the incinerator be at minimum 1,500 metres from homes. This was a firm promise from two federal environment ministers to the community. If there is an incinerator we will not be guaranteed the minimum national standards to protect human health from the deadly emissions from toxic incinerators. This is tragic and unacceptable to a community suffering already from the highest rates of cancer in the country.

The panel recommended that federal and provincial governments work together to share expertise and co-ordinate regulatory processes, the regulations to be applied, compliance and effects monitoring, reporting requirements, inspection and auditing procedures, enforcement responsibilities and procedures and opportunities for public review and feedback. The panel proposed that Public Works and Government Services Canada seek assistance from Health Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Natural Resources Canada to ensure that mitigation and follow-up programs are implemented.

As well, the panel recommended that the funding partners implement a performance-based funding process that ties dispersal of funds to successful testing of stabilization and solidification., and incineration. Approval should be contingent on STPA preparing an adequate monitoring plan. Apparently, these measures are being ignored.

Without them, Sydney may once again witness an unsuccessful project carried out by an unaccountable agency more concerned with dispensing patronage than protecting human health. We cannot afford to squander yet another opportunity to make our community safe and hospitable to residents.

On the matter of full public participation, the report states: "The panel believes that constructive discussion during the hearings shows that an effective and credible community liaison group must represent the full range of community voices and affected interests." To this end the panel recommended modifying the Community Liaison Committee and to spell out terms of reference so the appointment process is open and transparent, and so that all key community interests are represented.

The panel recommends the CLC speak with an independent voice and be provided with adequate funding by the proponent to conduct its business and report to the community. This is a scathing condemnation of the current CLC selected by the proponent to uncritically promote the cleanup proposal in closed-door deliberations that exclude even the media.

Without stakeholders like Sierra Club of Canada (and others who have raised community concerns) being involved, this project is doomed to fail like the first backroom-driven, technically inept incineration plan that wasted $60 million without any success.

The apparent lack of action to date by STPA and governments to implement the panel's recommendations is troubling. It is essential to have full public involvement and rigorous regulatory oversight (with funding tied to the recommended performance criteria). The results of again leaving a provincial agency without these controls will be financial waste, technical incompetence and, most tragically, ongoing human suffering.

Although the panel has given conditional approval to a plan that is not a permanent solution, and the technologies selected are not proven for either the tar ponds or coke ovens site, it is imperative that the panel recommendations be followed. Without implementation of all 55 recommendations, the project is doomed to fail and residents will have their health compromised further.

To avoid another failure there must be rigorous oversight by the recommended departments and full and transparent public involvement.

Bruno Marcocchio is with the Sierra Club of Canada.