Air Monitoring

The quality of air surrounding the Tar Ponds site, which contains over 700,000 tonnes of hazardous waste, has always been of concern because it is located in the middle of our city, Sydney, Nova Scotia.  Homes, schools, malls, grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses border the site.  As the Tar Ponds is a tidal estuary, a layer of water was kept over the south Tar Ponds for many years using a coffer dam to help reduce contaminant emissions.  To conduct Stabilization and Solidification work, water was recently diverted from the south pond, which increased the emissions coming from the site.  The stench in the surrounding community from this work is now much worse as excavators are in the Tar Ponds mixing the sludge for hours at a time with cement powder.  This causes a heat reaction which drives off hazardous contaminants into the air we breathe at a higher level than before. Residents are already feeling the impact from this SS activity as they are completely unprotected. (posted Friday, April 16, 2010)

**Also see Dr. G. Fred Lee’s letter of November 21, 2009 on right side of this page

**See latest Letter – July 5, 2010 posted under Pages – Air Monitoring articles at right

Change in wind the only help on offer to deal with tar ponds odours

Tar ponds odour problem can’t be blown off

Cape Breton Post
Letter by Marlene Kane
Sat., May 22, 2010

Project agency shirking responsibility to manage emissions

The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency is required to manage odours coming from the tar ponds site while the work of stabilization and solidification (SS) is underway.

The powerful stench surrounding the site, and reaching far beyond, tells us whatever is being done isn’t working.

SS, the mixing of more than 100,000 tonnes of cement powder into 700,000 tonnes of hazardous waste in the ponds, cleans up nothing, since no contaminants are destroyed, but it has an impact on the air we breathe and will continue to do so over the next four years.

To perform SS, the south pond has been drained using temporary water diversion pipes and ditches around the perimeter. Many of us are familiar with how disgusting the tar ponds smell when that protective layer of water is drained and the tarry, black sludge is exposed.

Making matters worse, not just one but a number of excavators are in there working on different areas, churning up sludge that hasn’t been disturbed for decades and mixing it for hours with cement powder, which causes a chemical reaction that increases the heat to a very high temperature.

This exothermic reaction substantially increases the amount of contaminants being driven off into the air. Some of these contaminants we can smell, while others are odourless, and many are carcinogenic.

This chemical reaction and off-gassing continues long after the real-time air monitors are turned off following each work day.

Not that those monitors have detected what we smell (or don’t smell) anyway; despite strong odours, the monitors typically detect nothing.

They have proven to be completely useless, except as a public relations tool to enable the agency to say how much monitoring is taking place.

The only monitors that have detected any exceedences are the few stationary air monitors which operate for a mere 24 hours once every six days, regardless of whether work is being conducted.

Chances are good that nothing will be detected on that sixth day because there are only two of these monitors and both are located on the same side, so if they aren’t directly downwind of the work area the day they’re on they won’t detect anything.

If you wanted to check the results of these stationary (ambient) monitors, those results are often six months late in being posted on the STPA website.

A number of years ago these reports were posted within a few short weeks as “data only,” but STPA refuses to do that now.

The tar ponds are a highly polluted, hazardous waste site which contains PAHs, PCBs, heavy metals (lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium) dioxins and furans, volatile and semi-volatile organic contaminants, and many other contaminants.

Given that this is obviously not a regular construction site, and more emissions are being generated from the SS work, all workers should be required to wear protective breathing apparatus, but they’re not. It’s not surprising that unprotected workers have complained of a foul taste in their mouths.

Even the clouds of dust leaving the site from SS work and truck traffic are of concern.

A wide range of contaminants can adhere to dust particles, including chlorinated organic chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins.

To better protect the community and on-site workers, we asked that this work be done under cover and under negative pressure so that these emissions could be captured and filtered. Even Environment Canada says the off-gases caused from SS mixing should be collected at the surface and treated. It’s not much to ask, considering the hundreds of millions of dollars being squandered.

STPA and governments have refused, saying their computer predictions and air monitors indicate it won’t be a problem – even though, according to STPA, every expert it spoke to said the problem of damaging the air would be at the digging-up end, not at the destruction end (had governments chosen to destroy the contaminants, according to the community’s wishes).

Imagine what those experts would say now, knowing the sludge is being not only dug up but mixed and churned with cement powder, using an excavator bucket, for hours at a time.

In an attempt to reduce the dust and emissions, millions of litres of water are wasted to spray the work area. Even when it is raining heavily, the odours are not suppressed. And as the weather warms, the smell gets stronger.

G. Fred Lee, PhD, who testified during the environmental assessment hearings, says: “While odorous chemicals are often characterized as a ‘nuisance,’ it has been well-established that they can, and do in fact, have adverse health impacts on some individuals.

“Further, many chemicals that are not odorous, but are hazardous, can be released from hazardous chemical sites like the Sydney tar ponds when the area is disturbed, such as during remediation as being practised by the STPA. Thus, the absence of odours does not mean that there are no airborne health hazards.”

So while STPA busies itself downplaying the impact of odours, referring to them as merely a nuisance and inconvenience, the problem is much more than that, especially to those living close to the site who are exposed 24 hours a day and who often can’t even open their windows.

What’s worse is that after needlessly exposing us to these airborne contaminants over the next four years, nothing will be cleaned up but it will all be covered up to help us forget that there is 800,000 tonnes of hazardous waste under the grass our children are playing on.

Marlene Kane


Tar pond emissions a health hazard

Cape Breton Post
Letter by Marlene Kane
Sat., Nov. 21, 2009

On Aug. 26 I wrote to Kevin MacDonald of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency to report very strong odours coming from the tar ponds area that day and on many occasions before that. I asked how the agency planned to deal with these airborne contaminants that are affecting the public, even before the work of mixing the tar ponds sludge with cement powder had begun.

Two months later, on Oct. 27, I was advised that a response had been placed on the Glad You Asked section of STPA’s website. This much delayed response didn’t answer my question.

I didn’t ask for a description of the multi-million-dollar air monitoring system and how it should work in theory. I asked how STPA planned to deal with the fact that it’s not working and residents are already being exposed to fugitive emissions from the tar ponds site.

Whatever theoretical approaches STPA may have for suppressing contaminant releases into our air and for detecting them once there, these are not working in practice. Besides noticeably strong odours, clouds of dust have been observed leaving the site on many occasions, and the air monitors picked up very little. This situation will only get worse now that contractors have started the solidification and stabilization part of the coverup project.

STPA relies on real-time air monitoring to alert officials when project activities are causing contaminant emissions which exceed the criteria they’ve put in place. What this simply means is we are constantly being exposed to toxic emissions from this hazardous waste site as work crews muck around in it and drain it of water, but these emissions are at levels the government and consultants have deemed acceptable to our health.

The work is halted or adjusted only when those levels exceed STPA’s criteria providing the air monitors detect the problem to begin with, that is.

Regrettably, these air monitors are the community’s only protection. They are falling short in many ways and are failing to alert us of the problems at the time they happen.

There have been many examples over the years when real-time monitors failed to detect exceedances of toxic contaminants in the air we breathe from activities on site.

A recent example we know about was the failure of real-time monitors to detect an exceedance of benzo(a)pyrene, an odourless, carcinogenic PAH compound. Instead, this exceedance was detected along Intercolonial Street, on a different kind of monitor called a stationary monitor.

Unfortunately, even though STPA tells us in its August 2009 newsletter that it provides 24-hour-a-day ambient air monitoring at these stationary monitors, it doesn’t. The stationary monitors operate for only a 24-hour period every sixth day, and the results, which must be analyzed in a lab, aren’t known for at least a week. By the time STPA got around to putting a notice in the Cape Breton Post to advise readers of this exceedance, three weeks had passed by. How useless is that?

The real-time monitors are useless because they failed to detect this problem at the time, and the stationary monitors are useless because they operate once only every six days and the results take too long to reach the community. As well, there are only two stationary monitors located around the whole perimeter of the tar ponds and both are located along the west side, between Prince Street and the harbour. If the wind is not blowing towards those monitors on that sixth day, they won’t detect a problem.

The exceedance of benzo(a)pyrene could have gone on for days and we would never have known. And since this carcinogen is odourless, we wouldn’t even smell it.

I’ve also asked STPA why the stationary monitor on Intercolonial Street, the one located by the residential area closest to the tar ponds site, is not measuring three important types of airborne contaminants (PM10, PM2.5 and VOCs) that are being measured at the Alexandra Street station, the station farthest from the site. These contaminants have been intentionally excluded from the most important monitoring station.

I asked that question in 2008 and again on June 29 this year, along with a few other air monitoring questions, all of which STPA is refusing to answer. I can’t even check for myself to see whether STPA has rectified this deficiency because the stationary monitoring reports are five months late in being posted to the website.

By STPA’s own admission, fugitive emissions from this site will increase once the tar ponds sludge is mixed up for hours at a time using backhoes in an attempt to homogenize the sludge before adding cement. Then it will be mixed again while cement powder is added to the sludge during the solidification and stabilization process, with higher emissions due to heat produced in this chemical reaction.

All this is in the open air while residents are living, working, shopping and playing around this site. This will go on for years and we will still be left with a highly contaminated site. Not one molecule of contamination will be cleaned up.

So while the STPA touts its elaborate monitoring plan and methods for suppressing dust and odours, these aren’t working. Despite all the bells and whistles STPA tells us are in place, contaminants are still affecting residents of this community. The only way this ridiculous project should proceed is under enclosures, with negative pressure and air filtration to better protect the surrounding community.

The project’s design engineer has done a number of solidification and stabilization jobs under cover in urban areas, so this should present no problem.

If STPA and governments can afford to blow $8.5 million on a building that will be decommissioned in five years, and hundreds of millions on a cleanup that cleans up nothing, they can surely afford better protection for the residents.

Marlene Kane


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