Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

The Risk Society at Work in the Sydney 'Tar Ponds'

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

The Risk Society at Work in the Sydney 'Tar Ponds'

Article excerpt


Environmental contamination events, infamously evidenced in the global catastrophies that occurred at Chernobyl and Bhopal, continue to raise public concerns about health (Slovic 2002). Concomitantly, the public has become increasingly less tolerant of the risks associated with the unintended environmental consequences of technological and industrial development. Indeed, sociologists Ulrich Beck (1992) and Giddens (1991) refer to a 'post-modern' risk society within which the public is no longer willing to tolerate the risks associated with the dark side of progress that are starkly illustrated by environmental pollution and related health problems that result from the operation of heavy industry. This paper applies the concepts inherent in the risk society framework to help understand resident attitudes and responses to industry-driven environmental problems in the Tar Ponds area of Sydney, Nova Scotia, one of the most contaminated industrial sites in Canada. The 100-year legacy of the coal mines, coke ovens and steelmaking operations that kept Sydney's local economy alive for decades now leaves area residents concerned about their health, both present and future, physiological and psychosocial.

In 1999, Health Canada earmarked $63 million to fund site clean-up and health studies in the Tar Ponds. To establish priorities, we submitted proposals to the health studies working group of the Joint Action Group (JAG), a citizen-based advisory group established by the federal and provincial governments. Once submitted, proposals were sent to external experts for scientific review and returned to the JAG for funding decisions. This paper is one part of a larger research project funded in this manner and designed to address community concerns around reproductive health in the Tar Ponds communities. The investigation uses a qualitative case-study approach to explore the perceptions and behaviours related to physiological (reproductive) and psychosocial health among residents living close to the Sydney Tar Ponds, a site that contains over 700,000 tonnes of sediments contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) [Canadian British Consultants Limited (CBCL) and Conestoga Rovers and Associates (CRA) 1999].

This study addresses two objectives. The first objective is to explore the perceived impacts of the Tar Ponds/Coke Ovens sites on the health and daily lives of area residents. Second, the paper investigates the coping mechanisms employed by area residents. The paper begins with a historical/contextual overview of the Tar Ponds issue and the Sydney community, followed by a discussion of the risk society literature that informs the analysis (Giddens 1990, 1991; Beck 1992). The remainder of the paper outlines and examines semi-structured in-depth interviews carried out with Sydney residents in 2001.

The Tar Ponds in Sydney: Overview

Sydney presently forms part of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) and is the largest urban municipality on the Island with a population of 26,872 (Table 1). The population has been declining since the 1950s in association with the reduced fortunes of the coal and steel industries. Demographically, Sydney is similar to the CBRM and has a high percentage of persons with English as mother tongue, low education levels, low dwelling values and who are unemployed. However, Sydney has a much lower percentage of owner-occupied dwellings than the CBRM or the Province. Average household income is also lower in Sydney (Table 1).

The Tar Ponds form part of the Muggah Creek Watershed and encompass three major sites of environmental concern. These areas are the Tar Ponds (north and south), the Coke Ovens site and an adjacent municipal landfill/incinerator (receiving unrestricted waste from the early twentieth century) (Figure 1). In addition, because there is not a sewage treatment plant, a substantial amount of untreated raw sewage is currently dumped into the harbour. …

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