CANADA

Sydney's dangerous legacy

Residents confront a toxic nightmare

JOHN DeMONT February 8 1999
CANADA

Sydney's dangerous legacy

Residents confront a toxic nightmare

JOHN DeMONT February 8 1999

Sydney's dangerous legacy

CANADA

Residents confront a toxic nightmare

JOHN DeMONT

Debbie Ouellette is right. Even on a frigid, windy night, the air outside her bungalow on Frederick Street, in the working-class end of Sydney, N.S., is rank enough to make a visitor’s sinuses swell and clog. The eyes fill with tears and a harsh, acidy taste settles deep into the throat. Today, Ouellette has avoided the stabbing headaches that once had her convinced she suffered from a brain tumor. But she still wheezes audibly as she picks her way through the dark, talking of the deformed mice, the droves of neighbourhood pets dying from cancer. And above all, the suspicious rash of medical problems plaguing the residents of Frederick Street, who live a chain-link fence away from a stew of toxic chemicals beneath an abandoned coke production plant. She stops near a small creek and aims her flashlight at the stains left from the yellow, shampoo-like substance that sometimes oozes from the far bank. “That’s arsenic—it kills people,” she says. “Do you think if we were anywhere else but Sydney that people would have to live with this in their backyards?”

A century of dependence on steel and coal production has left its mark on Sydney and the rest of Cape Breton. The decline in world markets has contributed to an official unemployment rate in excess of 20 per cent—and more bad news last week, when the federal government announced it was pulling out of the Cape Breton Development Corp. That move would mean the closure of one of the island’s remaining two coal mines, the privatization of the other and the loss of up to 1,200 jobs. Ottawa’s promise of a $111-million compensation package, and another $68 million for economic development, did not appease local residents. But neither, so far, has the government’s response to another legacy of the island’s industrialization: the contamination of Sydney’s air, water and soil.

Along with her neigbours, Ouellette, a mother of three, has heard Ottawa, the Nova Scotia government and the municipality trumpet the memorandum of understanding they signed last September—a commitment in principle to clean up the collection of toxic hotspots in the city. But any

optimism that signing ceremony generated among the politicians—like Nova Scotia Premier Russell MacLellan, who represents a Cape Breton riding, and his fellow islander Alasdair Graham, a senator who sits as Nova Scotia’s political minister in the federal cabinet—is not much in evidence among Sydney residents. Many of them long ago lost faith in governments of any stripe, on any level, solving their city’s environmental problems.

Ottawa, after all, stopped spending significant money in 1993, when it shut down the $53-million incinerator built in 1991 to burn toxic sludge (it routinely clogged up). Since then, the cleanup has been left in the hands of the Joint Action Group, an organization involving 50 members and all three levels of government that is still for the most part

struggling with the question of how best to attack the mess. The latest agreement contained no firm financial commitments by any level of government to provide the $2 billion it is estimated will be needed for the cleanup. With the price tag that high, much of the expectation falls on Ottawa. But the question is: will Finance Minister Paul Martin and the other fiscal conservatives in cabinet be willing to commit further funding to an area of the country that decisively turned its back on the federal Liberals during the last federal election. No wonder the jury is still out about whether the deal was a breakthrough—or an elaborate photo opportunity. As Peter Mancini, the NDP member of Parliament for Sydney/Victoria, puts it: “The only way we will see if the political commitment is there will be when it comes time to pull out the chequebook.”

In November, Condé Nast Traveler magazine declared Cape Breton—home to the majestic Cabot Trail, gorgeous rivers and sweeping highlands—the most beautiful island in the world. But beauty is not much in evidence in the middle of Sydney, a tough, scrappy city that is paying a terrible price for years of dependence on coal and steel. The old tidal estuary leading to the harbour is now the infamous Sydney tar ponds— twin lagoons that, according to government scientists, are so thick with 700,000 tonnes of raw ^ sewage and toxic waste, including

40,000 tonnes of poisonous PCBs, ÿ that in places a person can stand ï on the surface. ü

Yet the tar ponds, generally cong ceded to be one of the worst toxic a waste sites in North America, are “ only one sign of the awful trade-off Sydney has made for jobs. Upstream from the tar ponds, just west of Frederick Street, stands the abandoned plant where Sydney Steel Corp. once baked coal to make coke for firing its steel mills. Shut down since 1988, the 120-hectare site is polluted, scientists estimate, to a depth of 24 m, with tar, ammonia, light oils, benzol, ammonium sulphate and other byproducts from the plant’s century of operation. And no one knows how many tonnes of toxins sit in the 160 km of unmapped pipes still buried beneath the surface.

The picture is no prettier farther to the west. Above the old coke ovens plant, crowned by a handful of rickety wooden houses, looms the city’s landfill—60 hectares of waste, in places 60-m deep, accumulated after a century of uncontrolled dumping. “Sydney makes Love Canal look small and manageable by comparison,” says Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, referring to the 40,000-tonne toxic site in New Jersey that became a byword for chemical pollution in the mid-1980s. “It is a much greater risk to public health.”

That, of course, is the ultimate worry. Nova Scotia’s cancer rate is the highest of any province in Canada, and mounting evidence suggests Sydney may be the big reason for that. A Health Canada study released last September concluded that in industrial Cape Breton—Sydney and the surrounding coal and steel towns of Glace Bay, New Waterford and Dominion—the death rate from cancer and other diseases is 16-per-cent higher than the national average. In November, a 1989-1995 study by scientists at Halifax’s Dalhousie University showed that residents of Sydney had an almost 50-per-cent higher risk of developing cancer than people

living in the rest of the province. Particularly striking, according to Judy Guernsey, the epidemiologist who headed the study, was the high rate of stomach cancer. (Other studies have shown a connection between exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—found in abundance in the sludge of the tar ponds—and stomach cancer.)

Generally, though, scientists have been unwilling to make a direct link between the toxic mess in the middle of Sydney and disease. Moreover, in 1985, the Nova Scotia government—which owns Sydney Steel Corp.—asked the provincial department of health to conduct a study, which concluded that the cancer risk in Cape Breton was largely due to lifestyle. The report said Cape Bretoners were putting themselves at risk by drinking too much, smoking, getting too little exercise and eating unhealthy foods. All the same, Andrew Padmos, Nova Scotia’s newly appointed commissioner for cancer care, has asked two respected Ontario researchers to study the incidence of cancer in the province.

Many Frederick Street residents say they already know the answer. They had long suspected the coke ovens were making them sick. Any doubts were erased in May, 1997, when workers from the Joint Action Group, covered head-to-toe in white environmental safety suits, suddenly appeared and placed a sign warning “Human health hazard” on the fence around the site. That June, as part of the first stages of a cleanup, workers began excavating heaps of coal slag surrounding the plant. Suddenly, says Juanita McKenzie, a 12-year Frederick Street resident, it seemed as if everyone was fighting constant nausea, ear and kidney infections and perplexing respi-

ratory ailments. McKenzie’s daughter Michelle, who is 18, began passing blood in her urine; her husband, Richard, who had recently suffered a heart attack, was twice hospitalized for respiratory problems and put on oxygen.

Last April, McKenzie called a meeting of local residents, where Ouellette rose to speak about the yellow ooze that had recently appeared near the brook by her house. On May 3, after the residents demanded action, Environment Canada conducted tests that showed concentrations of arsenic 17 times higher than federally acceptable levels, as well as other chemicals. Nevertheless, last August, Cantox Environmental Inc., a consulting company hired by the Nova Scotia government, concluded there were no long-term adverse health effects from the chemicals found near Frederick Street. Some of the families have since hired a lawyer to investigate the possibility of legal action. “My friends and neighbors are dying,” laments McKenzie, one of those seeking legal action. “Something has to happen now.”

Any long-term solution, though, is up to the Joint Action Group—and, by extension, Ottawa, which will have to fund most of the mammoth cleanup. Carl Buchanan, chairman of the action group, says trying to pin the government down to a particular level of funding would at this point be a mistake, since no one yet knows how large the total bill will be. But Buchanan has confidence that the money will be there. “We have no reason to think we have anything but full backing,” he says. Among worried Sydney residents, there is considerably more skepticism—especially after decades of enduring the toxic mess in their backyard. □