North End Residents Get Some Answers

On Monday night, I attended the information session for residents of Sydney’s North End still waiting for answers about the leak at the Imperial Oil tank farm at 1 George Street on July 8.

The leak occurred when a front-end loader rolled down a containment wall and punctured a large storage tank on the northeast side of the site, causing 600,000 liters of gas to spill into an earthen containment berm.

Imperial Tank Farm, Sydney, NS

Imperial Tank Farm, Sydney, NS. (Source: Google Maps)

As a result of the spill, the neighborhood nearest the tank farm was evacuated and electricity to the area was cut to avoid a fire, resulting in 48 million liters of untreated wastewater going directly into Sydney harbor from the sewage treatment plant, located near the tank farm.

Initially, as the CBC’s Tom Ayers reported, residents were told that all the gasoline had been contained, but under questioning during a September 19 meeting attended by company reps, “Imperial’s environmental and regulatory adviser Nadine Morton said about 3,000 litres of gas had escaped the containment berm through a faulty seal around a pipe.”

In late October, according to Ayers, the provincial environment department declared their investigation complete, telling the CBC it had resulted in a warning to the company for failing to notify the department of planned maintenance to the containment berm.

The department said the July 8 spill had been cleaned up and no further action was needed, although Imperial’s internal investigation had also revealed “historical hydrocarbon contamination.” The province provided no further details “except to say that the discovery triggered a separate process under contaminated sites regulations.”

This question of “historical hydrocarbon containment” was addressed during Monday night’s meeting, which attracted about 25 residents, by Malcolm MacNeil, Sydney district manager with the provincial environment department. MacNeil was one of four people answering questions, the others being CBRM Fire Chief Michael Seth, Deputy Fire Chief Chris March and CBRM Emergency Management Manager Bruce MacDonald. Sydney-Membertou MLA Derek Mombourquette and CBRM District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald were also in attendance and both addressed issues raised during the discussion.

Residents meeting at Eltuek Arts Centre, Monday, 28 November 2022.

Residents meeting at Eltuek Arts Centre, Monday, 28 November 2022.

Grace Arsenault, who convened the meeting, said Imperial Oil had been invited to send a representative but had declined on the grounds it had “no new information” to share with residents.

The meeting lasted roughly an hour and a half and covered a lot of ground, so I’ve decided to approach it by looking back at the questions residents were asking during their first meeting, held 10 days after the leak, to see if they’ve been answered. To do this, I am relying on the Cape Breton Post‘s Jeremy Fraser’s coverage of the first meeting, which was attended by about 40 residents as well as by MLA Mombourquette, Councilor MacDonald and MP for Sydney-Victoria Jaime Battiste. (Fraser covered Monday’s meeting too, and his report is detailed—although we disagree in our estimates of crowd size!)

After the July 18 meeting, Fraser wrote:

Many concerns were raised including the lack of communication from Imperial Oil, the location of the tank farm, the mixed messaging regarding mandatory and voluntary evacuations as well as questions about why equipment for an emergency were not on site and the possibility of financial compensation.

Let’s take them in reverse order:



Grace Arsenault told the CBC back in September that Imperial was offering the roughly 60 residents who’d been forced/asked (more on this in a moment) to leave their homes $250 and had suggested they might provide more if residents had receipts.

Arsenault felt the $250 was inadequate as compensation, as did another resident at Monday night’s meeting who said Imperial had arrived on his doorstep with a check for $250 which he’d refused for fear he’d be waiving any claim he might have to further compensation.

A third resident commented that the compensation would amount to about $15,000 which was a drop in the bucket for Imperial. (As noted, there was no one from Imperial at the meeting, so I don’t know how much the company has actually paid out in compensation. I do know a few things about Imperial’s finances, though, which I’ve discussed in a separate article.)

Fire Chief Seth was asked if the municipality had calculated what the incident had cost it in terms of money and resources and Seth said those calculations would be part of the CBRM’s review of the incident which should be completed early in the New Year.



The answer as to why there was no emergency fire fighting equipment—namely, foam, the weapon of choice in combating or preventing gasoline fires—on site in the North End is that Imperial Oil contracted out emergency management at the tank farm to a third-party, a private sector company that promised to “come in and handle” things, but didn’t have the resources on the ground to do so on July 8, according to Deputy Fire Chief March and, in fact, “weren’t on site until the next day.”

(I would be very curious to know what Imperial’s insurance company demands of it in terms of fire-safety precautions, but that is not information I expect them to share with me. )

The fire department was able to borrow a crash truck, equipped with foam, from the airport and Imperial sent foam from its Dartmouth facility the next day. March said you can’t actually put foam on gasoline until it has stopped flowing and, as it happened, the gasoline stopped flowing just as the truck arrived from the airport. (In another lucky bit of timing, the gasoline didn’t start flowing between 1997 and 2016, when the airport had no fire department.) Later, they were able to use a mobile foam system from Montreal provided by an unidentified organization that helps out in emergency situations. Deputy Chief March said the mobile system was brand new and worked “really well.” (My understanding is that it would also be a cheaper option than a crash truck; two of which cost the McCurdy Airport $1.7 million in 2016.)

Sydney airport CEO Helen MacInnis and firefighter Tom Aucoin are shown with one of two new airport fire trucks. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith/CBC)

Sydney airport CEO Helen MacInnis and firefighter Tom Aucoin in photo from 2016 CBC story about the purchase of two new airport fire (or “crash”) trucks. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith/CBC)

March said that, to the best of his knowledge, the airport is not interested in an agreement with the fire department allowing it to borrow a truck when necessary, but both MLA Mombourquette and Councilor MacDonald felt this was something they should try to negotiate, at least as a stop gap. (The concern seems to be that the airport would have to shut down if it didn’t have a truck, but it has two trucks and, in fact, didn’t have to shut down on July 8 because it used its second truck.)

Mombourquette told attendees he had not realized there was no fire-fighting equipment on site until the incident in July and his concern is, “How do we make Imperial ensure they have that equipment on site?” Mombourquette, who has raised the issue on the floor of the provincial legislature, said either the local fire department or Imperial Oil should have access to the necessary gear in an emergency, although he seemed to be leaning toward including it as a provision in the regulations governing tank farms.

Chief Seth said equipping the fire department with such gear would be a question of finances.



Deputy Fire Chief March said the fire department decided a voluntary evacuation would be “prudent” but without the resources to “go door-to-door” advising people to leave, March said they relied on the regional police to spread the message. “Obviously,” he said, “there was some miscommunication” as some cops were telling people they had no choice but to leave.

Asked why the incident hadn’t required a mandatory evacuation, Chief Seth said the fire department doesn’t have the authority to make you leave your home, they’d have had to have gone through the municipality and the provincial department of justice to have a state of emergency declared before people could be ordered to leave.

Bruce MacDonald explained that had the evacuation turned into a “longer-term response,” the municipality was prepared, with the assistance of the Red Cross, to accommodate people in Centre 200, but by 5:00 PM on July 8, they had a “good feel for the time line and when residents would come back” to their homes. (One resident remarked that this was the first she’d heard of this although she’d attended every meeting and “asked the same question every time.”)



Communication on the file has been between Imperial and the province, or as MacNeil put it, “between ourselves and our client.”

Malcolm MacNeil

Malcolm MacNeil

During Monday night’s meeting, MacNeil said the leak—which he put at 3,100 liters—of gas from the berm was detected in a well that was part of the company’s groundwater monitoring system. They also “checked other wells on the property” and found “no gas” but “other hydrocarbons” unrelated to the July 8 spill.

This “historical contamination,” as it was termed, was reported to the department of environment along with the more recent 3,100 liter leak.

In response to a resident’s question as to why this “historical” leak wasn’t discovered earlier, MacNeil said “good question” then explained Imperial “had previous knowledge” of the contamination. Later, MacNeil said:

It appears that [Imperial] was aware of [the historical contamination] for some time. We’re looking into that.

I found this confusing—shouldn’t Imperial have reported the “historical contamination” the moment it was found? I asked for clarification from the department on Tuesday but as of press time I hadn’t received it.

MacNeil explained that Imperial has hired a “site professional” to conduct an environmental assessment to determine how far the historical contamination has spread and “if it’s traveled off the property, they’ll have to look at that as well.”

Asked if the company had  kept a record of previous spills, MacNeil said part of the consultant’s work would likely be a “desktop assessment” of all relevant records. (Arguably, though, the environment department should have just as comprehensive a list of spills as Imperial because Imperial would have been required to report them.)

Derek Mombourquette

Derek Mombourquette

The consultant’s report on the historical contamination is due in February. Arsenault suggested that once it was received by the environment department, the report would be made available to the public, but MacNeil begged to differ. The residents’ group, he said, could access the report through the provincial FOIPOP (Freedom of Information/Protection of Privacy) Act.

MacNeil said the process tends to be pretty efficient, which indicates to me that he has never actually had occasion to FOIPOP the provincial government.

What is likely to happen, in my experience, is that the residents will FOIPOP the report, the environment department will respond—possibly even promptly—with a heavily redacted version of the document, citing potentially adverse effects on Imperial’s finances and/or lawyer/client privilege for withholding information.

The residents will  have the option of appealing the redactions, but here’s what the understaffed, overworked Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner had to say about that process in its most recent—2021-2022—Annual Report:

The OIPC has a significant backlog of cases. Most of these are cases where a public body or health custodian withheld information and the applicant believes they are entitled to it. The applicants have asked that our office review the severing to ensure it is compliant with the law. We have cases waiting to be assigned that were received as far back as 2018. In other words, it takes at least four years for applicants to have their requests for review heard by our office.

So, four years after launching their appeal, the residents could get an investigation and a ruling from the privacy commissioner, and I would say there’s a good chance the commissioner would agree that public safety trumps Imperial’s financial interests and order the release of the unredacted report.

But the commissioner has no power to enforce this, as its annual report notes:

…we continue to believe that the fact that public bodies and health custodians are not required to comply with the Commissioners recommendations is a significant weakness in our access to information laws.

The residents’ last recourse, if the department refused to comply with the commissioner’s recommendation, would be to take the government to court.

All to say, suggesting North End residents can easily access the consultant’s report on the contamination at the Imperial site by means of a FOIPOP request is disingenuous, to say the least.



Residents also expressed concerns about the danger posed and damage caused by oil trucks on North End streets, especially given the increased traffic in the downtown these days.

Grace Arsenault

Grace Arsenault

One suggested that if Imperial truly wanted to be a “good neighbor” it would pick up the tab for a bridge across Muggah’s Creek that would allow oil trucks to approach the tank farm from the Spar Road.

This proposal was endorsed by Councilor MacDonald who said the Spar had been extended from the 125 Highway to the Harbourside Industrial Park precisely to accommodate trucks, “That’s where the trucks belong,” he said.

Ultimately, though, residents were clear that while ensuring proper firefighting equipment was available on site and diverting oil trucks from city streets were important goals, what they really want is the tank farm removed from the North End.

Arsenault said she realized this would not be “a sprint” but “a marathon,” but seemed prepared to run it. She told me at the end of the meeting that she felt good about the information they’d received and that it was important to ensure the “lines of communication” remained open.