Sydney Tar Ponds to get a facelift

Toronto Star
Thurs., Nov. 24, 2011

Sydney, N.S., will soon boast its own version of Central Park, with one small caveat — it will be built on top of a former hazardous waste site.

The park will mark the final phase in the $400 million cleanup of the Sydney Tar Ponds, pools of toxic waste caused by more than 100 years of runoff from a steel plant.

Controversies surrounding the cleanup will linger for years, but all parties involved seem excited to move on from the toxic mess and finally transform the space into something positive.

“At the end, the community was tired of fighting about the actual cleanup mechanism,” said Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor John Morgan.

The polluted sludge was mixed with cement, covered with an “impermeable” cap, and then buried under the soil where the park will be built. While people argued if this was the best way to remediate the waste (many wanted it to be burned), there has been very little bickering over what to do with the land once it’s actually clean, Morgan explained. “I think the community is going to be very happy about once it’s complete,” he said. “It will be a great transformation.”

The project, which has taken seven years so far, is expected to be completed by 2014.

The plans for the park include an outdoor concert venue, trails, bike paths and bridges connecting separate communities.

This week, the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency awarded a $1.48 million contract to design the park.

Although the Cape Breton regional municipality has a population of only 105,000, the comparison of Sydney’s yet-to-be-named park to Central Park is “quite apt,” said Alastair MacLeod, chair of the citizen’s liaison committee for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. “It’s introducing a green area of beauty in the centre of the city where there really was a totally dead, no-go area before,” he said. So far, the cleanup is on budget and on time, MacLeod said.

The committee has been in action for more than six years to take suggestions on how to clean up the toxic mess from 15 different community organizations, he said. “It’s the ultimate cleanup,” he added.

Building the park is the last priority of the cleanup that aimed to eliminate the risks of the toxic sludge. “The entire project has been extremely diligent in checking to make sure there are no health hazards,” MacLeod said. “There will definitely be no health risks for kids playing in the grass.”

People who lived near the tar ponds had a higher rate of cancer and were more exposed to arsenic and lead in dust particles, according to 2003 studies by Health Canada and the People’s Health Commission.

While some believe the health risks haven’t been buried with the sludge, most are excited about the land’s potential.

“To see green grass on what was a toxic pond or lake is quite something,” MacLeod said.