Moving the Toxic Goal-Posts

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If you'd rather not spend hundreds of millions to solve a seeminglyintractable problem, insist on further study before starting.

If you're afraid further study will reveal the problem to be evenworse than suspected, focus the research on some trivial aspect of thesituation that's likely to prove harmless.

If, despite your best efforts, the benign study turns up yet moredamaging evidence, move the goal-posts. Change the definition of whatconstitutes a problem.

That sums up the appearance, if not the reality, of federal andprovincial efforts to cope with the crisis facing neighbourhoodsadjacent to the Sydney Tar Ponds and the former Sysco coke ovens.

As if making Sydney safe for human habitation weren't hard enough, aseries of missteps this spring by federal bureaucrats and provincialpoliticians has made any solution much harder for people most affectedto accept.

Officialdom's latest move is to announce that guidelines for safelimits to toxic exposure, established for all of Canada by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment, will be revised for Sydney alone.

I'll say that again.

Sydney, site of what's often referred to as the worst industrialwaste dump in Canada, if not North America, will soon get its own setof guidelines for toxic exposure. Guidelines developed for the rest ofCanada are apparently too good for us.

If I were Dave Barry, this is the point where I'd say, "I am notmaking this up."

The communications geniuses who dreamed up this 11th-hour ploy don'tcome to the table with a surplus of credibility. They start in a deep,dark hole, facing citizens already disinclined to believe them, owingto the two governments' long record of equivocation, inaction,incompetence, and delay.

Ottawa and Nova Scotia first announced a plan to clean up the SydneyTar Ponds in the early 1980s. They spent tens of millions of dollars,only to see every aspect of the project fail.

The custom-built boiler designed to burn the sludge couldn't be madeto function. Neither could the custom-built dredge designed to gatherup the toxic goo, or the piping system intended to deliver it to theboiler. Environmentalist critics who warned that the ponds containedtoo large a volume of PCBs to be safely burned in an ordinary boilerwere first dismissed as alarmist, years later acknowledged to beright.

While all this was going on, provincial officials approvedconstruction of a new shopping centre on a filled-in section of theTar Ponds.

Next, officials proposed to bury the muck under concrete, thenabandoned that scheme in the face of furious reaction from residents.That fiasco led to the establishment of a citizens' advisory group -called the Joint Action Group (JAG) - to oversee the project.

When JAG disintegrated into rancorous squabbling (for which obdurateenvironmentalists share some of the blame), the feds and the provincesat back and let the bickering kill time.

When rising public demands for relocation of affected familiesfinally forced them to act, they commissioned a Florida scientist tolook for something no one had ever suggested they would find: an acuterisk to human health.

To everyone's surprise, Richard Lewis found one area so severelycontaminated, a single exposure could cause illness. To no one'ssurprise, he found a multitude of sites that raise concern aboutchronic exposure.

Each round of tests takes an unconscionable amount of time toprocess, and no matter how bad the results, officials sit on the datafor weeks. By contrast, Mayor John Morgan arranged to test a samplegathered on the downtown side of the Tar Ponds, where federal andprovincial officials had refused to look. He got the results, whichexceeded federal guidelines, in four days, and released themimmediately.

Now, the bureaucrats want to change the guidelines. What theyeuphemistically call "site-specific standards" are needed to assessnaturally occurring background levels of the many toxins discovered inthe soil and ground water of Sydney neighbourhoods.

Question: If the issue is human health, what does it matter if thetoxins arose naturally, from household use of coal, from the use ofsteel-plant slag as landfill, or from production of steel and coke?It's either dangerous or its not.

When pressed on this point, Garth Bangay, Atlantic Regional DirectorGeneral for Environment Canada, acknowledged that the source of atoxin has no bearing on its human health effects. However, he said, itcould help decide whether to attempt a clean up, because, "You can'tbeat Mother Nature."

Question: Since the steel plant and the coke ovens rained tons oftoxic dust per year over the Sydney area throughout the last century,how is anyone going to sort out "background levels?"

Bangay acknowledged it will be difficult, perhaps impossible.

Question: What natural source might there be in Sydney for suchnotorious by-products of coke production as benzine, toluene, andpolynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons?

"You're absolutely right," said Bangay. "Some contaminants areentirely man made."

Question: Given Sydney residents' decades of exposure to toxins,shouldn't guidelines for their further exposure be tighter, ratherthan looser?

Could be, said Bangay, which is why consultant Lewis urged a study ofthe chronic effects on Sydney residents.

A study of the chronic health effects from living near the Tar Pondsand the coke ovens? That's the one they should have begun 20 yearsago, when the problem was first recognized.

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