What are the Sydney Tar Ponds?

Open Hearth Park occupies the land the steel mill once stood.
Open Hearth Park occupies the land the steel mill once stood.

The infamous Sydney Tar Ponds was a hazardous waste dumpsite located in Cape Branton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, Canada. The tar ponds were located in the eastern shore of Sydney harbor, and formed an estuary where the Muggah creek drains into the harbor. It was the largest toxic waste site in North America with over 700,000 tons of waste, 50,000 tons of which was contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls.

Source of the Toxic Waste

The now decommissioned Sydney Steel Corporation was the source on the toxic sludge. The corporation dumped tons of toxic waste laden with coal base contaminants that collected over time and formed a dense sludge. The company chose the site in the early 1900s because it was the perfect place where lime and iron ore from Newfoundland and coal from Cape Breton were easily accessible. The demand for steel in Canada was so high that the environmental impact of setting up the company was overshadowed. At one point, the steel mill produced half of the steel manufactured in Canada. The process of manufacturing steel involved coke ovens where iron ore was heated at very high temperatures to remove impurities and unwanted chemicals like benzene, sulfur, and tar. Some of these unwanted impurities were used in other factories, but a large amount oozed onto the ground. Over time the impurities collected in the tar ponds and formed a toxic sludge. Change in technology, ownership, and competition from American companies almost led to the collapse of the steel mill, but the government of Nova Scotia stepped in to save the thousands of employees. The government kept the mill operational until 2000 when economic reality forced the plant to cease operations.

Cleaning Efforts

By the time the company closed down, the dumpsite was so heavily contaminated that it was cordoned off. Environmentalist and conservation bodies lobbied the government to start the cleaning and decontamination of the site but political controversies and delays led to several false starts. After technical studies and public consultation, the federal government and the government of Nova Scotia began a C$400 million clean up exercise in 2007. The Sydney Tar Ponds Agency oversaw the decontamination of the dumpsite. The clean up involved mixing cement to the sludge and creating a hardened slab that will be covered by earth. Grass, flowers, and shrubs were then planted on top of the earth. The cleanup program was completed in 2013. Today, the Open Hearth Park occupies the land the steel mill once stood.

Effects on the Surrounding Population

The dumpsite not only led to the contamination of the natural environment but also caused health complications to those living close by. Several families complained of illnesses that included cancers, strokes, skin diseases, kidney infections, heart problems, breast diseases, blood disorders, and eye problems. The company had earlier informed the community that the toxic waste site would have no negative implication on their health but health specialist link the diseases directly to the site.


More in Environment