Stop Dithering and Clean Up the Tar Ponds

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Arsenic, benzene, chromium, cyanide, lead, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, selenium, toluene, and zinc.

Those are some of the toxic chemicals found to exceed safe levels, in some cases by many multiples, in the soil and groundwater of the residential neighbourhoods surrounding the Sydney Tar Ponds and the former Sysco coke ovens. Some are well known carcinogens.

The belated disclosure of those findings last week, after government agencies sat on the test results for two months, provoked environmental activist Elizabeth May to begin a hunger strike on Parliament Hill. She wants prompt action to move families in the affected area.

Who can disagree? Nova Scotia has the highest rates of cancer in Canada, and within the province, Cape Breton is a hot spot for lung, breast and stomach cancer. What responsible politician would want citizens exposed to such hazards while bureaucrats dither about the scope of the problem, the magnitude of the risk and the best course for remediation?

Yet the scope of the problem, the magnitude of the risk and the best course for fixing it turn out to be intractable questions, monumentally difficult to solve.

May herself once suggested that everyone within a 0.8-kilometre radius of the Tar Ponds might have to relocate. Such a decision would displace about 15,000 people and hundreds of businesses. Deciding the right course between that extreme and the inaction favoured by complacent provincial public health officials, and doing so with sufficient urgency not to expose citizens longer than necessary, is, to plagiarize Sir Winston, a problem wrapped in a predicament surrounded by a conundrum.

In the last fifteen years, two idealistic efforts to clean up the mess have failed miserably.

In the mid-1980s, Jack Leydon, a provincial environment official, dreamed up a scheme to excavate the worst of the tar pond sludge and burn it in an incinerator that would generate enough electricity to cover most of the cleanup cost. On a tour of the Tar Ponds in 1986, Leydon, who was nearing retirement, spoke of someday showing his grandchildren the site he helped clean up.

Alas, federal and provincial environment officials ignored warnings from environmental gadfly Bruno Marcocchio, and unwisely exempted the project from normal environmental assessment protocols. As a result, they failed to detect pockets of deadly PCBs that could not be safely burned at the incinerator's operating temperature.

It didn't much matter. Whether through technical incompetence or corrupt contractors, neither the dredge intended to gather the sludge nor the incinerator intended to burn it ever worked properly. After nearly a decade and more than $60-million, the fiasco was abandoned.

Next, the province proposed to bury the toxic sludge and pave it over. The plan wasn't that far fetched. The same had officials approved construction of a shopping centre and a new Sobey's store on filled-in sections of the Tar Ponds estuary.

The infuriated reaction of Sydney residents produced the second idealistic venture, the Joint Action Group (JAG), a citizen driven initiative to examine the problem, sort through the alternatives, and implement a comprehensive solution.

In the five years since its establishment, JAG, too, has become a fiasco. With few exceptions, Sydney's intelligentsia never showed much interest in the project. Instead, JAG became a battleground for confrontations between dedicated but organizationally inept environmental activists - symbolized by the self-defeatingly volatile Marcocchio - and government bureaucrats who grew increasingly defensive and obdurate.

Their interminable squabbles rarely focused on substantive cleanup issues but rather on procedural minutia of JAG's own processes. The glacially slow progress that resulted proved a happy accident for senior levels of government. As long as Sydney residents bickered among themselves about the right course of action, politicians and bureaucrats didn't have to find the astronomical sums required to fix the problem.

If May's protest compels the federal and provincial governments to stop this dithering, it will have been a blessing.

She wants affected families moved immediately, and most Nova Scotians would agree. But which families? What about the shopping centre and the supermarket? And what are we to say to those who fall just outside the relocation zone? These are harder questions to answer than May lets on, but the lack of certainty is no excuse for not getting the process started.

There will still remain the question of how to clean up the Tar Ponds, the former coke oven site, the old Sydney City dump, and any residential and commercial properties deemed unfit for their current uses.

Ottawa and Halifax should take up the challenge issued by Sydney Mayor John Morgan and dissolve JAG. Hire a competent management team with experience in environmental remediation. Hand pick a corps of scientific advisors and a small group of community consultants carefully chosen to avoid the personality clashes that rendered JAG ineffectual.

Do all this, and do it now. There is no excuse for further delay.

Originally published by The Daily News in Halifax. All rights reserved by the author. Parker Barss Donham can be contacted at [email protected].

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