CBC News announced today that the clean up of the tar ponds has begun. The country’s worst toxic waste site will be completely remediated by the mid-1990s.
Sorry. Wrong press release. That was the one from 1986 announcing the first failed clean-up. The incinerator that didn’t work.
On March 23, 2010, the most recent failed clean up has begun. This time the plan is to bury the 700,000 tons of toxic waste, tons of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) including hot spots of PCBs, in concrete. The contaminated site consists of one hundred acres, and it is not really ponds, rather it is an estuary. So the water flow is supposed to be diverted and the sediments de-watered as the concrete is stirred in. There will be no clean up of contaminated backyards or basements (with high levels of arsenic and lead). Only those areas inside the fence on the lands destroyed by coke-ovens and steel mills will be the focus of a $400 million clean up that will fail.
As I write this, I know there will be howls of protest from the true believers in this solution. “This is,” as the project manager said on CBC today, “an effective method. It's used worldwide; it's proven what it does.”
The federal and provincial governments have chosen to ignore all the evidence that it is nothing of the kind.
The first problem was that in the course of the $62 million Joint Action Group (JAG) process, the citizens of Sydney said they did not want this approach. They opted for a real clean-up in which the sediments would be removed and actually cleaned, removing PCBs. That technology exists. It was developed for use in cleaning soils contaminated in Alberta Tar Sands operations.
Many technologies were studied in the 10-year JAG process. Whenever they tried bench-scale testing of adding cement to the tar ponds sediments, it didn’t work. Instead of hardening with time, the tests showed it weakened.
There was a joint Federal-Provincial Environmental Assessment Panel in the spring and summer of 2006. The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency pitched its bury-in-concrete solution. It is a technology called “solidification and stabilization.” Experts came to testify. The most knowledgeable was Dr. G. Fred Lee -- the man who actually wrote the U.S. EPA specifications for how to use S/S technology.
Dr. Lee explained why it could not work. Solidification and stabilization only work in waste sites where the sediments are capable of binding to concrete and hardening. The tar ponds sediments are about 50% coal. In chemical terms, that is high organic content. There is not an example anywhere in the world of using S/S technology on sediments with high organic content such as in the tar ponds.
The Federal Provincial Panel Report agreed. “The Panel is not convinced that the solidification/stabilization technology is proven for use in the Tar Ponds context -- that is to be applied to organic contaminants in organically rich sediments in an estuary with potential groundwater and seawater influx.”
The Panel made many recommendations. No money should go to the STPA until it could prove the technology could work. Every move of the STPA should be monitored. None of the recommendations were followed. In fact, I doubt either the federal or provincial ministers even read the report.
I had hoped that when the New Democrats won the provincial election in June 2009, they would implement the panel’s recommendations. Not a chance. Within days of the election, the Dexter government signed the same deal drafted by the previous Conservative government.
The waste of money ($80 million on the first failed incinerator, $62 million on the JAG process and now $400 million) should be enough to make every Canadian livid. But it is the health impacts that make me want to weep. Ignored is the on-going grim reality of health problems from living in neighbourhoods contaminated with toxic waste, soon to be worsened as the toxic volatile organics move from the drying sediments, cross the street (the tar ponds are surrounded with residential areas) and start making people sick. The human health impact of the tar ponds continues to be ignored; it is that that should make us join the people of Sydney in demanding a real clean up.
But the people of Sydney are tired. And after more than two decades of failed clean ups and false hopes, they are too exhausted to scream in protest. The polluters walk away. The contracts are issued. And nothing will be cleaned up.
(For details, check my book, co-authored with Maude Barlow, FrederickStreet: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal or go towww.safecleanup.com)