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Frederick Street: Living and Dying on Canada’s Love Canal

by Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May

Elizabeth May, head of the Sierra Club of Canada, and Maude Barlow, chair of the citizen’s lobby group The Council of Canadians, have written an informative and sometimes shocking account of government bungling in regulating, running, and cleaning up after the steelmaking business in Cape Breton. The timeline begins centuries before steel production on the island, includes the creation of the infamous Sydney tar ponds, and ends with the recent relocation of Sydney’s Frederick Street residents, after arsenic-tainted yellow ooze began leaking into basements. The authors document the decisions, both big and small, that have contributed to the scandalous mess – from steel-industry bailouts to hidden health studies – and offer an inside view of such protests as the tent city erected across from then-Nova Scotia premier Russell MacLellan’s house last summer.

But May and Barlow, though proving the tar ponds do warrant intense, book-length treatment, have unfortunately not written the straight, hard-hitting volume the situation demands. Their frequent sarcastic asides about government inaction diminish the facts, which should speak for themselves. The book is also full of regurgitated assumptions about why Sydney residents have become ill. Seven cases of Alzheimer’s on one street may seem alarming, but that in itself doesn’t implicate the tar ponds. What about family history, age of affected residents, and so on? The authors report remarkable incidents, such as a resident coming home to see his dog glowing yellow in the kitchen, with no follow-up research. Barlow and May clearly believe unequivocally that the dog glowed; it would be nice if they’d been able to explain what pollutants might cause that, and how.

Of course, no one should dismiss the concerns of people living near toxic waste. But the authors do little better by accepting all suspicions as facts, and by tacitly agreeing that residents must show they are being made sick – by a mess that should be cleaned up regardless. These two crusaders let their passions about the tar ponds debacle prevent them from producing the sound, journalistic book that would have done the most service to the people whose air, land, water, well-being – and basements – have been fouled. This is an important book because of its subject; let’s hope it’s not the last word on the tar ponds.