Tar ponds legal battle comes to an end

Cape Breton Post
Aug 27, 2015

Sydney - The end of the line has come for Sydney residents hoping to sue the provincial and federal governments for the legacy of contamination left behind by a century of steelmaking.

While a Nova Scotia Supreme Court justice had certified a class-action lawsuit, it was overturned on appeal. Lawyers for the representative plaintiffs had sought leave to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, but it wouldn't hear the case. Lawyer Ray Wagner recently held a meeting in Sydney to see how residents wanted to proceed and said Tuesday that not enough people wanted to go ahead with individual lawsuits, given how costly and complex the litigation would be. "There's not a chance that somebody is the community is going to have the resources to be able to marshal a case again, even as a test case," Wagner said. An order against the plaintiffs to pay more than $700,000 in costs to the two levels of government likely played a role in prospective plaintiffs worrying about their financial futures if they proceeded with a lawsuit and were unsuccessful, Wagner said. He described the reactions of the plaintiffs as disappointed but understanding. "They know the difficulty that we were in, that we had to face a cost award of $742,000. The fact that that was charged against the representative plaintiffs really had a scaring impact on a lot of residents," he said.

Wagner said the case's end brought mixed emotions, including regret due to the ultimate outcome, but he remained proud of what the representative plaintiffs and the lawyers involved with the lawsuit put into the case. "It was something that we truly believed in," he said. It's been a long road for the Sydney residents involved, as the lawsuit was first filed in 2004 by Neila MacQueen, Joe Petitpas, Ann Ross and Iris Crawford, seeking compensation and a medical monitoring fund for contamination resulting from the operation of the steel plant between 1967 and 2000.

The plaintiffs alleged that airborne emissions from the operation of the steel plant and coke ovens caused damage to themselves and their properties.

For MacQueen, the end of the lawsuit will mean a new phase in her life. She plans to sell the Dorchester Street home she's lived in since 1983 and move elsewhere in the Sydney area - somewhere she says is not contaminated. "I just can't handle it anymore," said MacQueen, who often points out that she battled lung cancer despite never having smoked in her life. She remains fiercely proud of what the plaintiffs did, saying she believes Open Hearth Park on the remediated tar ponds site wouldn't be a reality if not for their legal fight.

The quashing of the class action left the people of Sydney with no access to justice, MacQueen said. "It was such a long process, we've been at it for 14 years. I do not regret one minute of it and if I had to, I would definitely do it over again," she said. "I said to Ray the day I met him, 'I'm not in it for the money, I'm in it so the government and the people know that I knew the difference. They hurt the people here in Sydney tremendously.'"

Wagner said he hopes there will still be a dialogue about what he called the intolerable situation facing people who live in moderately to severely contaminated areas. "People have a right to live in a safe and what is a non-toxic environment," he said. As for the legacy of the case, Wagner suggested that government should "bow their heads in shame" that the policy used in responding to the claim didn't take into account the interests of the people affected.

Tar ponds lawsuit

  • The lawsuit against the provincial and federal governments was first filed in 2004.
  • About 400 people signed on to the lawsuit.
  • Claimants all lived within 3.2 kilometres of the steel plant and coke ovens sites.
  • The suit could have included about 6,000 properties and more than 15,000 people.