The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia has been asked to determine whether a group of 400 people can launch a class-action lawsuit over health problems they claim they’ve suffered by living near the notorious Sydney tar ponds.

Lawyer Ray Wagner, in his opening submission yesterday before Justice John Murphy, said the group wasn’t seeking personal injury claims against the federal and provincial governments.

Instead, they want a cleanup of the soil around homes within a five-kilometre radius of the former Sydney Steel Co. and adjacent coke ovens operations, he said.

The tar ponds, created by the waste left behind after a century of steelmaking, are among the most contaminated sites in Canada. They are believed to contain 700,000 tonnes of toxic sludge.

Wagner said the group also wants a health study to examine the impact of the toxic compounds produced by the former Crown-owned operations between 1968 and 2000.

“The community wants ... their day in court,” Wagner told the court. “They trust the courts, but now in 2010 they do not trust the government.”

Wagner said the case was about “the contamination of an entire community.”

He alleged both levels of government knew there were harmful substances in the runoff from the industrial operation and failed to inform the community.

As well, the governments mischaracterized evidence presented in subsequent health studies, he said.

But lawyers for both the province and Ottawa contend a class action isn’t appropriate given there would be too many “individual issues” that would have to be resolved to determine liability.

Agnes MacNeil, a lawyer for the Nova Scotia government, also took issue with the notion the plaintiffs are after a “modest settlement.”

She said any cleanup of neighbourhoods in Sydney alone would cost millions of dollars.

Broadcast live

Nine days have been set aside for the hearing, which is being broadcast live over the Internet.

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