G Fred Lee interviewd by CBC Sydney's Ian MacNeil

IAN MACNEIL: ...the Sydney Tar Ponds, that is the question. To let it be means trying a technique known as solidification and stabilization. Dr. Colin Hills of the University of Greenwich likes it because you don't have to dig up stuff and move it around.

HILLS: .....and that we actually want to treat the problem, and they want to do it closer to site, and so stabilization/solidification gives you an opportunity to turn a contaminated area into something like a monolith, like a synthetic rock.

MACNEIL: Well Fred Lee's not so sure the Tar Ponds sludge can be contained. Since the 1960's, he's studied sites in the United States where chemicals and waste leached into local water. He worries that that could happen here if solidification and stabilization is used at the Tar Ponds. Lee made a presentation to the Joint Panel Review on the Tar Ponds cleanup. We reached him in Sacramento, California.

LEE: Good morning.

MACNEIL: Where have you experienced the impact of solidification and stabilization as a way of dealing with pollutants?

LEE: There are situations where solidification and stabilization, such as for heavy metals in primarily inorganic or non-organic soils or sediments can be effective, but that is not the situation with respect to the Tar Ponds. This is a high organic sediment and if you review the literature, as I did in my report for the Joint Panel, you'll see that there are many who question whether you can effectively solidify sediments of the Tar Ponds type.

MACNEIL: And you refer to it as high organic. What does that mean?

LEE: Well, something like 50% organic carbon in the sediment. That's very unusual for sediment. And that's because you have the high coal residues in that sediment and that makes this a different kind of sediment that is typically used for solidification.

MACNEIL: What is it about that kind of sediment that makes it such a challenge to keep in one place?

LEE: The primary problem is that with solidification as being practiced is you're not building a monolith. You know, at the Joint Panel Review, it turns out that the sediments after solidification will be like sand, which will be porous, so the water can readily move through these solidified sediments and thereby leach out PAHs, PCBs and other pollutants that are in the sediment. So, it's misleading to say it's a monolith. It's not a monolith, it's sand, with cement and high organic sediments.

MACNEIL: So when you have sediments like that, what is a better way to either keep them in one place or to deal with them?

LEE: In this case, because of the fact that you have this problem of trying to manage the water that comes in through the surface or through groundwater, or the marine waters coming in from the ocean side, you have a real problem of trying to immobilize anything at that site. In this case, I don't think there's any alternative but to actually dig the stuff up carefully, under air quality controls and take it off site and treat it there. You can't leave it there. I know of no way to effectively immobilize the materials at that site.

MACNEIL: What would be the advantage in doing that if the stuff can't be contained?

LEE: A quick fix? It's a situation where if you don't really investigate it carefully, as we did for the Joint Panel Review, if you examine our report we go into details with numerous references to the literature, you find that the cost of $400 million is underestimating the real costs. You're going to have to try, I mean solidification can be done for about that amount, but it will not be permanent. You're asking for trouble in the long term and you're going to have the great potential for long term problems with that site.

MACNEIL: How effective would perhaps that monitoring option be?

LEE: Well a monitoring can be effective, but society in general, grows tired of monitoring when nothing has happened and then it becomes lax. We see this time after time at landfills and other waste deposition areas. While you can make the system work early, you know for a few years, eventually because the pollutants in the sediment are a threat forever, they don't go away, they're going to be there. You're going to have to monitor and then eventually remediate again and again.

MACNEIL: If someone listening in Cape Breton is wondering whether or not this way of dealing with the Tar Ponds is the right way, what questions should they ask themselves? What factors do you think they should weigh in deciding for themselves what works.

LEE: It's difficult for the lay public to get into the scientific details of this. What's really needed is independent review. The Joint Panel did this, but I think, as I recommend in my work, that you have an independent panel of experts who are not beholding to the government or to future jobs with consulting firms or something else, who can look at this and advise the Joint Panel, if they're still convened or advise the public on the issues that really need to be addressed. I got real concerned with the Sydney Tar Pond Agency's advocacy for this approach because it was clear that this literature that I've cited is well known, it's in published major books, and none of that literature was cited, and so it was a biased presentation to support an approach that had been conceived without proper evaluation.

MACNEIL: Good to hear your thoughts on these questions this morning Mr. Lee. Thanks so much for taking our call.

LEE: Yes fine, anytime, and give me a call and we can talk about it further if you wish.

MACNEIL: Fred Lee made a presentation at the Joint Panel Review on the Tar Ponds Cleanup and advocated the position of the Sierra Club of Canada. He has studied polluted sites since the 1960's. He's joined us from Sacramento, California.