Sydney tar ponds cleanup winding down

Staff ~ The Cape Breton Post
Published on August 22, 2013
On the Ferry Street entrance to Open Hearth Park, a mural will be one of the first objects to catch the eye of visitors on this concrete wall.
TC Media photo by Chris Shannon

SYDNEY — Gary Campbell says the legacy left by the remediation of the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens sites will transform the city of Sydney.

The president of Nova Scotia Lands is currently overseeing the final stage of completing future-site projects at the site. The remediation work has turned what was an environmental blight into a showpiece for the community.

“My sense is this will transform the city of Sydney,” Campbell said. “I started this project in 1990 and I can tell you there were times when I thought this is never going to get done, and through the acrimony of public meetings and shouting matches and now to look out and see what’s out there now is just amazing.

“It’s going to be a great asset, right in the very heart of the city.”

The federal and provincial governments allocated $400 million for the remediation of the tar ponds and coke ovens site by solidifying and burying the most-contaminated material.

There were more than 700,000 tonnes of sludge in the tar ponds from a century of steelmaking. It contained cancer-causing chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

That work was completed in December, about six months early.

Campbell described the project as now being in the “applying the makeup” stage, with all the major work done and now cosmetic finishing touches being applied in an effort to be ready for the official opening of Open Hearth Park on Labour Day weekend. The agency has concentrated heavily on work south of the Ferry Street bridge.

“I spent the last two days out there and it’s beautiful. What a legacy but now we’re scratching our heads saying, 'Oh my God, how are we going to maintain all this?'"

That will be done with the help of $15 million that has been set aside to cover maintenance costs over the next couple of decades.

“We’ve got to maintain this site and monitor to make sure that there’s no environmental issues we need to worry about,” Campbell said.

That budget will have to be reviewed, he added, because when they originally set it aside they didn’t plan a park, trail and other facilities to maintain along with the environmental monitoring. They have submitted a draft long-term monitoring plan to the Department of Environment.

The solidification and stabilization of the site came in under budget, which is what allowed for the future-site projects because the funds were available.

Campbell said he’s confident the work will be completed on time and within budget.

The artificial turf field is expected to be completed within a couple of days and the playground is nearly finished with only final sodding remaining and its water park is due to be commissioned today.

“I’ve never seen a playground like that anywhere. I’m sure you wouldn’t find one in the province,” Campbell said. “We have spent just about $20 million just on prettying the site up.”

Another component of the remediation came to an end Wednesday, with the last meeting of the citizens liaison committee. Chair Alastair MacLeod said they encountered a number of challenges over the years but they looked back with pride at the role that they played with the project. He said they represented 15 organizations and their meetings attracted an equal number of agency and government officials.

“Whatever the problems were, the agency officials listened to the (citizens liaison committee) with respect,” MacLeod said.

“If anything is a characteristic of the eight-and-a-half years we served, it was the realization that Cape Bretoners with different viewpoints and values are willing to set them aside in view of the common need to get a job done.”

The agency is working north to Battery Point, which will be home to an amphitheatre, skating oval and wetlands. Campbell will meet with contractors today to shore up those schedules because working conditions won’t be ideal if those components stretch into October. The agreement between the provincial and federal governments expires March 31.

“The feds will have no ability to spend any money after that point so we don’t want to leave work undone that the province is going to have to pay for themselves,” Campbell said.

He said he can’t be sure whether there will be any money, other than funds set aside for contingency, left over until the work is completed and the final accounting is done. If there is anything left, it will revert back to Ottawa. If there is something left, Campbell said it wouldn’t be “an awful lot.”

The sites will be transferred to Nova Scotia Lands once an independent engineer signs off on them.

There are now about a half-dozen employees of STPA remaining, down from a peak of about 30. They will soon be consolidated on the first floor of their office building with plans to rent out other space.