A city's toxic legacy

Kelly Toughill - Atlantic Canada Bureau
Toronto Star
June 21, 2003

SYDNEY, N.S.—Seven years and more than $60 million after a community group was created to clean up the tar ponds, the famous soup of toxic chemicals and sewage in the centre of this town, it has finally come up with a plan.

One problem: The solution is the same one rejected by residents almost a decade ago, a variation of the same idea that sparked the outrage that led to the creation of the community group in the first place.

And so ends the turbulent life of one of the most contentious groups in Nova Scotia. Officials announced three weeks ago that the Joint Action Group won’t be funded past September. Many residents here can’t decide whether to laugh or cry over the latest instalment in the long-running saga of the Sydney tar ponds. Like any good tale, the story is rife with drama: secretive bureaucrats and sickly children, crusading activists and conniving politicians. At its heart is a controversy over just how much harm has been done to the people who live around what Elizabeth May, head of the Sierra Club of Canada, calls the worst toxic waste site in North America. It is an impossible claim to prove, of course. Even if someone catalogued all of the many poisons buried around the continent, who is to say what is worst? Is it the chemicals that give you cancer when you’re old, or the ones that kill your babies in the womb? What about the havoc wreaked on endangered species? By most standards, the tar ponds are spectacularly bad, a filthy estuary and nearby chemical-soaked field, all of it surrounded by homes, shops and busy roads.

A bookshelf full of studies shows the people of Sydney are in lousy shape, that they die younger than most Canadians and suffer higher rates of birth defects, miscarriages and some kinds of cancer than the national average. But most government health officials insist there is no proof that the pollution is to blame. The mess is the legacy of the region’s long-gone steel and coal industries, which operated with few environmental controls for more than a century. Now, there is a stinking black swamp in the centre of town with 700,000 tonnes of toxic waste, including 40,000 tonnes of muck contaminated with PCBs, all of it sitting under a blanket of raw sewage. Every toilet in the city empties into the pond, which has no river, or tides, to flush it away. On a hot day, the smell is unbelievable.

There was a plan to clean it up. A decade ago, the federal and provincial governments banded together to build an incinerator next to the pond to burn the toxic sludge. But the pump that was supposed to move the goo from the pond to the furnace never worked properly. Then, officials discovered there was too much PCB-laced material for the furnace to handle. Finally, residents began to get anxious about the plan, worried that the smoke from the incinerator’s stack would spew more poison down on the homes nearby The project was scrapped — sort of. Both governments agreed to spend $1 million a year to keep the mothballed incinerator in good shape, just in case. Then they set up the Joint Action Group, a unique exercise in democracy that was invented just for Sydney.

The group included everyone with any possible interest in the cleanup: city residents, health officials, union leaders, environmental groups and all three levels of government. The members met once a month to chart the course of the cleanup and decide how the $62 million should be spent. They set priorities for the work, picked studies, evaluated new technologies. Their decisions were technically only recommendations to a three-government committee, but everyone at first suggested that JAG would be truly in charge. The theory was that the people who live in Sydney should decide how to clean up the mess, that no solution would be accepted by the community unless the community helped devise it. That was the theory, but the reality was that the group split into bickering factions, with environmentalists often on one side and government officials often on the other. The fights got so acrimonious that some residents were banned from even watching meetings, and one activist was arrested for simply trying to attend a JAG-sponsored event.

In the meantime, it was becoming clear that the pollution problem in Sydney went far beyond the stinking pond. JAG decided that the cleanup should also include a vast field of rubble where workers had once processed coal. The coke ovens, as the land is called, looks like any old industrial site, with tall, flowering weeds blowing in the wind and a gurgling brook running down the middle. But it doesn’t smell like most industrial sites. Underneath the field is a maze of old pipes, some still full of the chemicals once manufactured there. The stench of benzene is so strong some days that the air itself can be a hazard. No one really thought about cleaning up the coke ovens at first, even though it was the source of much of the poison in the tar ponds. The coke ovens and the tar ponds are connected by a stream that carried much of the toxins from the old coal processing plant through land surrounding the steel mill and, finally, to the polluted estuary.

JAG also started looking at the pollution beyond the actual tar ponds and coke ovens. Dozens of residents who live near the old coal processing plant asked to be moved, citing the high levels of heavy metals and other carcinogens found in neighbourhood soil. On the eve of a provincial election, the Nova Scotia government agreed to relocate a few families from Frederick St., directly across the street from the coke ovens, but balked when most of the neighbourhood later demanded evacuation. Instead, the government agreed to clean up the polluted yards, but only the yards of residents who agreed to an initial testing program, and only if they signed a waiver absolving the government of any problems associated with the cleanup. Dirt was scooped out of dozens of yards and carted to a toxic waste dump in Sarnia, Ont., part of a series of projects officials say refutes the common complaint that nothing has happened for the last seven years.

It is true that not a spoonful of sludge from the tar ponds has been cleaned up yet (other than barrels of the stuff taken out to test new technologies), but there has been progress. A municipal dump has been sealed and covered with grass, a project that was crucial to cleaning up water running through nearby neighbourhoods and the waste site itself. A road has been built along the cokes ovens site to help with the cleanup, and several buildings have been torn down. A new building is going up to help deal with a tank of chemicals left over from the coke processing plant. Piles of coal and sulphur were removed from the coke ovens site and a fence with warning signs was finally erected around the whole mess. Perhaps most important, new sewer pipes are snaking through Sydney, and soon the sewage will not only be treated, it will be dumped in the ocean instead of downtown.

JAG has helped sponsor many studies over the years, of contamination and the risk it does — or doesn’t — pose to nearby residents. But its biggest project was a community consultation launched this winter. Residents were asked to fill out a booklet asking what they thought should be done with the toxic waste in their midst.

Their answer?

Burn it.

A clear majority said they wanted the soil in the coke ovens site and sludge in the pond to be washed with detergent, dried and burned — preferably in a furnace connected to a power plant, not the furnace already sitting next to the pond. The tentative proposal is to take the toxic material to the local power plant outside town where it will be gradually added to the coal that is burned for power. JAG estimates the plan will cost between $210 million and $450 million. The plan has infuriated some Sydney residents who are outraged to find themselves once again fighting the incineration idea seven years after they killed it the first time.

Despite JAG’s recommendation, it is still unclear, even after seven years, exactly what will happen with the poisonous goo and dirt in the centre of Sydney. Although JAG was set up to deal with the problem, it only made recommendations. The real decisions were — and still are — made by a committee of federal, provincial and municipal officials. And they haven’t announced if they are going to accept JAG’s expensive clean-it-and-burn-it plan. According to Parker Bars Donham, spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, there are three things the government committee must now do: Decide what to do with the toxic waste; decide who will run the project; and figure out who is going to pay for it.

The federal and provincial governments spent $55 million trying to clean up the tar ponds before they gave JAG $62 million to do the job, for a total so far of $117 million. The next round of money, they promise, will actually get the job done.

JAG chairperson Dan Fraser said he was surprised to get a letter announcing the end of the group. Although he knew it was a possibility, he expected more funding after the $62 million was gone to make sure the community continued to have a voice in the cleanup process. He dismisses critics who say the group took too long to do too little. In the United States, he says, some cleanup projects have stalled for 30 years. "I think JAG has done a great job," he says. "We’ve really shown what volunteers can do and what positive steps can be taken when a whole community gets involved.".