Sydney families file $1-billion suit
Class action suit seeks damages for years of exposure to pollution
By TERA CAMUS / Cape Breton Bureau
SYDNEY - A $1-billion lawsuit was filed Wednesday for damages allegedly caused
by 60 years of toxic fumes and dust spewing from government-owned smokestacks
Ray Wagner and Associates, a Halifax law firm, says the massive document filed
in Halifax against seven public and private firms is the largest class-action
suit ever in Canada and if successful, all Sydney residents could benefit.
"It's a substantial and significant claim," Mr. Wagner said, adding it will
likely take years to settle.
According to a statement of claim, the case is based mainly on the principle of
assault and battery - the weapon being chemicals spewing from the
government-owned but now defunct Sydney steel plant and the nearby coke ovens.
The chemicals that made Sydney's skies orange or black daily until the coke
ovens closed in 1988, when Sysco changed its technology, are the same ones that
spilled into the ground, creating the tar ponds that contain 700,000 tonnes of
Besides Sysco, the defendants are Ispat Sidbec Inc., Hawker Siddeley Canada,
Domtar Inc., Canadian National Railway Co. and the attorneys general of Canada
and Nova Scotia.
Domtar had a tar recycling plant at the coke ovens site that operated from 1903
to 1962. Hawker Siddeley bought the former coke ovens and steel mill in 1957
and in 1968 announced their closure, sparking an eventual takeover by Ottawa
and the province through Sysco and Devco.
"The defendants knew they were spewing out airborne emissions from 1928 to 1988
that contained a toxic brew that would be ingested by the people who lived in
the community," Mr. Wagner said.
"People in the community were told that it was just smoke, sulphur, et cetera,
that it was not harmful. . . . It was concealed from them that they were
ingesting something more than nuisance smoke, but actual chemicals to cause
"There was substantial intention to inflict this on people, they threw it out
stacks like it was stone, into your lungs that hit you like stone. . . . You
don't have to prove you suffered damage. . . . You don't have to connect the
cancer a person died of to the loss, you're automatically entitled to recovery
because of the battery, the infliction on their personal integrity."
Although the plaintiffs include only four people - Neila MacQueen, Joe Petitpas,
Ann Marie Ross and Iris Crawford - Mr. Wagner said they hope the court remedies
the harm by creating a fund and criteria for all people to collect damages for
loss of property value and usage.
It also wants the court to provide residents with constant medical monitoring by
a team of scientists to identify and treat illnesses connected to exposure to
Ms. Ross, who lives in Whitney Pier on contaminated land, said it's time the
damage is corrected.
She and her daughter suffer nosebleeds, rashes and other ailments and have been
deemed to be at risk for cancer or other diseases from constant exposure to
toxic chemicals that seeped into her basement and yard. Those same chemicals
are also in the tar ponds.
"It gives people in Sydney the opportunity to address the hurt," she said. "Our
quality of life has been taken from us. I can't go out and plant a garden or
dig in my soil like every other person in the province. I can't touch my soil,
I can't get dirt on my hands, on my pets, I have to clean the house every day.
. . . Normal life has been taken away from me."
According to Environment Canada studies in the 1970s, overall particulate
emissions from the coke ovens alone amounted to "5,680 pounds (2,576 kilograms)
per day in 1972 and are estimated at 11,560 pounds (5,243 kilograms) per day in
The public first heard there was a problem in the 1990s when steelworkers found
a 1985 study at Sysco warning the province to put pollution controls on the
coke ovens or risk a rise in death and disease among Sydney residents.
Sydney has one of the highest rates of cancer and death in Canada and also leads
the nation in the incidence of some other diseases. Residents also have shorter
lifespans, according to government studies.
In 2002, government-funded studies showed hundreds of people who live on toxic
soil in Whitney Pier and elsewhere have a theoretical risk of developing cancer
or disease from constant exposure to their properties.