Sonic Environmental Solutions, Inc.

Sonic making inroads on PCB remediation?

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Courtesy of Sonic Environmental Solutions, Inc.

The Sydney Tar Ponds of Nova Scotia are the result of a century of coal mining and steelmaking, which left behind 900,000 tonnes of chemical waste. About 5 per cent or 45,000 tonnes of this waste is contaminated with high levels of PCBs. Two years ago a federal-provincial plan was announced to clean up the Tar Ponds over 10 years at a cost of $400 million, and this led to the creation of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency.

So where am I going with this? Well, the agency proposed that incineration techniques be used to destroy the PCB materials, resulting in substantial public opposition to the idea. So a special federal-provincial review panel was set up to do an environmental assessment of the remediation plans, including two weeks of hearing that just completed last week. At the hearings, Cape Breton University -- acting as intervenor -- presented a report that assessed Sonic Environmental's technology as an environmentally friendlier alternative to incineration. The university brought soil samples to Sonic's pilot plant in British Columbia in March and ran them through the system. They then brought the processed soil back to Nova Scotia, and after analysis determined there was no detectable PCB levels.

To recap, Sonic's technology would take contaminated soil from the tar ponds and this soil would be mixed with a solvent into a big slurry. The mixture would then be pumped into the company's sonic generator -- basically a 14-foot, 2.8 tonne steel vibrator -- where extreme agitation literally shakes the PCBs from the soil. Sodium is then dispered into the PCB-filled solvent, and the intense vibration accelerates a chemical reaction that strips chlorine from the PCBs -- i.e. the PCBs are destroyed and, once the solvent is recovered, all you're left with is clean soil. The bonus is that Sonic's technology can be taken to the site, rather than requiring contaminated soil be shipped elsewhere for incineration, which is often the case.

Who knows what will come out of this panel review, but if Sonic ended up being chosen to deal with the Synday Tar Ponds PCBs, it would be a tremendous opportunity to prove the effectiveness of the technology around the world. 'If the tribunal says no to incineration, we hope we're in,' Adam Sumel, chief executive officer of Sonic, told me during a telephone interview today. 'We're hoping the tribunal says you cannot build an incinerator there.'

Sonic is also eyeing opportunities in Ontario, where there are a number of groups now looking at ways to clean up old industrial 'brownfield' locations and then flip them for a profit. The company recently got Ministery of Environment approval to use its process in Ontario, and Sumel says he's had talks with some parties already regarding brownfield clean-up projects.

Sonic's share price has lost two-thirds of its value over the past year, so investors are obviously getting impatient with the company. This year could be a make or break year, and the tar ponds and projects in Ontario could be the key to making it.

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