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 )