As Canada’s earliest centre of industrial development, Cape Breton has a number of environmentally compromised industrial sites.

Dr. Ken Oakes began working with the Verschuren Centre as Industrial Chair in Environmental Remediation in the fall of 2012.  The Chair was initially sponsored by the former Sydney Tar Ponds Agency (now Nova Scotia Lands).  Ken heads a team of researchers working to enhance understanding and expertise around the environmental aspects of post-industrial sites and market this nationally and internationally.  According to Dr. Oakes, “no one individual has the requisite skill sets to solve complex, interdisciplinary problems on their own, but rather, problems can be best addressed by strong teams of researchers bringing diverse backgrounds and tools to bear on different facets of an environmental issue. As such, enjoy working with the other researchers and Chairs at the Verschuren Centre, Cape Breton University and across Canada.”

Ken OakesBackground

Cape Breton’s Sydney Tar Ponds and Coke Ovens are large-scale remediation sites – comprising over 100 hectares – that lie within close proximity to active residential and commercial areas.

Hundreds of engineering and scientific studies have already been completed to inform a $500 million remediation effort. Solidification and stabiliszation greatly reduced exposure risks to legacy pollutants, but the long-term sustainability of this approach under local conditions is unknown. While the remediation is complete, the long term assessments of monolith stability, leachate production and uptake potential of compounds stabilised at this 100 hectare site is a long-term need. The sheer magnitude of this work has created, and will continue to create, significant technical expertise in Cape Breton.


The Verschuren Centre is playing a key role in this work, serving as a ‘living laboratory’ to build understanding around the environmental aspects of post-industrial sites. This approach enables the Centre to build strong strategic partnerships within industry and academia across the region and beyond.


Cape Breton Development Corporation’s former Coal Preparation Plant




Cape Breton Development Corporation’s remediated Coal Preparation Plant


This expertise has a market across the country and around the globe. For example, the Government of Canada committed in excess of  $3.5 billion in remediation and risk management of federally owned contaminated sites.  The Centre is well positioned to assist in these efforts.

Research Focus

The Verschuren Centre is committed to examining the long-term integrity of managed sites through remediation technology. The core of the research agenda encompasses toxicity assessments of organisms in environments receiving potentially contaminated waters, combined with controlled laboratory exposures and bench-scale assessments of treatment technologies. Our research focus is on assessing the ecosystem risks of acid mine water discharges contaminated with high metal concentrations, particularly in relation to their impacts on freshwater aquatic systems. Ken Field 1Over 25 potential research sites will be investigated allowing field observations to be coupled with controlled laboratory exposures. From these results, we will be able to derive cause and effect linkages over multiple levels of biological and environmental complexity. For all projects, the focus will be on assessing which contaminants pose risks to exposed organisms.


Dr. Oakes is experienced in dealing with a variety of contaminants found in aquatic systems. These include investigations of:

  • The impacts of the long-term addition of pulp and paper mill effluents into aquatic ecosystems,
  • Emerging and very persistent pollutants which don’t degrade naturally in the environment such as perfluorinated compounds (i.e. Teflon™ and Scotchgard™) and brominated flame retardants (commonly used in plastics, textiles and electrical/electronic equipment), and
  • The near ubiquitous presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in environments receiving municipal wastewater effluents.

The lessons learned from these studies will be applied to the contaminated areas of Cape Breton.  The research will focus on the following:

  • CBU August-126 2Understanding and predicting the impact and fate of chemicals in the environment.
  • Examining the long-term integrity of managed sites through remediation technology.
  • Assessing ecosystem risks of mine water discharges in relation to their impacts on freshwater aquatic systems.
  • Determining the sustainability of solidification and stabilization technologies (recently employed at former Sydney Tar Ponds site).
  • Conducting and developing research related to emerging environmental technologies – nanotechnology and biosensors.
  • Functionalize certain nanoparticles with DNA strands that can bind to waterborne microorganisms (e.g. bacteria) to improve the effectiveness of antibacterial agents for water treatment, which could have far-reaching health and food safety applications.
  • Develop colorimetric biosensors for genomic-based detection – potential environmental monitoring and medical diagnosis applications.
  • Microfludic technology for high throughput genomic assay —  Generate highly non-dispersed micro-droplets (thousands of reactions can be screened in one second).