Legal Test Comes At Last

There's a sense of inevitability to a legal test of pollution liability

Editorial: Cape Breton Post
Saturday, July 26, 2003

The Issue: Lawsuit Looking Real This Time

The threat of lawsuits over the pollution legacy of Sydney's steel industry has been brandished so often that it's going to take more than the filing of some court papers to convince many that this latest legal battle plan is for real. By all appearances, though, the case spearheaded by Halifax lawyer Ray Wagner is the one that will finally put the question of broad legal liabilities to some kind of test.

There is a certain sense of necessity in this. It is hard to imagine closing the book on Sydney's industrial aftermath without someone taking a serious shot at the legal option. Wagner's firm, partnering with an Ontario lawfirm with experience in class actions, is putting together the batch of lawsuits against a list of defendants that will include governments and Crown industrial corporations that were involved in the steel industry, as well as some private companies such as Domtar.

Wagner has said he has some 200 potential plaintiffs lined up - people claiming their health has been harmed by pollutants associated with the steel industry, or their property in the vicinity of the tar ponds or former coke ovens has been seriously devalued.

To many, this will look like a slam-dunk on one count or both. It may not matter in the outcome but, especially outside the immediate Sydney area, public perception would be expected to be skewed heavily towards an assumption that industrial pollution is having profound and deadly effects on the local population.

Closer to the action, anyone who's tried to absorb the migraine inducing stack of studies documenting soil contamination, elevated incidence of deadly diseases, and poor birth outcomes knows how elusive the scientific connections among these are. Some epidemiological work has been strongly suggestive of environmental factors, but that and a loonie will buy you a cup of coffee in a paper cup.

Among the plaintiffs will be many who are sincerely convinced that steel industry pollution, past and residual, is killing them and their families, and that governments don't give a damn. One might discount their evidence as merely anecdotal, but one cannot deny their conviction - nor, in many cases, their anguish.

As well, it should be possible to show that property values, though the Muggah Creek perimeter wasn't high-rent to begin with, have tanked. One might debate whether this is the fault of industrial pollution per se, or of the protracted commotion over the cleanup with all the attendant health and environmental studies and the scary headlines. In either case, there would be an argument that the blame lies somewhere among the named defendants.

Whether there's a compelling court brief to be made out of all this is a judgment that only informed legal experts can make at this stage. Wagner and company say they've made that judgment in deciding to finance the front-end costs, which would amount to several hundred thousand dollars, in hopes of sharing in a settlement in the tens of millions.

Outside of this legal frame, there's one broad sense in which the people of the perimeter undeniably have been cheated. There was a time when anger over destroyed property values, for example, could be rebuffed with visions of a remediated city centre. Just wait, people were told; that will be one of the most aesthetically attractive and environmentally clean areas of the community. People will feel safe again, the pall will lift, and property values will begin to climb to historic highs.

Perhaps someday it will all come true. But the people most affected can hardly be faulted for giving up on that future.