A federal history of Sydney, NS: sanitized, pasteurized, and false

I generally refrain from commenting on developments in the Sydney Tar Ponds project, because I know better than most the PR minefield faced by those charged with getting the job done.

Air Sickness BagNevertheless, the Government of Canada has just released a short video that sanitizes the history of the cleanup in a manner so patronizing and false, it demands comment.

Here’s an excerpt from the video’s smarmy narration:

In the years and decades that followed, Sydney would see good times, and it would see hard times. But the resilience of its people would never falter. Faced with the environmental legacy of a century of steelmaking, the people of Sydney persevered. Their grit and determination resulted in the largest cleanup project in Canadian history to date.

Anyone even passingly familiar with the destructive process that hobbled cleanup decisions knows how dishonest this account is—especially coming from the Government of Canada, whose foot-dragging and pandering to irresponsible elements rendered the process nearly interminable.

One can easily imagine the battalions of craven bureaucrats who vetted and re-vetted this text with an eye to excising anything that might give offense, oblivious to the reality that the unwillingness to offend was the greatest offense of all.

I won’t sully the pages of Contrarian by embedding the video here, but the morbidly curious can find it here.

Reining in environmental assessments

Here’s another placemarker for an issue I’ve wanted to write about for some time. I have not read any details of the Harper Governments plan to rein in federal environmental assessments, but in principle, I believe such an exercise is long overdue.

It is a dirty little secret of the environmental movement that federal environmental assessments are a massive scam. They take far too long. They cost far too much. They do not focus on important issues.

Everyone in the system knows this, but no one complains, because almost everyone benefits. Engineering companies get tens of millions of dollars to carry out the studies; environmental groups get hundreds of thousands in baksheesh for their participation; the Environment Canada and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency get  a level of featherbedding that would make John L. Lewis blush. The process does little to protect the environment that a much simpler, more focused approach could not do better and more efficiently.

More on that Sydney Harbor silt plume

The Cape Breton Post’s Chris Shannon has a thorough and detailed account of Environment Canada’s failure to monitor or control rampant siltation from the Sydney Harbor dredging boondoggle project (first reported here).

In among the buck-passing and not-my-department quotes lies this gem:

The federal environmental screening assessment report is supposed to be posted online. But a check of each of the departments’ websites didn’t turn up the report.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency said the screening report couldn’t be found on its agency’s website either since it doesn’t conduct that type of environmental assessment.

“It’s really the responsible authorities that are responsible for the mitigation measures, the follow-up programs, and that would all be detailed in the screening report,” Lucille Jamault said.

Did Ms. Jamault really say the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has no responsibility to provide access to environmental assessments? Did she say it with a straight face?

The real problem here is the politicization of Environment Canada. Projects should not be subject to varying standards of environmental assessment, monitoring, and control simply because they are popular or politically useful to the government in power.

A contaminated silt plume no one seems concerned about

A 100-hectare sediment plume kicked up by the Sydney Harbor dredging project, and presumably laden with industrial contaminants, has some officials annoyed over Environment Canada’s failure to regulate the project.

Gerry Langille, a Sydney-based industrial photographer often used by government agencies, snapped the photos Wednesday in calm conditions at slack tide. They have since circulated widely among federal and provincial bureaucrats.

The Google Earth screenshot at left shows the approximate location of the upper photograph. The photo below shows the shoreline at Pt. Edward where the dredged material makes landfall, and where most of the sedimentation appears to originate. The infilled material will supposedly form the foundation for a container pier, but provincial and federal officials are privately skeptical it will ever be built.

The $38-million dredging project, condemned by some as a costly boondoggle raising false hopes for economic revival in Sydney, was widely seen as an effort to elect Conservative candidate Cecil Clarke in last spring’s federal election. Clarke lost narrowly to five-term Liberal MP Mark Eyking, but was subsequently hired as a $135,000/year consultant to the Cape Breton County Economic Development Agency. The position is funded by Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, the federal agency funding Ottawa’s share of the dredging project.

The Sydney Tar Ponds were first identified as an environmental problem in 1982, when fisheries scientists found high levels of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in lobster caught in Sydney Harbor. They fingered the Tar Ponds as the probable source. A 2002 report by Kenneth Lee of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography found harbor sediments contaminated with widely varying levels of industrial chemicals, particularly PAHs.

Contaminant levels are thought to have declined since the coke ovens stopped operating in 1988, thanks to dispersion from tidal action, storms, and the prop wash from the large cruise ships that regularly dock just outside the Tar Ponds. The dredging project, sold as a first step to the container terminal, received provincial environmental approval in 2009, based on an environmental assessment prepared by the engineering firm Jacques Whitford.

In 2009, and again last February, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency approved the project based on an environmental screening, the lightest form of environmental assessment, but the screening report does not appear on the agency’s hard-to-navigate website.

Officials of Public Works and Government Services Canada, the federal department responsible for the Tar Ponds cleanup, threatened to suspend marine effects monitoring of that project Friday because uncontrolled sedimentation from the nearby harbor dredging would obliterate the small amount of sediments escaping the Tar Ponds.

One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue, complained of a double standard by Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Just last week, Environment Canada ordered the provincial Sydney Tar Ponds Agency to lift a control boom at the outer edge of the Tar Ponds so a Cape Islander could enter the North Tar Pond and collect sediment samples. Meanwhile, the same agencies took no action as the dredging project kicked up a huge plume of presumably contaminated sediments a few hundred meters away.

“We are pumping all the water from Coke Ovens Brook and the Wash Brook around both Tar Ponds,” the official said. “The South Pond is completely filled in. How could our project possibly be doing anything but reducing the amount of sediments moving into the harbor?”

[Disclosure: I managed communications for the Tar Ponds cleanup from 2001 to 2007, when the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency terminated my contract.]

From the folks who brought you a non-random, self-selecting census

A report last week in the prestigious scientific journal Nature revealed that the hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic was the largest ever recorded—comparable for the first time to the man-induced hole that appears every year in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. But when reporters asked Canadian scientist  David Tarasick, who was involved in the study, to explain its findings, Environment Canada refused to let him speak.

David Tarasick, muzzled by Environment Canada

Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick, whose team played a key role in the report published Sunday in the journal Nature, is not being allowed to discuss the discovery with the media.

Environment Canada told Postmedia News that an interview with Tarasick “cannot be granted.” Tarasick is one of several Environment Canada ozone scientists who have received letters warning of possible “discontinuance of job function” as part of the downsizing underway in the department.

Meanwhile, the Harper Government is cutting back on ozone monitoring. CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks host Bob MacDonald decries the government’s behaviour:

How has this country turned from a world leader in environmental protection, to one where scientists are forbidden to speak and the government seems to have turned its back on environmental protection?

….Scientists are our eyes on the planet. Their detailed monitoring of changes to the atmosphere, water, and movements in the ground, give us a window into the complex interplay of the Earth’s many systems. They also see how human activity has an effect on those systems and the courses they will take in the future.

Over the long term, the scientists see trends, such as warming temperatures, loss of Arctic sea ice, shifting ocean currents or changes in biology, that are used to make predictions about the type of world our children will inherit.

H/T: Elizabeth May

Blaming unions

Saint Mary’s professor Larry Haiven thinks blaming unions for unnecessary snow days is silly:

This is part of a syndrome of “if in doubt, blame the unions.”  So convenient.  So wrong.

A few years ago I was taking a tour of the new Toronto opera house.  We were allowed to go everywhere except on stage, even though the stage was bare, with no current production going on.

larry_july_06-2-150One of the tour members asked the docent why we couldn’t go on stage.  The tour member said he had been on tours of all the great opera houses of Europe and had never been barred from the stage.  The docent looked serious and said “union rules.”  All of the tour members (except me) nodded their heads sagely in rueful agreement.

It just so happened that I had an interview with the head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (the stagehands’ union) on another matter later that day.  So I asked him if this were true.  He got very angry and told me that there was no union rule, no union prohibition and, in fact, the union was very much in favour of tours visiting the stage when there was no production going on.  He said that “union rules” have become a pernicious legend in his field.  I later phoned the management of the opera house to complain about the docent’s mistake.

What I found most interesting was not the docent’s duplicity but the tour group’s acceptance of it.  As a former union staffer and a person who researches and teaches about unions, I’m amazed at the difference between the real power that they actually lack and the perceived power people think they have.

As I said before, I regret making the union issue part of this discussion, because it permits people like Larry to wrap themselves in solidarity’s flag and ignore the core issues:

  1. In the management of risk, our society increasingly allows knee-jerk caution to trump common sense, and important social values like child-rearing suffer as a consequence.
  2. After their sub-par performance during Hurricane Juan was criticized, Environment Canada and the CBC began to over-hype forecasts of routine weather. Ironically, this monomaniacal focus on safety has created a very unsafe situation.
  3. Senior managers in our school system either belong, or kinda-sorta belong, to the teachers’ union. The apparent willingness of class-struggle buffs like Larry to countenance this absurdity is astounding.
  4. We have far too many snow days, and the ones we have apply to far too wide an area.

I honestly don’t know whether point three plays any major role in point four, but it ought to be changed anyway. No one above the level of small-school teaching principals ought to belong to the Teacher’s Union, and the law should be changed to reflect this.

As for the accelerating trend toward a New Jerusalem of ‘fraidy cats, Contrarian will continue to rail.

A nation of ‘fraidy cats

snowfallBy 7:30 a.m., today, it had stopped snowing at Kempt Head.

Total accumulation: 2-5/8ths inches.

Cancellations: Cape Breton Victoria School Board; Strait Richmond School Board; NSCC Marconi Campus; NSCC Strait Campus; Mayflower Mall (until noon, except for anchor stores); and pretty much every other event you could think of.

Imagine! Two and five-eighth inches of snow! In February, in Nova Scotia! Gadzooks! Why hasn’t the army been called?

What on earth has happened to us? What has turned us into a nation of cowering, cringing, ‘fraidy cats who darsn’t get out of bed in the morning, lest something bad happen.

Something bad might happen. Get over it. Haul on your galoshes. Brush off the car. Get to work.

[Yes, dear readers, I understand there was significant snow in parts of the province, including Halifax. But not where I live. Our province is dominated by Halifax-rooted reportage, so we were bombarded all morning with the shrill weather warnings that have become the norm for Environment Canada and the CBC. Our province also has huge school boards, whose administrators seem to feel that if it’s snowing in Bay St. Lawrence, they must cancel classes in Louisbourg, where is may be five degrees and drizzling.]

As a people, we have lost the ability to assess risk. An unachievable, zero-risk approach has infected every aspect of our lives. How this happened, the huge price we are paying for it as individuals and as a society, and what can be done to rein it in, will be continuing topics on Contrarian.

Contrarian weather forecast

Let the blogosphere note that on Friday morning, contrarian bet a friend that Hurricane Bill would not rank among the 10 highest wind speeds recorded in Nova Scotia in 2009. As of this morning, the bet is looking pretty safe.

Environment Canada and the CBC  need to realize that the shrill, cover-your-ass forecasts they adopted in the wake Hurricane Juan are just as dangerous as under-predicting. EC and CBC cry wolf so often, and so predictably, citizens simply tune them out.

This is a topic contrarian will return to. Reader comments welcome.