Lachlan MacKinnon’s CLOSING SYSCO examines the tumultuous life of the Sydney Steel Plant; its ups and downs and the impact it had on the surrounding community both positive and negative.
Being from Sydney myself, I’ve always been curious about the Steel Plant. Like many my age, I have perhaps a basic understanding of its economic and environmental impact, but nothing beyond that. I was born and spent the first few years of my life in Whitney Pier, the community most closely tied to the plant. Although I moved away from the area in my formative years and came of age across town, I returned to the neighbourhood during my final year of high school and stayed through my first few years of college. I’d walk over the overpass (a bridge built to allow traffic to flow freely above the plant) daily and see the husk of the plant looming over me; actively rusting and tagged with graffiti.
By this point (early 2000s), the only talk of the Steel Plant that remained regarded its environmental impact. A few years before, toxic waste began to leak into the basements of surrounding homes and the “Tar Ponds” – a creek that held the lethal run-off created via the steel making process – lingered like a bad memory. On especially hot days in the summer, a noxious odour would waft from the black water and settle downtown like a thick blanket you couldn’t kick off. I can remember sitting in a high school biology class at Sydney Academy, a school built a stone’s throw from Muggah Creek, and listening to my teacher say that by the time we’re all adults, this whole area of Sydney would be fenced off unless something was done to clean up the decades of neglect.
MacKinnon’s book takes a hard look at the circumstances that led to the plant’s creation – essentially a business born to support Cape Breton’s massive coal reserves – and the decades of mismanagement and controversies that would follow. When A.V. Roe, the corporation that at the time had owned the plant, decided to shutter it in the late 1960s, it led to community uproar. Closing both the plant and the coal mines that supported it would be akin to putting a gun to the head of the economy. Therefore, the province stepped in and purchased the plant to continue operations. Although it was never intended to operate it long term – the hope being to sell it to a private company shortly after taking ownership – it continued to do so until closing its doors over thirty years later.
I found the more interesting parts of the book focused on the lawsuits and worker’s compensation claims that would follow as former employees began developing a myriad of cancers and health problems after they retired. The belief that relentless exposure to smoke, toxic fumes and chemicals would not cause these issues was shocking. Of course the province is not going to rush to immediately settle these claims, but to publicly present such bald-faced ignorance to the plant’s working conditions was mind-blowing.
Lachlan also covers the many attempts as well as the final clean-up of Muggah Creek and plant site leading to the creation of Open Hearth Park, a gathering spot for the town that now holds football games, community events and even played host to a gigantic Aerosmith concert in 2014. The idea of one of the biggest bands in the world playing in that area, let alone Sydney, is still bewildering to me.
While I did find the book to be dry at times, which may have something to do with it being a university thesis adapted to be a non-fiction book, it is undoubtedly deeply researched and thorough in its examination of one of Nova Scotia’s biggest industries.