Sunday, June 11, 2000

Growing up in the poisoned playground

Living in North America's worst toxic waste site

Toronto Sun

Elizabeth May and Maude Barlow

I remember, when I was about 10 years old, walking to school with my sister, Sharon, who was nine. As we walked a large cloud covered the sun and the sky filled with flakes. We turned our faces upwards as a cool breeze swirled the flakes over our skin and across the winter ground, leaving a thin carpet under our feet.

If this sounds like a typical childhood picture of a winter snowfall, it isn't. Those flakes weren't white and they weren't snow. It was red iron ore dust, and it fell from a huge orange smudge belched from the smokestack of a steel mill blast furnace. It was coarse and stinging to the eyes, and it blew into every nook and cranny.

This is one of hundreds of similar memories I have of growing up in Whitney Pier, an area of Sydney, Nova Scotia, and a community writers Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May say is North America's worst toxic waste site in Frederick Street: Life And Death On Canada's Love Canal.

Sydney sits at the bottom point of a triangle of towns in north-eastern Cape Breton. North Sydney, Sydney Mines, Glace Bay, New Waterford and Dominion are -- or were -- coal mining towns, and together with Sydney, a steel town, they made up the industrial heart of the island.

At one time that heart beat as hard and strong as a pit pony's. Now it's sick, poisoned with arsenic, PCBs and deadly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the "largest group of cancer-causing chemicals in the world," the authors tell us.

Sydney Harbour is shaped like an inverted Y and is one of the best natural harbours in Canada. The city was founded near the bottom of the right arm of the Y. Sydney is small by city standards (about 25,000 people) and most of the houses are made of wood. The city is divided into two parts -- the south two-thirds, which is the core of the city; and the north section, Whitney Pier -- the poor part of town, where I was born and lived for 18 years. Victoria Road forms the lone thin artery tying the two together, and it's squeezed tight by the industrial organs of the steel mill on the harbour side and the coke ovens across the road.

In 1893, a Bostonian named Henry Melville Whitney banded the small coal-mining operations of the island together to form the Dominion Coal Company. Whitney and his partners then started construction on a new steel mill in 1899. The steel mill became the Dominion Iron and Steel Corporation. Eventually the two would join to become the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation, or DOSCO, as I knew it growing up.

Intense heat is needed to make steel and coke provided the best source of cheap and very hot heat. To make coke, Whitney built a series of coke ovens across the road from the steel mill.

Coke is formed when coal is burned at extremely high temperatures without oxygen. After several hours of burning, the white-hot, lava-like mass is dumped from the ovens into rail cars and "quenched" with hundreds of gallons of water.

I watched this dumping process many times as a child. It was mesmerizing; I could feel the heat from the road, hundreds of yards away. When the water hit the coal a cloud of enormous proportions would explode into the air. It was like smoke from a child's drawing, fat and white, and it floated like a balloon over Frederick Street and the other streets of my neighbourhood.

I didn't know at the time that that balloon was filled with what Barlow and May describe as "a chemical mix of tars, oils, napthalene, ammonia, phenols, cyanide, sulphide, thiocyanate and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons." The water used to cool the coke carried the main ingredients of a toxic soup -- PCBs -- to two large ponds (called, with good reason, the Tar Ponds) that fed the harbour.

Across the road at the steel plant, iron ore was melted in blast furnaces heated by the coke, and separated into impure "slag" and the purer pig iron. The slag was cooled and dumped outside the plant gates. Over time the slag formed little black hills and valleys, perfect for flying over on your bike.

Whenever there was a "slip" in the blast furnace (a rapid increase in pressure) it forced a huge cloud of iron oxide and ash out of the smokestacks and over Whitney Pier. This red "snow" fell every day, including wash-day Monday.

Barlow, a writer and social activist, and May, a lawyer, writer and executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, are very good at giving us facts and figures:

The land the coke ovens (now closed) sat on and the adjacent community is polluted to a depth of eight storeys.

When the coke ovens were in operation, the cancer rate for employees was six times the national average, or the equivalent to smoking 35 packs of cigarettes a day.

From 1989 to 1995, after the coke ovens pretty much shut down, the cancer rate for men in Sydney was 45% higher than in the rest of the province. It was 47% higher for women. Nova Scotia's cancer rate is the highest in Canada.

Within one year, nine pet dogs that lived on a street near the coke ovens died of cancer. One worker came home to find his dog glowing in the dark, like a luminescent toy.

Lobsters caught in Sydney harbour, where I swam with my friends as a boy, were 26 times more contaminated than those caught in the polluted waters of Boston Harbour.

All these statistics, and hundreds more, make for depressing reading. Frederick Street is a ledger of death and disease, a litany of greed, government incompetence and denial, and official arrogance and ignorance on every level. The plant and coke ovens were a money pit from the get-go. Tens of millions of dollars in government grants, subsidies and handouts were burned up in those furnaces. Tens of millions more have been wasted in ineffectual clean-up efforts.

But Frederick Street suffers from too much rhetoric and misses the real story -- the people of the Pier and their battle against exploitative businessmen and dismissive officials. This is the story of how they fought this slave-like existence with humour and dignity, of how they worked and watched as their families and neighbours died too young.

The plant and the coke ovens were, to the families I knew, a necessary evil. Sydney was a one-industry town and the workers knew that as long as their houses, clothes, gardens, hair and lungs were coated with iron ore dust and sulphurous smoke there would be an envelope on payday. As one company president said to housewives protesting the ash that fell on wash day: "No smoke, no baloney!"

When one of their colleagues was killed or permanently injured on the job, which was often (in 1953 the plant hospital recorded 18,582 patients treated), there was no compensation and no improvement in the Dickensian working conditions.

One worker says: "My God, the carnage in December (Safety Month). Gee! A friend of mine, who just started around the plant the same time I did, got squeezed to death up at the coke oven. And old Perry, he was chasing a crane when a billet fell on him and squashed him. A great year for squashing ... Then they put up signs advising you, 'Don't get hurt.' Now, this was a combination, I must say."

When I was very young both my father and one of my uncles worked at the plant. I remember when my dad would come home early, after there was an "accident." There would be no talking about it, just a whispered name and then silence. The next day it was back to work. No smoke, no baloney.

My father, who was always lean and active, suffered a debilitating stroke when he was in his fifties. My uncle died early, of a heart attack (there is no history of heart disease in our family). My mother's lungs are so filled with crap (and have been since I was a child) that she sounds like she's breathing through a wet sponge. One of my sisters was born with a severe handicap. We lived just blocks from the coke ovens and, later, the steel mill blast furnaces. For years after I left, whenever I went home for a visit I would hear "You remember so-and-so (usually a neighbour)? He got the cancer last year."

The residents of Frederick Street and several streets backing it have been visited by men in bio-hazard suits. They have had soil samples taken from their back yards and watched the ground near their homes spontaneously combust. In the height of the summer heat they have had to seal their homes against noxious fumes and black ash so thick it piled. They have been ordered to evacuate because of smoke that turned day into night. They have endured chronic headaches, nosebleeds, eye, ear and respiratory infections and cancer rates so high as to be almost off the scale.

One resident went into her basement to find a yellowish liquid pooling on the floor. It was arsenic, seeping in from the ground. Arsenic! In her BASEMENT! Health officials assured her there was no danger unless she drank the stuff!

All levels of government health and environment departments and various independent groups and agencies have done dozens of studies, almost all coming to the same conclusion -- the neighbourhood is a killing field.

After illness and death, after years of fighting and tears, the houses on Frederick Street are empty, their owners relocated. But the homes on the surrounding streets are still occupied -- the goverment refuses to take responsibility or offer aid.

Children still play, as I and my friends did, on the moonscape that was the coke ovens and around the black and orange streams that run through it. It seems that in the residents' struggle for truth and justice, they are still being fed too much smoke and baloney.