Sydney woman takes on two levels of government and wins

Cape Breton Post
Thurs, Dec 20, 2018

Sydney - A Sydney woman has reached an out-of-court settlement with the federal and provincial governments relating to the toxic and deadly legacy of nearly a century of steelmaking.

Details of the settlement are confidential but this is the second win for Debbie Ouellette, who in 2016 also scored a confidential settlement with the Sydney steel mill’s former owners, Domtar Inc. and Ispat Sidbec Inc.

While proud of her perseverance and determination to stay with the process, Ouellette is equally proud that her accomplishment was achieved on her own as a self-represented litigant. Although Ouellette filed her lawsuit in 2004, she has been fighting to hold someone accountable for the toxic pollution since first noticing an orange goo seeping into her basement on Frederick Street in 1998. Testing would later indicate the goo was arsenic and Ouellette’s property was not the only one being contaminated by leachate from the former coke ovens site located adjacent to Frederick Street. “Through those years, there were days that I felt like throwing in the towel but I knew this is what the governments were waiting for me to do. Waiting for me to give up but after 20 long years, I was in it to win it,” said Ouellette, in commenting on the settlement.

It was Ouellette’s contention that the federal and provincial governments knew, or ought to have known, that the various processes used at the plant spewed contamination throughout the community.

The toxic legacy of steelmaking in Sydney is now well-documented, in large part because of a $400-million, 10-year cleanup of the Sydney tar ponds and associated sites. Once considered North America’s largest toxic waste dump, the sites contained over 700,000 tonnes of sludge, which is more sludge than the that found in New York’s infamous Love Canal. The 51-hectare coke ovens site was found to be home to a variety of toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Testing indicated levels far exceeding national minimum standards.

Ouellette and her family lived on Frederick Street between 1984 and 1999, when they were offered settlements to relocate. While living on the street, the Ouellette’s and their neighbours all experienced symptoms of migraine headaches, burning eyes, nausea and skin rashes. “Getting all the pieces together took a lot of my time. I couldn’t let it go. It took over my life day in and day out,” said Ouellette, a mother of three.

Even after a proposed class action suit was halted, Ouellette said that didn’t deter her from stopping her drive for justice. “They were not going to keep me down no matter what they threw at me,” she said, adding she experienced many a sleepless night and cried an ocean of tears in bringing her case together for a court to review.

Poring over thousands of pages of studies and reports, reviewing hundreds of photographs and preparing countless videos, Ouellette said she was prepared to do battle in court. “This was never about money. The issue is and has always been how the coke ovens site impacted me and my family.” Ouellette said she would never have made it to the end without the help of family and friends like Marlene Kane, Neila MacQueen and William O’Neill. She also offered high praise for the efforts of Supreme Court Justice Patrick Murray who was assigned as case manager. Ouellette said her experience has shown her that laws need to be changed to prevent such suits from dragging for decades. Having devoted the better part of 20 years to her cause, Ouellette said she now plans on writing a book about her experience and maybe even doing a documentary. “Twenty years I will never get back but I don’t regret one day working on this lawsuit. I learned so much and met so many nice people through this process,” said Ouellette.