$400M earmarked for tar ponds

Massive $400-million cleanup of the Sydney tar ponds will remake Cape Breton's largest community

Michael Tutton (Canadian Press)
Toronto Star
Wed., May 12, 2004

SYDNEY, N.S. - The massive $400-million cleanup of the Sydney tar ponds will remake Cape Breton's largest community into an inspiring example of a green community, federal and provincial politicians promised today.

Stephen Owen, federal minister of public works, vowed that when the contaminated soils in one of the nation's worst toxic sites are finally burned, buried or treated, it will allow the city to enter a pristine, post-industrial era. "This is an environmental example, symbol, metaphor and legacy for this country," he said during a speech attended by about 400 Sydney residents, Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm, federal Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan, and federal Environment Minister David Anderson.

Officials said the project to clean up the 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge created by a century of steelmaking would begin this summer with the erection of a dam to seal off the flow of contaminants from the site into Sydney harbour.

That will be followed by an environmental assessment expected to last until at least 2005.

Nova Scotia confirmed it will provide $120 million for the project while Ottawa will spend up to $280 million over the next 10 years.

The plan is to carry out the bulk of the cleanup of the tar ponds and former Sydney Steel grounds between 2006 and 2010, employing an average of about 300 people a year, said Frank Potter, a spokesman for the province's Sydney Tar Ponds Agency.

Potter said it's likely the worst of the toxins - a cancer-causing stew of PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - will be incinerated in a kiln off the site, but somewhere on Cape Breton island.

The remainder will be treated with various methods. Some of the soil will be mixed with cement to stop it from moving, and then buried in impermeable containers on the site. Other areas will be treated with microbes that consume the chemicals. The end result was depicted on posters as a completely transformed greenbelt in the centre of the city, complete with brilliantly green walking paths and picture-perfect ball fields. "Today we turn from a past when environmental degradation was considered simply part of the economic development . . . to something a great deal better," Anderson said in a speech before the formal signing ceremony.

However, environmentalists challenged the politicians to ensure that the technologies used don't create further pollution in the city. Bruno Marcocchio, a spokesman for the Sierra Club of Canada, warned that "incineration of PCBs are acknowledged worldwide to be a very dangerous solution," he said. He urged the minister to consider Canadian technologies that produce very low or zero emissions. "It's also sad that 600,000 tonnes of the sludge will remain on the site. . . . That coal-tar legacy will still be there for future generations."

Some residents said the province and Ottawa should move people near the site before they begin a cleanup that will last at least a decade. Don Deleskie, a retired steelworker turned community activist, said he believes he suffered a massive heart attack in August due to exposure to the contaminants. "I'll tell you what's wrong with the process," he said. "You got to move the people away from the site and then turn around and start cleaning up the place."

About 85 residents planned to meet late in the day with their lawyer to discuss the next stage in a lawsuit against both levels of government. The suit includes people who suffered a family death or illness they believe is linked to exposure to contamination of residential soil.

High volumes of heavy metals, dioxins and PCBs are present at the tar ponds and former Sydney Steel coke ovens site, which covers a 105-hectare area. Just about every known carcinogen can be found in the area, which is surrounded by homes, shopping centres, schools and busy roads in the centre of the city.

Federal and provincial governments have been in a slow-motion jurisdictional dispute over how much each would contribute to the cleanup. But Hamm said the agreement means residents can begin writing a new chapter in their lives. "Nova Scotia now has a deal that will see the tar ponds and coke ovens cleaned up for good," Hamm said. "This will be the largest environmental cleanup in the history of our province."