Hunger Striker Wins Canada's Promise on Sydney Tar Ponds

OTTAWA, Ontario, Canada, May 20, 2001 (ENS) - A 17 day hunger strike on Parliament Hill by the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada ended Friday as the government promised to relocate families at risk who are living in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Sydney Tar Ponds, Canada’s worst toxic waste site.

Attorney Elizabeth May ended her hunger strike after a statement issued by Canadian Health Minister Allan Rock’s office Friday committed the federal government to take steps that will end what May calls 15 years of "deny and delay." The now defunct Sydney Steel Mill left more than one million tons of toxic waste over 300 acres in Sydney, Nova Scotia.


Canadian Health Minister Allan Rock (Photo courtesy Health Canada)
The Canadian health minister's statement is the substance of a letter sent to Nova Scotia Minister of Health Jamie Muir and Ronald Russell, chair of the Treasury and Policy Board, on May 14. It provides that the following four steps be taken immediately:


Parliament Hill, Ottawa where May fasted for 17 days (Webcam image courtesy government of Canada)
May spent each weekday day during the hunger strike in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, speaking about the Sydney Tar Ponds with media, politicians, political staff and well-wishers.

"I want to thank all of the people from across Canada who have supported me and prayed for this," May said Friday. "It may not go as far as we had wished for, but it is a federal commitment to a process to remove all affected residents from danger, including those in Whitney Pier, Ashby and the north end neighborhoods."

On a cell phone from her wheelchair in front of the House of Commons Friday, May spoke with the Mayor of Sydney, John Morgan, and with Nova Scotia Premier Dr. John Hamm, both of whom expressed concern about her health after 17 days without food.

"We have made significant progress, said May, "but we have a long way to go. What was accomplished today was that relocation is firmly on the federal agenda. Rock is committed to permanent relocation on the basis of "a health risk" - not "acute," not "serious" not "severe."


Houses in Sydney, Nova Scota next to the Tar Ponds (Photo courtesy Sierra Club of Canada)
The Sydney Tar Ponds contain 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge, of which 40,000 tonnes are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This is more than 20 times the amount of toxic sludge than New York's infamous Love Canal.

Twelve years ago the federal and provincial governments launched a C$34 million project to clean up the Tar Ponds. Taxpayers spent $60 million on an incinerator to burn sludge from the ponds, but the piping system to transport the toxic waste did not work and the project was abandoned.

Just upstream from the Tar Ponds, the 51 hectare (126 acre) coke oven plant is now a broken field of coal black rubble and wild grass. Benzene, toluene, kerosene, napthalene, and tar were commercial byproducts created by the coke plant.


Toxic waste at the Sydney Tar Ponds (Photo courtesy Sierra Club of Canada)
The Sierra Club says the coke plant's benzene tank leaked for years and "a substantial amount the ground is saturated with the deadly chemical."

May now intends to ensure that the province of Nova Scotia commits to relocation as soon as possible, that any hair and blood tests be done by independent, out of province experts, and that no work start on the coke ovens site until after people are moved."

She is lining up witnesses to testify at hearings on the scientific basis of the need for relcation and remediation for early June before the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Environment.

"We must continue to work to ensure that the Province of Nova Scotia is on-side and that not another baby is born on Tar Ponds soil," said May said. "This will require our continued vigilance and the support of concerned citizens from across Canada."

For more on the Sydney Tar Ponds visit the Sierra Club Tar Sands website at:

Health Canada is online at: Health Canada

Visit the Government of Nova Scotia website at: