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The risk society at work in the Sydney 'Tar Ponds'.


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. The Tar Ponds themselves are actually a tidal estuary of 33 hectares that contain over 700,000 tonnes of contaminated sediments including PAHs, hydrocarbon (HC) compounds, coal tar, PCBs, coal dust and municipal sewage (CBCL and CRA 1999). While these levels are the most commonly reported, they are estimates and, for example, Furimsky (2002, 872) states, 'It is frequently reported in the media that the site contains over 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge, of which an estimated 50,000 tonnes are contaminated with PCBs. it is not clear how this estimate was made.' Furimsky concludes that the reference to 700,000 tonnes of toxic waste may represent only a fraction of the actual amount, an observation that is supported by NGOs such as the Sierra Club (Barlow and May 2000). The coke oven emissions made much more significant contributions to site contamination compared with the blast furnaces (Furimsky 2002). The coke ovens were used to heat coal at extremely high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, producing polluting by-products including coal tar, ammonia, sulphur, light oils, PAHs, HC compounds, sulphur and acids (CBCL and CRA 1999). The degree of contaminated surface water, ground water and soil that extends beyond the site is not well documented but is probably substantial and renders selection of appropriate clean-up methods and determination of overall costs more challenging (Furimsky 2002).


The industrial history of the area dates back to the mid-1800s when rich coal seams were discovered and significant economic and population growth occurred (CBRM Planning Department 1999). In 1899, Dominion Iron and Steel Co Ltd began operating and soon became the largest manufacturer of its kind in Canada; the population grew from 2,500 in 1899 to 20,000 in 1913 (CBCL and CRA 1999). The region became dependent on coal and steel exports for its economic well-being. For the first half of the twentieth century, the steel industry prospered and employed approximately 5,400 workers at the height of production (Barlow and May 2000). However, in the early 1960s, the global demand for steel dropped drastically, and the Sydney Steel Plant made significant cuts to production and its workforce (CBCL and CRA 1999). Macintyre (1973) indicated that the closure of the steel mills in the late 1960s would displace 6,000 workers, force 3,000 families to apply for welfare and stimulate approximately 2,500 families to leave Cape Breton. Instead of this predicted scenario, however, the loss of profitability resulted in the sale in 1968 of the Coke Ovens Complex to a Crown corporation, Cape Breton Development Corporation. At the same time, the steel plant was bought by the provincial government, and in the mid-1970s, the Coke Ovens came under control of the provincial government. As jobs were still being provided, significant government social assistance was not yet required.

Although jobs were saved, environmental degradation continued unabated and pollution levels escalated under government control. While total pollution emission estimates for ninety years of plant operation are difficult to determine, as records were either unavailable or incomplete in 1980, local residents were deeply concerned about the pollution emanating from the Steel Mills/Coke Ovens sites (Furimsky 2002). The first official studies of environmental contamination were conducted in the early 1980s by the federal department of fisheries and indicated levels of PAHs in lobsters to be 200 times higher than anywhere else on Cape Breton Island (Sirota et al. 1984). This finding led to the closure of fisheries operations in the area, a further economic blow to the community. Recently, soil levels for lead, arsenic and some PAHs have been found to be above Canadian guidelines for the three communities situated closest to the Tar Ponds known as Whitney Pier, Ashby and the North End (Lambert and Lane 2004). These contaminants were also found to be present on floors of houses in these communities at loading levels that could potentially cause harm to young children. This study determined that these three communities were at an increased risk from lead, arsenic and PAH exposure and needed to be included in the tar pond remediation policy (Lambert and Lane 2004).

Numerous human health studies have been conducted in the area, some controversially so, by linking adverse health outcomes with 'lifestyle risk factors' found in this island population (Lavigne 1987). Recently, a cancer study, particularly with respect to stomach, breast and lung cancers, found mortality rates to be 16 percent higher in industrial Cape Breton County than the national average (Band and Camus 1999; Guernsey et al. 2000). More such studies are planned (see Rainham 2002). Another reproductive health study found that rates of major congenital anomalies (for example, central nervous system defects) were higher in Sydney compared with Cape Breton County and Nova Scotia, although not to a statistically significant degree (Dodds 1999). A health risk-perception survey undertaken by Mersereau et al. (1999) showed that Sydney residents were most concerned about cancer (77 percent), followed by asthma (43.5 percent), leukaemia (41.9 percent), birth defects (35.6 percent) and allergies/sensitivities (35.1 percent). Finally, a health risk-perception study of adolescents in the area showed that those living in proximity to the Tar Ponds reported more frequent environmental and health problems (O'Leary and Covell 2002).

The first attempt at site remediation was initiated in 1985 and was supported by a grant of $40 million from the Federal Government that was tied to a stipulation that the Coke Ovens be shut down by 1988 (CBCL and CRA 1999). The plan was to incinerate contaminated material. However, the technology failed, and in 1996, the project was abandoned. The same year, the Provincial and Federal governments proposed the establishment of the JAG, a community organization to take responsibility for overseeing the clean up of the Muggah Creek Watershed. JAG was mandated to represent the community and work with all three levels of government (local, provincial, national) to provide solutions for the remediation of the Muggah Creek Watershed (CBCL and CRA 1999). In 1999, JAG was given responsibility for allocating $62 million in government funds for studies, design work, as well as other preparations for the clean up; the research reported here was supported by those monies. As this study started, the new millennium marked the permanent shutdown of the Sydney Steel Mills. Indeed, despite numerous on-going studies, a full-scale clean up of the site had yet to begin, primarily due to the uncertainties (both scientific and engineering) as to how to proceed effectively and safely. In the meantime, community concerns about the (potential) health impacts of living in proximity to the Tar Ponds site have escalated.

The Risk Society and Environmental Pollution

According to Beck (1992) and Giddens (1990, 1991), the concept of risk and attempts to identify and manage risk permeate western society. In their view, the risk society frames technological risks embedded within a techno/scientific culture to encompass what they term as the dark side of progress. They argue that the risks facing modern western societies are notably dissimilar from those that existed in the past when high rates of infectious disease, vermin infestation and unsafe childbirth were prevalent (Giddens 1990). In contrast, contemporary risks are concerned with threats such as chronic disease (cancer, heart disease), unsafe driving practices and environmental destruction as created by global warming, pollution, deforestation and ozone layer depletion (Beck 1992). Modern risks differ from those of the past due to their pervasiveness at the global level and/or the speed at which they diffuse around the world. They are non-class specific, span across nations, extend into the future, are of high consequence and cannot be calculated in an exact way. At a global scale, no individual, group or nation is immune from such macro-scale risks. Although Beck and Giddens speak to the pervasiveness of risk across all cultures and societies, they neglect to consider the unequal distribution of technological risk within and between societies, which give rise to serious environmental justice issues that have intensely local dimensions. In the risk society, environmental issues pose global challenges that also feature localized environmental health concerns (see Campbell 2002).

Modern risks that represent the 'dark side of progress' require continual monitoring and self-conscious reflection. This 'reflexive monitoring' may result in an entire reconstruction of reality based on a new, enlightened awareness of the uncertainties embedded in forms of scientific knowledge (Giddens 1991; Beck 1992). Furthermore, these modern risks are more disturbing than the risks of previous periods because they are intimately connected to human agents who have profit/greed motives as opposed to risks produced in prior periods that were perceived as acts of a powerful and respected God who managed the world for the betterment of humanity. Admittedly, attempts to understand modern and industrial risks face confusion and dissension. These disagreements extend into 'expert' evaluations of risk and the links between these evaluations and lay communities. Risk is socially constructed and influenced by multiple factors including the nature of the hazard, the social and political context in which it occurs, and personal values and systems of belief (Baxter and Eyles 1999; Edelstein 1988; Baxter et al. 1992; Beck 1992). Scientific experts consider risk from a detached, cautious and technical perspective based on cognitive reasoning and logic, while laypersons make judgements based on other factors such as experience, values and culture (Brown 1985; Kasperson et al. 1988; Elliott et al. 1999). The public construct their interpretations of risk, accompanied by the anxieties extant when dealing in the realm of uncertainty. The risk society is then, in part, characterized by a deep distrust of scientific authority and the technocratic paradigm, often leading individuals to view any risks as unacceptable and intolerable (Beck 1992). Beck (1999) views this attitude as an opportunity for the opening up of political space and the expansion of democracy in dealing with techno-industrial risks, for example, through the addition of dissenting voices.

Individuals respond to (perceived) risks in myriad ways that Lazarus and Folkman (1984) classify according to problem-focused and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused activities are directed towards active attempts to alleviate or alter the problem causing distress, for example, by joining community organizations or relocating to new areas. These efforts can involve communities in more strongly uniting to respond to toxic disasters, as happened in Legler, New Jersey (see Edelstein 1988). In this context, community members may identify themselves in terms of their common experience in dealing with a toxic hazard and create 'insider' vs. 'outsider' perspectives. 'Radical engagement' is another form of problem-focused coping that is cited as a way of countering structural powers, for example, in the form of powerful governments or companies responsible for the production and perseverance of involuntary techno-industrial risks (Giddens 1990). Radical engagement includes protests, rallies, writing to government officials and attending public meetings. Emotional forms of coping include cognitive and emotional responses to (perceived) risk that, for instance, involve denial, acceptance and withdrawal. These responses essentially serve to 'bracket out' uncomfortable feelings of existence for individuals to retain a state of 'ontological security' or normalcy (Giddens 1991). Emotion-focused coping is also used at times as a last resort, when it is perceived that nothing else can be done as the situation and feelings of powerlessness/helplessness emerge, leading to a cognitive state of apathy and/or denial. The availability of material and financial resources and forms of social support may alter the ways in which people cope (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). Social support that comprises interpersonal networks, for example, can serve as a buffer between the (perceived) risk, associated stress and health (Coburn and Eakin 1993).

In summary, the idea of the risk society provides a useful framework for this study's interpretation of the impacts of (perceived) environmental health risks and uncertainties in the particular economic, industrial and cultural context of Sydney. Sydney provides an example of a community where such risks have been tolerated because of the belief that the economic benefits provided by industry outweighed any costs in the form of environmental health risks (see Lavigne 1987; Gould 1991; Rainham 2002).

Research Design

A qualitative case study design was employed using semi-structured in-depth interviews with Sydney residents undertaken in July 2001. Interviews covered five major topic areas: introductory/socio-demographic questions (age, address, occupation, etc.), general health perceptions, reproductive health concerns, environmental concerns and coping mechanisms. Interviews averaged 45-50 min in length and were tape recorded (with permission) and transcribed verbatim for subsequent thematic analysis using NVIVO qualitative software.

The study sample included 29 men and women between the ages of 20 and 45 years (Table 2). Those participants who did not live in Sydney (n = 11) resided in nearby localities, and six had either previously lived and/or currently worked in Sydney. Five respondents were active in opposition groups related to the Tar Ponds site (hereinafter referred to as Tar Ponds Activists). Participants were recruited through key informants, snowball sampling techniques, as well as flyers. The analysis draws upon a combination of deductively based and inductively based principles, respectively, rooted in the research objectives and emergent themes. The analysis examined themes on the basis of frequency, convergence and divergence.

The socio-political context within which the data were collected was important because it probably shaped the attitudes of respondents. At the time, no site clean-up was in progress and some residents were continuing to lobby for evacuation. Studies were on-going with respect to ascertaining levels of groundwater and soil contamination in the area, and individual homeowners requested that their properties be tested for contaminants. Furthermore, voluntary tests for lead and arsenic exposure had been undertaken by the Nova Scotia Department of Health and the Cape Breton District Health Authority. The results of these tests were released to the individuals concerned, after the second interview took place; the results showed that measures of lead and arsenic exposure were not significant at the population level, with only a very small number of individuals exhibiting elevated levels. However, some participants were not clear about the purposes of the tests, and the fact that many were unable to interpret the results properly possibly added to the levels of concern and anxiety reported during the interview process.

During the time interviews took place, a citizen's meeting, a rally and a protest all received substantial media coverage. While participants' anger resulted in interviews that were emotionally charged, participants appeared more willing to talk because it gave them an opportunity to vent concerns and frustrations. In addition, they thought that by contributing to the study, they would ultimately help in some way. However, recruitment of interview participants was affected by the fact that the research was supported by JAG and funded by Health Canada. Many of the Activists interviewed were vehemently opposed to JAG because it was not thought to represent the community's best interests. Indeed, in some cases, they had once been JAG members but had subsequently left to form their own group of collective resistance, with JAG as a target of dissent. On the basis of these circumstances, gaining trust entailed significant effort on the part of the researcher. In one instance, a Tar Ponds activist refused to be interviewed because of the study's association with JAG.

Residential Concerns about the Tar Ponds

Participants revealed a high number of concerns related to the Tar Ponds (Table 3). Among them, health easily emerged as the most frequently mentioned concern. Health was mentioned both as an independent concern and was connected to other major Tar Ponds concerns, such as odours or bad smells that could be damaging health, delays over the clean-up (leading to longer term exposure), proximity to the Tar Ponds (those living closest to the Tar Ponds reporting the highest frequency of health concerns) and a number of other themes summarized in Table 3. These themes are further expanded upon below.

With specific reference to health, reproductive health was the most frequently mentioned concern, followed closely by general concerns about future health and cancer (Table 4). When asked about their reproductive health concerns, while some respondents could not articulate specifics, others explicitly mentioned conception problems, major congenital anomalies, miscarriages and stillbirths. Participants recalled women in the area who had experienced difficulty conceiving:
   Seems like when I was growing up, seemed like the
   women had a hard time getting pregnant living
   here ... Could very well be the environment. It
   would have to be the environment ... ('Ted', North
   End, Sydney resident).

Fears about the latent effects to health from the environment were expressed, specifically with reference to cancer and were linked to exposure to the Tar Ponds and Coke Ovens sites:
   A lot of the things that I'm worried about now would be
   something that was done long ago. As far as cancer,
   cancer is like having an incubation stage of what?
   Twenty years? I'm worried about that because it was
   really funny when I first went to the doctor for my
   check-up, it was twenty years to the day that the report
   came out that the Coke Ovens would cause cancer
   ('Dana', Ashby Area, Sydney, Tar Ponds activist).

Psycho-social health concerns, such as stress and depression, were raised by respondents (Table 4). Some participants saw clear links between the psycho-social and the physiological:
   You see ... living in an unhealthy environment leads
   to stress and it leads to a lot of physical illness of
   course. Stress and depression, it's all one; it's like
   dominoes ('Dana', Ashby Area, Sydney, Tar Ponds

Many participants expressed concerns about odours and aesthetics:
   So, it's not a very pleasant smell; you go by and you
   roll up the windows in the car before you get there
   on hot days because you can smell it really, really
   horrible. Worse than rotten eggs and, I mean it gets
   your guts ('Carolyn', Whitney Pier, Sydney resident).

   Yeah, I get tired of looking at that junk over there. I
   mean even if they so much as got all that stuff moved
   out of the way, it would spruce up the area so much
   better. Like it would make it easier to cope with if I
   didn't have to look at it. There wouldn't be a reminder
   every day, every time I pass over the overpass
   ('Michael', Coxheath resident).

A number of residents were concerned about how poorly all three levels of government had dealt with the implications of contamination in the Tar Ponds issue (Table 3). Residents expressed extreme distrust of the traditional political institutions, the overall political process and often by implication the associated scientific experts. There was a common perception of negligence regarding the continued delays to the clean-up process-and thus (perceived) increased threats to health:
   It's a social injustice that's unfolding and needs to be
   remedied ... we are suffering from a political denial
   that's keeping us victimized ('Bob', Sydney activist).

   The government is just going to postpone as much as
   possible, because it's going to be costly, no matter
   which way they look at it it's going to be costly, and
   they're waiting for test results, and they want to wait
   for more test results. I think it's time that they just
   face the facts and say, look let's get it over with now
   before these people become very ill ('Rick', New
   Waterford resident).

The extended clean-up delay, another notable concern (see Table 3), was thought by some residents to be a form of marginalization, perhaps related to their isolated position on the Island of Cape Breton in a (economically, politically and culturally) disadvantaged part of the country:
   If the Tar Ponds were in any other city in Canada they
   would have been dealt with. In Halifax it would never
   have gone this far; I'm very disappointed in the government
   ('Mark', Sydney resident).

Some participants reported anger about the fact that people had not been relocated and blamed the government for this lack of action. Many activists expressed the greatest degree of hostility, primarily because they thought the government should have relocated residents immediately, rather than debating and procrastinating over issues of remediation:
   And I still don't know how the government lets people
   live here. I always hated this area, always did. I'm
   too embarrassed to say I'm a Cape Bretoner the way
   the government is letting us live like this ('Daryl',
   Whitney Pier Area, Sydney activist).

Again, participants perceived that they were being politically marginalized and, therefore, were not provided with a relocation alternative:
   People are not treated fairly or in the same manner as
   others that live in more prosperous and politically
   better connected neighbourhoods [by not being relocated];
   it's a social injustice that's unfolding and
   needs to be remedied ... we are suffering from a political
   denial that's keeping us victimized ('Bob',
   Sydney, Tar Ponds activist).

Concerns about children and government liability were also expressed. A pregnant participant was worried about the future for her unborn child:
   Bringing it into the world is a concern, because what
   kind of life is my child going to have? I mean, we got
   the Tar Ponds and stuff like that, which is basically
   killing people on the spot, and I mean like there are
   so many little kids out there now with god knows
   what in their bodies, and the government keeps
   spending money on everything else, but why not
   help these children? So what are they going to do
   for my child's generation? ('Sarah', Mira resident).

Respondents perceived that JAG had been co-opted by a government agenda with little genuine concern for the community (Table 3):
   Listening to JAG, when it first started, it seemed like a
   very positive step. Now, I think it's a joke and I think
   it's fallen apart and I don't see a need for it any more.
   When it started, it was great but it's just too political
   perhaps. Too many personal interests ... (Barbara,
   Sydney resident).

Many residents perceived that JAG and the government should have given more emphasis to relocation, not least to protect health:
   They [the government] want to waste money on the
   JAG and consultant fees and stuff like that where
   they could have just picked everybody up and
   moved. That's what really perturbs me ('Doug',
   Ashby Area, Sydney, Tar Ponds activist).

Effects of the Tar Ponds on Daily Life

Effects on daily life were reported by two-thirds of participants (Table 5). Eleven participants spoke about the effects of exposure to contaminated sites on community cohesion. Most of these respondents, including all the Tar Ponds Activists, felt that communities had become more divided within Sydney:
   All the people that I've seen and dealt with, they're all
   split in their ways [about the Tar Ponds], and everybody
   has a different way of looking at it, a different
   value ('Tracey', North End, Sydney resident).

Many respondents suggested that government deliberately attempted to alienate communities:
   It's affected the community so bad because it's
   segregated communities, neighbourhoods within
   this community. It's segregated people and the
   government's basically, that's the government's way
   of dividing and conquering ('Dana', Ashby Area,
   Sydney, Tar Ponds activist).

There were also residents who were uncomfortable with, and objected to, the negative attention that had been directed towards their neighbourhood. As one participant noted:
   It's a huge embarrassment for a lot of people in this
   area, so a lot of people choose not to talk about it
   ('Tanya', Sydney resident).

Some residents may have been hesitant to voice their concerns about the Tar Ponds because of the potential impact upon property values:
   I think another concern too that we have is you know,
   it doesn't matter where you're living, you may decide
   you'd like to move somewhere else. Who's going to
   buy my house? They're not. I don't know of anybody
   who would come into this area to buy a house ('Mary',
   Whitney Pier, Sydney resident).

Participants believed that contaminants from the sites may have entered into the city's water system, and they questioned its suitability for drinking despite the fact that the municipal water supply was in no way contaminated by the Tar Ponds. Such views illustrate a deep mistrust of technology and human agents in undertaking testing measures, proving the water to be safe for drinking:
   Yes, we're very concerned, and probably I'm just
   paranoid, but we haven't drank one drop of tap
   water; we buy it. Not because it's bad water; it has
   been tested, it's fine. But we won't use it, not for the
   dog or the baby or anything ('Josh', Sydney resident).

Respondents also mentioned limiting the areas where their children could play. For example, children were forbidden to play in the dirt where contaminants may be present. As well, participants spoke about avoiding certain areas within Sydney such as shopping at a grocery store located near the Tar Ponds.

Coping with the Tar Ponds

The respondents sought to cope with the environmental challenges posed by the Tar Ponds by various problem-focused and emotion-based coping mechanisms (Table 6). Most residents reported that they were well informed about the Tar Ponds issue through the media, while media reports, in turn, appeared to influence perceptions, often increasing concerns and anxieties:
   Yeah, because they're [the media] making so much
   more of it recently, and you see what it is doing in
   your life. When you're hearing more about it, the
   more worried you become I think ('Donna', Sydney
   Mines resident).

This exacerbation of fears and anxieties produced from the media is evident in other studies of Sydney (see Rainham 2002). However, participants still appeared grateful for the information provided by the media because they felt they were becoming more aware and educated about the issues:
   I think [the media] has definitely made us all more
   educated very recently. It kind of makes you realize
   exactly what's happening, exactly where it's going
   ('Nora', Coxheath resident).

Participants may have depended so heavily upon the media and not sought out other sources of information because of their distrust of the government and scientific 'experts' they perceived as untrustworthy. Probably, however, the media constructed stories using senzationalist tactics that heightened and sustained interest levels but without necessarily providing an accurate communication of risk (Wakefield and Elliott 2003). The limited access and ability to interpret other forms of information that would have provided participants with a more critical perspective on the Tar Ponds issue may have contributed to their marginalized status and limited capacity to deal with the problem. As one participant remarked:
   There's stuff also in the media now that they're bringing
   more and more information to you. The more and
   more information that you hear, you think there's a
   whole lot of information you're not hearing and you
   start getting really skeptical and cynical and scared
   ('Mary', Whitney Pier, Sydney resident).

Seeking social support was another useful method of coping. One activist commented that discussing concerns with friends and family was more effective than joining a local organization, such as JAG:
   We [friends and family] talk about the Tar Ponds
   quite a bit. I wouldn't join an organization because
   as far as I'm concerned all there is, is more infighting
   than there is work being done. So it's best to talk
   amongst yourselves ('Doug', Ashby Area, Sydney,
   Tar Ponds Activist).

Becoming active with the Tar Ponds issue was reported as another way to cope with concerns (as summarized in Table 5, some participants also reported this as an effect on daily life). Giddens (1990) cites this as a form of 'radical engagement'. This was the method the local Tar Ponds Activists had chosen to deal with their anger and frustration about the issue:
   My house looks funny because when you walk in,
   there's nothing but protest signs in my front
   hallway ... ('Dana', Ashby Area, Sydney, Tar Ponds

   I e-mail government; I vent my frustrations at public
   meetings. A couple of times I've lost my temper at
   public meetings, dealing with public officials, in
   order to get the message across through the media
   that something has got to be done ('Kelly', North End,
   Sydney, Tar Ponds activist).

The Tar Ponds Activists were very proud of the fervour and dedication they directed towards a cause which conceivably brought meaning to their lives:
   In a way, it's a form of coping; in a way it's a form of
   masochism, in a way it would be much easier to live
   my life more simply and to not put myself, expose
   myself to the public risk and humiliation that being
   an activist takes you to. But at the end of the day, and
   I've been saying this for 15 or 20 years, at the end of
   the day I want to be able to look them straight in the
   eye regardless of what happens, because I know how
   illusory and temporary good health and life is, having
   lost my wife when she was only 38; that you've gotta
   be able to look at your children 10-15 years down the
   road and say you did everything that was humanly
   possible to protect them and to help your community
   ('Bob', Sydney, Tar Ponds activist).

Planning a residential move was a method of coping employed by some residents, who were tired of waiting for the government to relocate them:
   I'm not going to sit around and wait for some government
   bureaucrat to make up his mind about moving
   us out of here ('Jim', Whitney Pier, Sydney resident).

Equivocal scientific evidence regarding health effects associated with the Tar Ponds/Coke Ovens sites, high costs and concerns about where a buffer zone should be placed (i.e., at which street would people no longer be moved) were all reasons behind why the government had refused the relocation alternative. Only in one case were residents moved, when intense local and national public attention was drawn to Sydney in 1998 when residents of Frederick Street, Whitney Pier, noticed a yellow substance oozing from the rail beds near their homes. Environment Canada tested the soil and found elevated levels of contaminants. Residents protested, claiming their health problems could be attributed to the contaminants, but the provincial government never acknowledged this relationship, and they were subsequently evacuated for 'compassionate' reasons.

Participants cited jobs, high costs of moving and devalued homes, as well as close friends and family members in the community as compelling reasons for why they had not yet moved out of the area, despite concerns about their health:
   We wanted to leave, but my family, my work, my
   friends are all here so I would really have to uproot
   myself and I'm not prepared to do that ('Barbara',
   Sydney resident).

The decision to delay having children because of the Tar Ponds was a coping method noted in five participants. These were younger residents who were concerned about the negative health consequences of bringing their children up near the Tar Ponds:
   I don't think that [with] this environment, I personally
   would not want to have a child in this area. Living
   here, I don't have children and part of the reason is
   because of the environment here. I don't think it's
   proper to raise a child in this environment
   ('Barbara', Sydney resident).

However, they had decided to stay in the area for other reasons such as strong family ties, social networks and jobs.

Emotion-focused coping mechanisms were employed either separately or in conjunction with problem-focused coping mechanisms to deal with environmental concerns. Five participants reported simply accepting the Tar Ponds and decided not to worry about them, a form of 'pragmatic acceptance' (Giddens 1990) resulting when people perceive they are powerless to change a situation:
   When you accept something after being told something
   for so long [re: Tar Ponds contamination], you
   just start to accept it ... after a while, you don't
   realize that your daily habits or your daily perceptions
   are a result of it. It's kind of like seeing a dirty
   pile of clothing on the floor; after a while, you just
   don't see it any more ('Barbara', Sydney resident).


Sydney represents a risk society at the local level, whereby widespread residential concerns over health and related feelings of anxiousness and uncertainty stem from the presence of a technological hazard representing the 'dark side of progress.' Perceived risks were pervasive in the community and reflect other studies carried out by Mersereau et al. (1999). The government was framed as an accountable external agent held responsible for the maintenance of these (perceived) risks to health and impacts on daily life. Distrust of government and distrust of science are paramount in the community and indicate polarization between lay perceived risks and scientifically determined risks that government officials tend to favour in environmental management decisions (see Hrudy and Light 1996). Rainham (2002) also noted this dichotomy in Sydney. In this study, lay perceived risks were related to clean-up delays that feed and sustain resident fears regarding perceived health risks, as well as other concerns (property values, viability of the local economy, impacts on community). The distrust of officials, experts and accompanying uncertainty parallels findings from Baxter et al's. (1999) study of resident reactions in Caledon, Ontario to the proposed siting of a municipal solid waste landfill. In contrast to other contaminated communities (see Edelstein 1988), the Sydney community did not become completely united in the face of a toxic event. Due to the involvement of multiple stakeholders and a multiplicity of views in the remediation process, the community became more fragmented. In Sydney, JAG was also considered an accountable agency, absorbing some of the animosity directed towards the government. Thus, potential blame and animosity when problems arose around the remediation issue were often directed at JAG rather than government per se. Such a political manoeuvre placed JAG at the interface between the community and the government, with it often being perceived as aligned with government interests. At the end of the day, local Tar Ponds activists who once belonged to JAG came to view the organization's process and objectives as contrary to their own.

The problem-focused and emotion-focused coping mechanisms employed in this study have been recognized in other studies of environmental exposure situations (see Wakefield and Elliott 2000; Luginaah et al. 2002). As a form of problem-focused coping (which was also the dominant type of coping among participants), 'radical engagement' was notable as stemming from severe dissatisfaction with existing environmental management decisions that included the refusal to relocate residents and continued delays with the clean-up process. The roots of such activism began when the first attempt at remediation failed during the mid-1990s. Campbell's (2002) study showed that the technical failure of the first remediation project was perceived to be indicative of government incompetence leading to escalating levels of distrust in the community. In addition, activism was fueled by a remedial decision supported by the JAG to excavate the top few metres of coal on the former Coke Ovens site, which resulted in community alarm as contaminants rose to the surface near residents' homes on Frederick Street. Ironically, forms of radical engagement could have hampered attempts at a community-driven process to provide a corrective solution to the Tar Ponds through actions (e.g., protests, rallies, petitions) that served to undermine and continuously direct negative attention towards the process. JAG and the community-driven remediation process potentially could have been successful by increasing local citizenry control over risks (see Campbell 2002). However, such a scenario did not play out in the case of Sydney where a community-driven remediation process was hampered by conflict and continued delays. This result at least qualifies Beck's (1999) support for a more democratic process for addressing environmental problems, as in Sydney democratic processes were 'messy' and unproductive. In Sydney, democratic processes were marred by the lack of true community ownership of the remediation process as well as the development of severe schisms between the community and the government and within the community itself.

For some residents, activism became a prominent part of daily lives. All the activists interviewed were unemployed and had substantial time to devote to the task. Over time, they developed a sense of empowerment in their collective identity as antagonists to the government and to JAG. Possibly, these activists felt a stronger sense of community and place than other residents. Many of them had actually grown up in the area (compared with other residents interviewed who had not), perhaps indicating stronger feelings of belonging and attachment to where they lived; this can lead to greater levels of active participation in dealing with the toxic waste issue to help save their communities (Glendinning 1990; Kroll-Smith and Couch 1990). The Tar Ponds controversy was plagued by scientific uncertainty that allowed for various interpretations of the situation and opened up the door for more players and alternative viewpoints; hence, activists looked to enhance grassroots control over the issue. The role of activists exemplifies the possibility for increasing political participation and the expansion of political space as a way for lay individuals and groups to deal with living in a 'risk society' (Beck 1999). However, unlike Beck's more idealized scenario, in reality this form of political action continued to operate under severe restraints in Sydney. More radical and dissenting forms of political engagement were undermined by the continued power and privilege of traditional political institutions, associated figures of authority and a process that discouraged alternative solutions to an environmental clean-up. Governments refused to allocate resources and financial compenzation provided for devalued homes and/or to subsidize a relocation alternative.

Admittedly, this study's survey of residents was not representative of the entire Sydney community, and the sponsorship and funding of the study further impacted on the ability to recruit participants from all stakeholder groups in the Sydney community. However, implications for policy can still be drawn, based on the depth of concerns exhibited by participants in this study, the likelihood of other communities of similar socio-demographic make-up who will experience living near a toxic contamination site (as has already been well documented in the environmental justice literature) and the possibility of similar attempts at community-driven remediation processes in such communities. Constant delays with the clean-up process left residents with increased anxieties about the Tar Ponds. In turn, these delays shaped the perception that the government was not working in the best interests of the community. Policies therefore need to take account of how clean-up delays elevate risk perception among community members, while the process of remediation must be sensitive to local context. As this study has shown, there exist communities where poverty and marginalization, as well as other factors unique to geographic locale, serve to shape the experiences and outlooks of area residents, whose views are not always homogeneous. Social and economic exclusion is a reality for Sydney residents, which distances them from more socio-economically prosperous subpopulations in Canada (Social and Economic Inclusion Initiative [SEII] 2003), but also contributes to a common identity. Future studies comparing other communities faced with a techno-environmental hazard similar in profile to Sydney (demographically, economically, politically) would provide a worthwhile undertaking, particularly if these were communities involved in an ongoing remediation process.


The authors express their sincere thanks to the JAG and the Health Studies Working Group in Sydney, Nova Scotia, for their support and input to this research and acknowledge funding for this project provided by Health Canada.


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Duke University Marine Laboratory, Beaufort, NC 28516, USA (e-mail:


School of Geography and Geology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4K1 (e-mail:


School of Geography and Geology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4K1 (e-mail:


Obstetrics and Gynecology, St. Joseph's Hospital, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8N 4A6 (e-mail:
Table 1
Selected socio-demographic characteristics of Sydney, the CBRM and
Nova Scotia

                                                     Cape Breton
Selected demographic variables            Sydney     Municipality

Population                               26,872       117,849
English as mother tongue (%)                 98.8          96.5
<15 years (%)                               19             20
Age 25-54 years (%)                         21             41.6
65 years and older (%)                      20             14.7
Aboriginal population (%)                    3.0            0.49
Did not complete high school (%)            42             45
With some/completed post-secondary
  education (%)                             48             45
Average household income ($)            30,158         35,400
Unemployment rate (%)                       21.1           22.5
Percentage of owned private occupied
  dwellings                                 57.1           73.0
Average value of owned occupied
  dwellings ($)                         61,174         63,773

Selected demographic variables                  Nova Scotia

Population                                        909,282
English as mother tongue (%)                           93
<15 years (%)                                          20
Age 25-54 years (%)                                    44.7
65 years and older (%)                                 13.1
Aboriginal population (%)                               1.38
Did not complete high school (%)                       39
With some/completed post-secondary
  education (%)                                        51
Average household income ($)                       41,500
Unemployment rate (%)                                  13.3
Percentage of owned private occupied
  dwellings                                            70.4
Average value of owned occupied
  dwellings ($)                                    86,568

SOURCE: Statistics Canada 1996

Table 2
Selected attributes of interviewed participants, 2001

Attribute                                  Number of participants

Total number of participants (n)                     29
Place of residence
  Sydney                                             18
  Outside of Sydney but within the CBRM              11
Marital status
  Married/common law                                 23
  Single                                              2
  Divorced/separated                                  3
  Widowed                                             1
Parental status
  With children                                      22
  Childless                                           5
  Currently pregnant                                  2
  Unemployed                                          9
  Community/social services                           4
  Homemaker                                           4
  Finance                                             3
  Trades                                              2
  Education                                           2
  Administration/sales                                2
  Cultural/historical guide                           1
  Food services                                       1
  Management                                          1
Community Tar Ponds activists                         5

Table 3
Concerns expressed about the Tar Ponds

                                           Number of       Number of
                                            mentions       interviews
Concerns                                  (% of total)    (% of total)

Health concerns                              93 (31)         27 (93)
Odours                                       32 (11)         19 (66)
Delays with clean-up                         33 (11)         19 (66)
Proximity (location of residence
  in relation to contaminated sites)         18 (6)          13 (45)
Aesthetics                                   17 (6)          12 (41)
Government                                   29 (10)         11 (38)
Occupation (former steel mill worker
  or occupational proximity to
  contaminated sites)                        20 (7)          10 (34)
Children                                     14 (5)          10 (34)
No relocation                                11 (4)           9 (31)
Pollution                                    14 (5)           7 (24)
Community organization (JAG) (concerns
  about the remediation process)             10 (3)           6 (21)
Financial costs                               6 (2)           6 (21)
Water                                         8 (3)           6 (21)
Total                                       305            * 29

* This total is not equal to the sum of the numbers in the column due
to multiple responses

Table 4
Health concerns associated with the Tar Ponds

                                         Number of      Number of
                                          mentions      interviews
Health concerns                         (% of total)   (% of total)

Reproductive health                         49 (42)       26 (96)
General concerns about future health        26 (22)       18 (67)
Cancer                                      22 (19)       18 (67)
Respiratory problems                         7 (6)         5 (19)
Headaches                                    5 (4)         4 (15)
Arsenic                                      3 (3)         3 (11)
Stress                                       3 (3)         2 (7)
Depression                                   2 (2)         2 (7)
Total                                      117          * 27

* This total is not equal to the sum of the numbers in the column due
to multiple responses

Table 5
Effects on daily life related to concerns about the Tar Ponds

                                      Number of         Number of
                                       mentions         interviews
Effect                               (% of total)    (% of the total)

Community                               19 (28)           11 (55)
Water                                   15 (22)            9 (45)
Restricting children's play area        12 (18)            9 (45)
Avoiding certain areas                  12 (18)            9 (45)
Activism                                 5 (7)             5 (25)
No vegetable garden                      2 (3)             2 (10)
Always on mind                           2 (3)             2 (10)
Total                                   67              * 20

* This total is not equal to the sum of the numbers in the column due
to multiple responses

Table 6
Coping strategies employed to deal with Tar Ponds concerns

                                   Number of         Number of
Coping strategy                     mentions         interviews
(problem-focused)                 (% of total)    (% of the total)

Keeping informed                     14 (20)            12 (63)
Social support                       13 (18)            11 (58)
Activities/participation             16 (23)             9 (47)
Planning residential move            14 (20)             9 (47)
Delay having children                 9 (13)             5 (26)
Controlling lifestyle                 3 (4)              2 (11)
Travel                                2 (3)              2 (11)
Total                                71               * 19

                                   Number of         Number of
Coping strategy                     mentions         interviews
(emotion-focused)                 (% of total)    (% of the total)

Acceptance                            7 (24)             5 (71)
Hopeless                              5 (17)             5 (71)
Denial                                3 (10)             3 (43)
'Wait and See'                        5 (17)             2 (29)
Frustration                           4 (14)             2 (29)
Sadness                               3 (10)             2 (29)
Anger                                 2 (7)              2 (29)
Total                                29                * 7

* This total is not equal to the sum of the numbers in the column
due to multiple responses
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Author:Haalboom, Bethany; Elliott, Susan J.; Eyles, John; Muggah, Henry
Publication:The Canadian Geographer
Geographic Code:1CNOV
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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