Thursday, March 25, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

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 in Sydney.

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 cancer-causing goo.

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 them harm.

"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 toxic substances.

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 1975."

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.