Toxic timeline

A look at some of the events surrounding the clean-up of the Sydney tar ponds site, labelled as one of Canada's most toxic sites.
Warning signs are posted on the fence surrounding the tar ponds in Sydney, N.S. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))
For about a century, coal-mining and the making of steel were the lifeblood of Cape Breton. The smoke that belched from the stacks of the Sydney Steel Corporation — later known as Sysco — meant jobs for the residents of Sydney.

It would also mean health and environmental problems.

The plant was bought by the Nova Scotia government after its previous owner shut it down in 1967. For the next three decades, Sydney Steel got by mostly on government subsidies.

The toxic byproducts of steel-making eventually created a pocket of sludge on the site known as the Sydney tar ponds.

At the heart of the tar ponds disaster was the coke-oven. A coke-oven is a large chamber where coal is heated. At a certain temperature undesired tar and gases are separated off from the desired coke.

These toxic wastes, which included benzene, kerosene, and naphthalene, were being poured off into a nearby brook and slowly collecting into an estuary that flows into Sydney Harbour.

The site contains 700,000 tonnes of soil contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), solvents and heavy metals. It's the size of three city blocks.

It has long been considered one of Canada's most toxic waste sites. The following are some key developments in the effort to clean up the site over the past 30 years.

May 7, 2010:Sydney tar ponds' green future takes shape

Municipal politicians in Sydney look at a plan to turn the tar ponds site into a park, playground and concert site. The cleanup of the site is expected to be completed by 2014 at a cost of $400 million.

Mar. 29, 2010: A place to ride bikes?

A Cape Breton cycling group suggests that the tar ponds site be turned into a bicycle academy after they are cleaned up. Velo Cape Breton says the reclaimed Sydney tar ponds would be an ideal spot to teach kids how to ride their bikes.

The proposal calls for a miniature group of city streets, complete with intersections and traffic signs. Only bicycles would be on the roads so that kids could learn safely, the group said.

Mar. 23, 2010: Cement poured into tar ponds

The job of solidifying and stabilizing the tar ponds begins as work crews start pouring cement into the black, tarry sludge. The job is expected to take almost four years, after which the site will be capped and likely turned into a park.

It's expected to take about 70,000 cubic metres of cement to stabilize all the contaminants. That's twice as much cement as was used to build the 13-kilometre long Confederation Bridge between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

January 28, 2007: Tar ponds contaminants to be buried, not burned

Bruno Marcocchio, right, a concerned citizen and Sierra Club of Canada official, participates in a protest over the plan to clean up the tar ponds by burying the waste. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)
The federal and provincial governments announce a plan to bury, not burn, contents of the tar pits. The cost is the same as the scheme to burn the contents of the pits, $400 million. The toxic sludge is to be mixed with a concrete-like substance and allowed to solidify, officials say. The area will then be covered with a plastic sheet, layered with soil and planted with grass.

Some local residents have expressed disquiet, saying they expected a cleanup, not a coverup. The local authority though has approved the plan, calling it the "least risky" option.

According to the schedule announced by the two governments, work is expected to begin this summer with actual capping of the waste-dumping site taking place in 2008. The project could take up to eight years to complete, according to environmentalists.

Feb. 9, 2005:Incinerator site chosen

An abandoned Cape Breton coal wash plant is chosen as the location for the controversial incinerator designed to burn the toxins. The government, anxious to get rid of this problem, is up against environmentalists and community activists, who fear burning the toxins will expose people in the area to even greater health risks. A 30-day public review begins to determine whether the government or an independent review panel will analyze the safety of this plan.

May 12, 2004: Cleanup deal signed

Federal and provincial politicians sign a 10-year, $400-million cleanup deal. Ottawa will contribute $280 million with the province providing the rest. The cleanup will involve digging up the most contaminated materials and burning them. The rest of the site will be treated and capped.

May 3, 2004: Ottawa, N.S. negotiate cleanup cost-sharing

The province and the federal government start negotiations over cost sharing for the cleanup. Negotiators are tight-lipped about the meeting, which takes place at an undisclosed location in Halifax.

March 25, 2004: Legal action commenced

Four people launch a lawsuit against the province, the federal government, and several companies involved in steelmaking at the tar ponds. They're seeking compensation for health problems and property losses. The complainants hope their case will eventually become a class-action suit involving thousands of Sydney residents.

March 23, 2004:Federal budget allocates cleanup money

In the federal budget, Prime Minister Paul Martin's government pledges $500 million over 10 years to clean up certain sites, including the contaminated tar ponds. It's unclear how much of that money will be spent in Sydney.

February 2004: Ottawa, N.S. haggle over cleanup cost-sharing

Although there is no cleanup agreement in place, the province and the federal government disagree over how to split the bill. Ottawa wants Nova Scotia to pay 50 per cent of the total costs, which could top $400 million. Premier John Hamm says the province cannot afford to may more than 30 per cent.

Sept. 17, 2003: Joint Action Group finishes its work

The Joint Action Group packs up seven years' worth of reports and notes after finishing its mandate. The group, which was set up in 1996 to give residents a say in how to clean up the tar ponds, will be replaced by a 15-member community liaison committee.

August 2003: Moving out sludge

Trucks start transporting the toxic sludge from the old Domtar tank in Sydney to an incinerator in Ville Mercier, Que. About 1,000 tonnes of coal tar oil is trucked over two months.

June 26, 2003: Cleanup could cost $1 billion

A spokesperson for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency suggests the cost to burn waste from the tar ponds and coke ovens will be close to $1 billion. In a leaked memo, Parker Donham also dismisses the Joint Action Group's community relations work in Point Aconi as "inept." Despite calls for Donham's resignation, the agency refuses to discipline him.

June 12, 2003: Not in my backyard

Residents living near the Point Aconi power plant in Cape Breton refuse to allow waste from the tar ponds anywhere near them. In May, the Joint Action Group (JAG) recommended washing the contaminated soil and burning it at a plant to produce energy. The JAG later promises to organize a new workbook session for the Point Aconi residents so they can voice their opinions about the cleanup.

May 6, 2003: Residents picky pricey cleanup plan

Sydney residents choose two of the most expensive technologies for cleaning up the tar ponds and coke ovens sites. The picks include washing the soil and burning it to produce energy. The combined costs add up to $450 million over seven years.

April 7, 2003: Study suggests neighbourhoods contaminated

A group founded by the Sierra Club releases a study suggesting all three neighbourhoods that border the tar ponds are contaminated. The People's Health Commission says there are higher-than-normal levels of arsenic and lead in dust particles inside homes near the site. The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency reacts, saying children in those neighbourhoods have already been tested and no one had elevated levels of lead.

March 26, 2003: Proximity to site increases health risk: Health Canada

A study by Health Canada suggests the closer you live to the tar ponds site, the greater the health risk. A cancer specialist examined death rates from 1961 to 1988 and concluded there were 17 more deaths per year in Whitney Pier and Ashby, communities closest to the tar ponds, than the national average. The study follows up an earlier one from 1998.

March 5, 2003: Sierra Club calls for full cleanup review

The Sierra Club of Canada calls for a full panel review of the tar ponds cleanup, claiming the list of 10 options are ineffective and unsafe. It's estimated such a review, similar to a royal commission, would take up to three years to complete. Government officials aren't supportive.

Feb. 24, 2003: Cleanup options presented to residents

Sydney residents are presented with six options for cleaning up the tar ponds and four for the coke ovens sites. The options range from burying contaminated material to washing it and burning it to produce energy. The cost of cleaning up the sites ranges from $140 million to $440 million. The process could take up to 11 years.

Oct. 22, 2002: Environmental watchdog laments lack of cleanup progress

Ottawa's environmental watchdog criticizes how the federal government is handling the tar ponds cleanup. Environment Commissioner Johanne Gelinas says despite millions of dollars already spent, the government still has no clear plan. A few days later, Environment Minister David Anderson and Robert Thibault, Nova Scotia's representative in the federal cabinet, meet with Sydney residents. "This is primarily a provincial responsibility, but we want to work with the municipality," says Thibault.

Jan. 9, 2002: Human health hazard

New signs are put up every 50 metres on the fences around the tar ponds and coke ovens sites, warning of the environmental hazards. The "Human Health Hazard" signs join the "No Trespassing" signs already on the fences.

Dec. 4, 2001: Tar ponds as safe as any urban part of N.S.: study

Fencing to prevent unauthorized access to the tar ponds runs through the Whitney Pier area of Sydney, N.S. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))
A provincial and federal report released in Nova Scotia concludes the Sydney tar ponds are as safe as any other urban part of the province.

Environmentalists with the Sierra Club were skeptical of the report. They claim the report "massaged" the raw data to make it more acceptable.

August, 2001: Waste continues to pour into tar ponds

Thirty-six sewage outfalls continue to pour 13 million litres of untreated waste into the tar ponds every day. The provincial government, which has run Sysco as a Crown corporation since 1967, recently sold the company to the Swiss firm Duferco Farellis. As well, studies continue to try to determine if the tar ponds create a serious health risk to the citizens of Sydney.

July 6, 2001: Residents tested for chemical exposure

Public health officers test 237 people for lead and arsenic exposure. Very few results come back positive for high levels of both lead and arsenic in their urine.

May 2, 2001: Hunger strike

Hunger Striker Elizabeth May bites into an organic strawberry after ending a 17-day hunger strike. She had been urging Ottawa to spend $20 million to move more than 100 families out of the toxin-laced neighbourhood in Sydney, N.S., known as Whitney Pier. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))
Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, begins 17-day hunger strike to demand relocation of residents. She wanted the government to carry out extensive health tests on the residents.

May ends her protest after Health Minister Allan Rock announces that the government would fund a relocation of the residents of Sydney if tests could prove there was a health risk in the area.

January 2001: Sysco no sale

The province announces that its final attempt to find a buyer for the Sysco plant have failed.

The government turns its attention to shutting it down, liquidating whatever assets it can and remediating the site.

July 2000: Getting out of the steel business

As part of his election campaign, Premier John Hamm promises to stop government subsidies to the Sysco plant. The plant is subsequently closed.

June 1999: Investigating the tar ponds

The federal and provincial governments give $62 million to JAG to conduct studies regarding the tar ponds, hire a consulting firm to do testing, and devise different solutions to the problem.

Aug. 12, 1996: JAG formed

The Joint Action Group (JAG) is created to deal with the tar ponds problem. JAG is made up of members from the federal, provincial, and municipal government as well as members of the Sydney community.

Jan. 15, 1996: Incinerator a no-go

The federal and provincial governments admit that the incinerator which they had funded 10 years earlier does not work. Instead they propose to cover the tar ponds with top soil and flag, a byproduct of steel production. This proposition leads to a huge public outcry among Sydney residents.

July 1, 1988: End of the coke ovens

Sysco stops using coke ovens and switches to electric arc furnaces.

Nov. 7, 1986: Funding for cleanup

Federal and provincial governments provide $34.4 million in funding to dredge and clean the Muggah Creek where the tar ponds had formed. The money is also designated to build an incinerator that would better deal with the coke-ovens' byproducts. Cost overruns result in an eventual price tag of $55 million in funding.

1982: Fishery affected

The federal government shuts down lobster fisheries in the area because of the contamination.

1980: Environmental alert

Surveys conducted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Sydney Harbour discover high levels of PCB, mercury, lead and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the harbour's lobster.