Residents launch lawsuit

By Tanya Collier MacDonald
Cape Breton Post
Friday, March 28, 2003

More than 160 residents living near Canada's worst toxic waste site are claiming their lives have been adversely affected by it and are planning to sue those they claim are responsible.

Iris Crawford, a native of Whitney Pier and one of the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit was sparked by government's insistence in 2002 that residents living near the contamination sign a waiver before remediation work could be done on their private property.

"I think more people would have went for remediation without that stipulation," she said.

Government offered remediation to residents living north of the coke ovens after soil testing in the community showed extremely high levels of arsenic, lead, toluene, benzene, cadmium and a slew of other contaminants higher than acceptable levels. Government has said the contamination wasn't due to the migration of chemicals from the coke ovens site.

Crawford said she believes the attempt to clean up some properties neighbouring the site was futile.

"If remediation is on the table, it should be on the table for everyone."

Ray WagnerThe plaintiff's lawyer, Ray Wagner, of the Halifax law firm Wagner and Associates, said civil proceedings against a host of possible defendants could be filed by the end of April.

He said a final decision on who will be named in the suit going forward as a representative action has yet to be finalized.

Defendants being considered include the federal and provincial governments plus a number of private companies that operated on or near the Sydney tar ponds and coke ovens site when the steel plant was in operation.

Among the allegations residents will be claiming are widespread contamination from a chemical recovery plant, a nearby railbed, and the spraying of PCBs to eliminate dust when the steel plant was in operation.

In addition, findings from a recently released health report by epidemiologists Pierre Band and Michel Camus will likely be used in the case. The two scientists authored the study Mortality Rates Within Sydney, Nova Scotia, By Exposure Areas To Airborne Coke Ovens and Steel Mill Emissions: 1961-1988.

The report concluded that between 1961 and 1988, men and women living next to the operating steel mill died of lung cancer, respiratory diseases and cardiovascular diseases at a higher rate than their Canadian counterparts.

"Despite inherent limitations of mortality studies the significantly increased lung cancer mortality among males and particularly among females in Whitney Pier suggests the possibility of an environmental exposure as a risk factor," reported Band.

During the 28-year timeframe, a total of 308 excess deaths (11 per year) were observed for lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in Whitney Pier and Ashby areas, when compared to a neighbouring area with historically low levels of airborne emissions. That number increased to 476 extra deaths when compared to national rates during the same time period.

Those findings will be in addition to other studies the law firm plans to conduct on its own as well as any other information that advances the position of the claimants, said Wagner.

"This will be a groundbreaking case. We have a very good chance of success."

Wagner said he believes the civil case could take between two and six years and "tens of millions of dollars" will likely be sought as compensation for the claimants.

Along with compensation, Wagner said there is a wider issue of public policy in how government deals with industries that pollute less affluent areas of the country.