Finally it's time for the tar ponds

Editorial - Cape Breton Post
Sat., Dec. 27, 2008

The remediation of the Sydney tar ponds has passed more signposts than a tourist lost on a California freeway so it's hard to raise interest in yet another announcement about a new junction in the very long road. However, news last week that Sydney Tar Ponds Agency has called tenders for the solidification and stabilization of the ponds does deserve public notice.

For many who've watched the cleanup saga fitfully for a decade and a half - or longer, depending on where one sets the starting point - the remediation of the tar ponds is the centrepiece of the whole exercise. Though physical site work on the Muggah Creek watershed has been underway now for several years, and millions of dollars have already been spend, in many minds the cleanup won't really be underway until the ponds are tackled.

It's expected that contracts on this phase of the project, worth about $50 million, will be awarded in six months. Potential contractors worldwide were alerted in October. This next phase of the $400 million cleanup will include water diversion around the construction site, full-scale solidification and stabilization, capping of the hardened mass, and construction of a new bridge on Ferry Street.

Before any of that happens, results from pilot-scale testing done in the fall at several isolated sites within the tar ponds must be reviewed and approved by the Nova Scotia Department of Environment. The field testing followed lab or bench-scale work which narrowed 16 possible recipes to six.

Finding the right mixture of cement, slag and fly ash, which may vary according to sediment composition from one part of the ponds to another, is critical to the long-term success of the cleanup and in determining what uses can be made of the area once capping is completed. Critics have questioned whether solidification and stabilization (known by the abbreviation S/S) is even possible at this site and whether the stability of the solidified mass - sealing in contaminants, some of which are carcinogenic - can be assured for the long term. Experts employed on the project say they're confident this will work, though the OK for full-scale S/S must come from the provincial environment department.

This is where things get confusing without a scorecard because one provincial department, Murray Scott's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, is responsible for the operating agency, STPA, while Mark Parent's environment department is the lead regulator of the cleanup. This departmental neighbourliness, along with questions about whether Parent's environment department was really up to the complex task of judging cleanup methodologies, accounts for creation of an additional three-member monitoring board which will report independently to the minister on how well his people are carrying out their regulatory oversight of the remediation. This watchdog's annual report will be publicly available.

Earlier this year an operational audit, which confirmed concerns about lost focus and slipping timelines, led to the replacement of STPA's executive director. Trouble at the operational agency end doesn't mean there'll be problems on the regulatory side too, though the province continues to labour under a reputation, going back many years, for weak environmental oversight. With one provincial department already caught taking its eye off the ball, the pressure clearly on both of them now to perform through this critical stage of the Sydney cleanup.