Please zoom in or out and select the base layer according to your preference to make the map ready for printing, then press the Print button above.

Sydney Tar Ponds Contamination, Nova Scotia Canada


The Syndney tar ponds in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia—a result of toxic runoff from steel industry coke ovens—are North America’s largest toxic waste site. (1;2; 5) These ponds belong to the Muggah Creek watershed and lie in the urban area of Sydney, impacting more than 25,000 residents within a four-kilometre radius. (2) Recently, Canada’s Supreme Court rejected a class action lawsuit on behalf of Novia Scotians suffering from negative health impacts linked to exposure to the ponds. (1) Recorded chemicals concentrated above levels permitted by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment health guidelines include arsenic, molybdenum, benzopyrene, lead, antimony, naphthalene, toluene, benzene, tar, kerosene, copper, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

The concentration of arsenic has been recorded as 18.5% higher than so called ‘acceptable’ levels.

(5) Though a $400 million federally funded restoration operation in 2013 buried the benzene and sulfur-containing tar ponds under what is now Open Hearth Park, local residents still have elevated rates of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory and heart problems, and birth defects. (1) Nova Scotia has the highest incidence of cancer in Canada, with Cape Breton ranking highest within the province. (5) The contamination stems from steel-making operations carried out by the private sector until 1967, and then by the Nova Scotian and Canadian governments until the corporations--Sydney Stell Corporation and Cape Breton Development Corporation—were closed in 2000. Between 1980 and 2002, the Canadian government spent more than $250 million on cleanup attempts, environmental studies, and steel factory modernizations due to the tar ponds.

(2) During production, there were 400 coke ovens, 10 open-hearth furnaces and four 275-tonne capacity blast furnaces in operation, and more than 300 workers died in onsite accidents between 1901 and 1993. (4) The class action was initially launched by a group of residents who wanted a medical monitoring fund and compensation for the contamination. Whereas individual lawsuits can be too expensive or difficult to organize, class actions in Canada offer a way for groups to win reparations for environmental damage. Before its recent rejection from the federal Supreme Court, the suit was previously certified and then overturned by the Novia Scotia courts. As usual, no official reasons were given for the Supreme Court’s rejection of the case, though the residents were ordered to pay almost one million dollars in legal costs at the provincial level. This case has potential to now act as precedence for the future rejection of environmental class action cases in Nova Scotia. A central obstacle in organizing the suit as a class action has been the disparate experiences of residents affected by the pollution due to how differently the toxins have harmed individuals. These types of ‘toxic tort’ lawsuits are also challenged by the complexity of proving the exact impact of pollution. (1) According to the federally funded and governed Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, this cleanup project is the “most prominent remediation project in Canada today” (3). In total, more than one million tons of contaminated soil and sediment resulted from the almost 100 years of coke and steel production. Almost 1,000 public meetings have been held to discuss cleanup. (3) In the 51-hectare area where the 400 old coke ovens operated, the pollution is 24 metres deep, while the Muggah Creek estuary holds 770,000 tonnes of toxic sludge. (4;5 )

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Sydney Tar Ponds Contamination, Nova Scotia Canada
State or province:Nova Scotia
Location of conflict:Cape Breton; Sydney
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict: 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Manufacturing activities
Specific commodities:Copper
Chemical products
Industrial waste

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

100 years of coke and steel production have resulted in 770,000 tonnes of toxic sludge and pollution 24 metres deep in a 51 hectare area where 400 old coke ovens operated

Level of Investment:400,000,000
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:25,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1980
Company names or state enterprises:Sydney Stell Corporation from Canada
Cape Breton Development Corporation from Canada
Sydney Tar Ponds Agency from Canada
International Technologies from Canada
Jacques Whitford Environment Ltd. from Canada
Relevant government actors:Environment Canada
Canadian Ministry of Health
Supreme Court of Nova Scotia
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Ecojustice (law charity);
Sierra Club of Canada

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Hunger strikes and self immolation

Impacts of the project

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactswide range of health impacts including cancer, chronic diarrhea, eye and ear infections, lung problems, Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory and heart problems, and birth defects
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Displacement
Other socio-economic impactsmonetary impact of costs associated with legal fees, health fees, and potential relocation


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Strengthening of participation
Development of alternatives:Residents are asking for immediate relocation from Frederick street, where the pollution is the worst. They are also seeking a medical monitoring fund and compensation for the contamination. The Sierra Club of Canada has called for the resignation of Canada's Chief Medical Officer.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The court case has been rejected, and the claimants hit with almost 1 million in legal fees.

Sources and Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

5. Sierra Club of Canada Fact Sheet: Sydney Tar Ponds Backgrounder. Accessed Feb. 5, 2015

4. Hazmat Management: “The Sydney Tar Ponds Cleanup Fiasco". Accessed Feb. 5, 2015

3. The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency . Site accessed Feb. 4, 2015.

1. "A Dark Day for Environmental Justice in Canada." Huffington Post Blog. Ecojustice. Accessed Feb. 3, 2015.

2. 2002 October Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development: Case Study 2.1—The Sydney tar ponds—One of Canada's largest and most contaminated sites. Accessed Feb. 4th, 2015.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Article from The Star regarding Supreme Court case

Other documents

Sydney Steel Corporation (

Meta information

Contributor:Lena Weber, Lund University Human Ecology Department
Last update18/03/2018



Sydney Steel Corporation (