Sydney woman scores partial win for compensation of steelmaking's toxic legacy

Cape Breton Post
Apr 22, 2016

SYDNEY - Sydney resident Debbie Ouellette is a woman on a mission after making a promise 17 years ago to herself, her family and even the family dog.

Her mission is to secure compensation for the heartache and pain she says her family experienced while living near what was once known as Canada's worst toxic waste dump, the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens site.

She has already recorded a partial win by inking a settlement agreement with two former players in Sydney's century-old steelmaking industry, Domtar Inc. and Ispat Sidbec Inc., former operators of the plant. A confidentiality clause in the deal prevents Ouellette from releasing specific details of the agreement. "I can only say I got a settlement," said Ouellette, who is representing herself.

But a larger battle now looms as Ouellette, a mother of three, prepares to tangle with both the federal and provincial governments. "My life for 17 years has been focused on keeping up with this case no matter what and trust me, I spend a lot of time doing so. Every day this case is on my mind and I cannot let it go. I just canít. Itís taking over my life, day in and day out," said Ouellette. It was the death of the family dog, Queenie, of cancer that pushed Ouellette into action. The dog was one of nine who died on Frederick Street of cancer within a three-year period.

While living on the street, the family home was among several experiencing a strange orange goo seeping into basements which turned out to be arsenic. Residents of the street all complained about headaches, nausea, skin rashes, and a host of other ailments.

As a result, Ouellette and her Whitney Pier neighbours were moved out of Frederick Street more than a decade ago because of the high levels of arsenic and other toxins.

The tar ponds and coke ovens sites were the subject of a $400-million remediation effort funded largely by the federal and provincial governments.

"Really, all I am doing is taking out information concerning Frederick Street from Health Canada studies that were done in the '70s and '80s and studies that were done by others in the last few years. Itís not something new. I am sure the lawyers and their teams on the other side have read some of these same documents that I have. They are seeing what I am seeing," she explained.

"I often hear them say arsenic is naturally present all over Sydney. Maybe so, but if thatís the only answer they can come back with to discredit these studies it just doesn't make sense.

"Trust me if I had known the dangers on the coke ovens site, I would have never moved my family to Frederick Street. Governments knew for years and did nothing to protect the adults, the children and the pets who moved and lived around these sites."

Ouellette contends the federal and provincial governments knew, or ought to have known, that the various processes used at the plant spewed contamination throughout the community.

Steelmaking first begin in Sydney in 1901 and ended in 2000 when the provincial government, then owners of the plant, voted to shut it down.

A proposed class-action suit against some of the same defendants failed to materialize after a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal decision rejected certifying the suit. The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada which declined to hear the case. Ouellette was not part of the class-action bid.

As for what's next, Ouellette is awaiting word from Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Patrick Murray who has been assigned to manage the case for the court.