Sydney tar ponds revitalization gives NS community new lease on life

Kenyon Wallace
Toronto Star
Sun., Apr. 29, 2012

Sid Slavin can barely recognize the spot where he spent 37 years toiling in the hot, smelly furnaces of one of Canadaís largest steel plants.

Where thousands of workers once forged much of Canadaís rails, rivets, bolts, nails and wire at the steel plant and coke ovens that provided the area with an economic lifeline for nearly 100 years, only grassy fields and a monument to those who lost their lives working at the plant remain.

The dramatic transformation is the culmination of a 10-year plan to clean up the former site of the Sydney tar ponds, an industrial wasteland of toxic sludge left behind after the plant closed in 2001.

With the third and final phase of environmental remediation of the site underway, what was once an infamous urban blight will be home to a freshwater river running alongside green parklands. "When I first started, there was no dialogue whatsoever on environmental issues,Ē said Slavin, 73, who quit high school at 17 to work at the mill. "If any mild complaints were heard, we were told, ĎIf thereís no smoke, thereís no boloney.í It was so true."

There was no doubt among the steelworkers that their occupation was a dangerous one, recalled Slavin, who retired in 1994. One misstep could land you in hospital, or worse. Three hundred workers died at the plant as a result of various accidents over the years. Exposure to gases from burning coal and smelting steel was a regular occurrence.

By 2000, half of Slavinís former co-workers were dead from cancer. A series of studies by Health Canada and the Peopleís Health Commission in 2003 found higher rates of cancer and exposure to chemicals, such as arsenic and lead, among those who lived near the tar ponds. Compared to many of his friends, Slavin got off lucky. Heís lost a third of his hearing and some of his sight, but apart from that, heís healthy, he says. Heís also relieved that whatís being left behind is a legacy to be proud of.

Remediation of the site began in 2007 when the federal and provincial governments committed $400 million after more than a decade of proposals, false starts and community infighting. Cleanup of the 31-hectare site involves permanently containing sediment polluted with coal tar, heavy metals, PCBs, volatile organic compounds and hundreds of other toxic chemicals from nearly a century of steel production. The black sludge is mixed with cement, then hardened and buried, before being "capped" by an engineered mix of clay and soil.

At the former site of the coke ovens ó a 68-hectare plot just east of the tar ponds consisting of steel plant slag, coal tar, and ash ó pollution had seeped all the way down to the bedrock. From 1901 to 1988, more than half a million tonnes of soil were contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons, while coal tar in a storage lagoon seeped into 2,500 tonnes of soil. Solids were removed for burial and solidification with cement, while a series of underground pipes was built to collect water flowing through the site. The water is treated before being released into a small stream, aptly named Coke Oven Brook, which runs through the now grassy field.

The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, the provincial body that manages the cleanup, is working on the redevelopment of the site, which will be transformed into urban parkland that includes walking trails, bike paths, a sports field, an outdoor concert venue and several lookout points. If all goes according to plan, the site will be unrecognizable when it opens in early 2014. "When the future land use plan becomes a reality, the downtown of Sydney will benefit immediately," said agency spokesperson Tanya Collier MacDonald. "Fences will come down, roads will open, and three communities once separated by their industrial past will reconnect. . . . Itís a turning point, and an opportunity for continuous growth."

Alastair MacLeod, chair of the projectís community liaison committee, says there is a tremendous sense of satisfaction among Sydney residents ó and a hint of surprise ó that after so many years of disputes and nearly 1,000 public meetings about the future of the tar ponds, the city is on the verge of getting its own Central Park. "There was a lot of emotion in the beginning and disbelief that it could be done well," MacLeod said. "The two levels of government were a little reluctant to get involved because of wide disputes within the community and within government itself as to what the best way to do this was. "But that has morphed into surprise and delight that itís looking to be quite splendid when itís over."

A history of the Sydney tar ponds

The Sydney steel plant was the brainchild of Boston industrialist Henry Melville Whitney, who had invested in coal mines in the late 1880s. In 1899, after forming the Dominion Iron and Steel Company (DISCO) with financial backing from the Canadian government, Whitney began building the biggest steel mill in North America on the east shore of Wintering Cove in downtown Sydney. On Dec. 31, 1901, the plantís first commercial steel came out of the ovens.

By 1912, the plant was producing half of the steel made in Canada, including most of the countryís railroad rails, which were renowned for their quality. As the plant grew, workers flooded into the city and surrounding areas, sprouting new neighbourhoods and new prosperity.

Following a post-war economic slump, Hawker Siddeley Group bought the mill in 1957, but management could not make the operation profitable and eventually put it up for sale in 1967. The plantís future became safe, albeit for a while, thanks to the province of Nova Scotia, which stepped in and bought the mill in 1968, forming the Sydney Steel Corp. But harsh competition from offshore producers took its toll on the Sydney mill, which by 1976 was producing just one finished product: rails.

Declining profits forced the closure of the coke ovens in 1988, while the main plant closed for good in 2001.

The area left behind was among the most polluted industrial land in all of Canada and remained that way until 2007, when the province and the federal government finally agreed on a $400-plan to clean up the tar ponds. Kenyon Wallace