Former Frederick Street resident recalls horror of toxic backyard

By Tanya Collier Macdonald
Cape Breton Post
Tues., May 16, 2006

Sydney - The horror of having an industrial waste site for a backyard was played out by a former Frederick Street resident as the final days of joint review panel hearings continued in Sydney, Monday.

"The first week of April (1998), I started feeling really sick with headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, grit in (my) mouth and burning eyes," said Debbie Ouellette. "My headaches were so bad, I thought I had a brain tumour."

The mother of three children didn't connect the symptoms she was experiencing that spring to anything in particular. It wasn't until she stepped out her back door and saw workers on the coke ovens site dressed in white clothing that her new reality began to emerge. Standing there, dressed in regular street clothes, she saw her toxic neighbourhood for what it really was - a sleeping monster.

That "monster" stirred when a contractor hired by the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Public Works started poking at it with its bulldozers and excavators.

During the work, signs were posted on steel fences warning of a human health hazard.

"We had no idea what that meant," said Ouellette.

The contractor was hired to remove above-ground structures, which included coal piles on the site. While the work was underway, pungent odours from newly uncovered coal tar spread to nearby streets, including Frederick Street in Whitney Pier. When complaints from Frederick Street residents became too frequent, the work stopped.

That spring, Ouellette saw bright yellow and orange seeps in a brook that travelled near her property and had a history of spilling into her backyard.

The brook was tested and found to have unacceptable amounts of arsenic. Ouellette said she remembered how often that same brook, now known to be loaded with arsenic, migrated onto her property.

"They placed an orange mesh fence to keep pets and children out of the brook," said Ouellette. "This was a joke."

In August of 1998, Ouellette used her video recorder to capture a huge patch of thick, black goo on property outside the coke ovens site. An employee from Environment Canada sampled the goo and found it to have naphthalene 166,000 times higher than Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment guidelines, she told panel members.

Ouellette was brought to tears Monday when she recalled the final days her family lived in their Frederick Street home.

"We had a heavy rain again," she said. "Steven, our son, went down to the basement to work on his bike. He came back upstairs and said, "'Mommy, that orange stuff is in the basement.'"

When she saw the patch on the floor, she began to shake. She grabbed her video camera once again and started to record. Then she locked the door, allowing only government officials to take samples of the material. When it was confirmed to contain high levels of arsenic, Ouellette warned the government that if any of her three children got arsenic poisoning from living in the family home, "there would be hell to pay."

The following day, Ouellette's family was moved to a nearby hotel.

"We stayed there for 37 days," she said. "Our homes were worth nothing. We lived on contaminated land for years and didn't know. Government knew. They bought our homes out of compassion, not because I had arsenic in my basement."

The Frederick Street homes bought by government were eventually torn down.

"My fears of the unknown will always be with me," she said. "Residents who lived in and around these sites paid the price. The millions of dollars spent in the last 20 years could have moved an army away from those toxic sites."

Ouellette's concern didn't stop when her home was demolished.

Work to remove above-ground structures at the coke ovens site resumed in 2002 under the direction of the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. Ouellette recounted how on April 4, 2002, asbestos was removed from the byproducts building.

"No stationary monitors were on."

On April 5, 2002, she filmed that same building crashing to the ground and the orange clouds of dust that mushroomed into the air.

"The plume of orange dust was huge and the smell of gases were on my clothes," she said. "I was quite a distance from the site."

And, as recently as April 27, 2006, Ouellette said residents complained about headaches and other symptoms for days. A newspaper article alerted the neighbourhood that samples of sludge were taken from a cooling pond on the site.

"Every time we have an ache or pain, we think it's cancer," said Ouellette. "It's our health and our animals that are going to be affected on this side of the fence."

Les Ignasiak, a consultant for TD Environmental, poked holes in the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency's plan to encapsulate the tar ponds and coke ovens sites. His presentation was followed by Fred Lee, an expert working on behalf of Sierra Club of Canada. Both focused on the inadequacy and unreliability of the proposed plan to cap the tar ponds and coke ovens sites.

"As I look at (the environmental impact statement), it has significant long-term technical problems," said Lee.

He then described how the agency's plan to solidify and stabilize tar pond sediment is marred. He said that the tar ponds are unique because of their high organic compounds.

"There is no other place that's going to be like this," he said.

He found issues with the proposed clay barrier, liner thickness, the site's fractured bedrock, and a host of unregulated chemicals in the sediment.

"It's not going to work."

Lee recommended that the sites monitoring program continue for an infinite amount of time and funding be made available to keep it going. Up to $400 million is allocated by provincial and federal governments for the project's completion as well as 25 years of monitoring.

"That's just the start of the problems you're going to have," said Lee. "The likelihood of sediment being in the condition to walk away, there's no possibility of that. It's simply wrong."

Ouellette's wish list

What Debbie Ouellette, former Frederick Street resident, would 'love' to see happen:

  • If people need to be moved out of harm's way, it has to be done before the site is disturbed.

  • Place red zones around the coke ovens and tar ponds. It's a must.

  • Real-time air monitors have to be on at all times when work is taking place at the sites. We want written guarantees that this will happen.

  • I would like a cleanup, not a coverup. Just covering it over does not get rid of the problem.

  • Cover all areas when work is underway at the coke ovens and tar ponds sites. Domes can be built on football fields. Why can't they do the same here.

  • Look at all the technologies that will clean the site once and for all.

  • No incineration - period. This was the least preferred option in JAG workbooks and and 4,565 people signed a petition in less than 36 hours, stating that they do not want incineration.Placing an incinerator at Victoria Junction (wash plant) is the worst nightmare.

  • Tell the truth. Be honest. We trust no one.

  • We need to see all documents - costs and audits.

  • Local jobs. People need to be put to work.

Read Ouellette's submission to the Panel

Cleanup in a click
Web sites that provide information on the joint panel process and the remediation plan include:

Picture not available for caption below:
Debbie Ouellette, right, is a former Frederick Street resident who presented her experience of living next to Sydney's toxic sites during joint review panel hearings in Sydney, Monday. Supporting her were friends Marlene Kane, and Neila MacQueen, left.