A moral duty, not a handout.
by Don Cayo



The feds and the Nova Scotia government promised last week to pump yet another $62 million into the bottomless pit that is Industrial Cape Breton. You’re forgiven if you yawn and ask, “What’s new?”

With billions squandered over a period of decades on “final solutions” for the region’s twin boondoggles – the Sysco steel mill in Sydney and the Devco coal mines scattered around the landscape and extending for miles under the sea – isn’t this just déjà vu all over again?

Well, no. This little bit of spending – it works out to about $2 out of the pocket of each man, woman and child in Canada – is quite different from the endless succession of futile grants and bailouts that have gone before. This time the spending is warranted.

The money is to start cleaning up an appalling environmental mess left by decades of steel mill sludge and to buy out 24 poor families whose yards – and, in some cases, their very homes – have become cesspools of industrial waste. No one’s even pretending it’s an investment that will ever pay dividends; it’s merely a first installment on a long past due social and moral obligation.

The scope of the environmental problem is as big as it is foul. It includes a 40-hectare toxic dump called “the tar ponds” – home to an estimated 700,000 tones of PCBs and heavy metals, some of which is flushed with each tide into Sydney’s harbour. Upstream is the site of former coke ovens – ground so polluted that it can catch fire, and where contamination is proved to have penetrated up to 24 metres below the surface. And then there’s adjacent Frederick Street, where at long last residents are being bought out after living for years with arsenic-laced orange goo surfacing in their yards and, more recently, in their basements.

It’s impossible to argue that governments should delay for even a moment a start to fix the mess they’ve helped create through perpetual subsidies and lax regulation. But it’s just as impossible not to regret the way they propose to do it.

The clean-up plan was announced short months after the province pledged yet another $44 million to keep the Sysco mill limping along for a few years more. Why? The government spin doctors’ best explanation is that it will defer much-larger looming costs – not just the clean-up, but also crippling pension liabilities and the millions in previous loans that will be transferred from Sysco’s books to Nova Scotia’s when the mill finally closes. The most recent subsidy does nothing to lessen these future costs – it may even increase them. But it saves the current government from having to face reality.

A rational government would close the mill now and swallow the costs. But with 650 jobs on the line and the always-weak Cape Breton economy reeling from the pending closure of one of Devco’s two remaining dangerous and unhealthy coal mines, the minority Liberal government in the province has no stomach for tough decisions.

The sad thing is that there’s a much better proposal on the table to deal with Sysco. Tory leader John Hamm – who, perhaps by no coincidence, has no seats in Cape Breton and little or no hope of winning any when the next election rolls around – has put forward a genuinely sensible alternative. He suggests closing the mill and guaranteeing its workers jobs on the clean-up crews until they reach retirement age. This would be no make-work scheme; any reasonable clean-up is bound to take at least that long, particularly since most of the mill’s workers are into middle age or beyond.

Dr. Hamm’s plan is both prudent and humane. It acknowledges the need to start the clean-up right now, and it adds nothing to the eventual cost. It saves the workers from the frightening prospect of trying late in life to find new work in a job-starved area. It avoids huge severance and/or additional pension liabilities. It ensures that yet another generation of workers will not be trapped in inherently unsustainable jobs. It ends the demand for ever-more subsidies. And it provides the Cape Breton region much more time to make a gentle transition from the old economy to the new.

All it would take is a little foresight, a little political courage and a little coordination between the two levels of government involved in the clean-up. What a pity that, in Atlantic Canada at least, such small things seem too much to ask.