Dear Shannon, Québec,
I am very sorry your drinking water was contaminated too, and that people in your community became ill, with the courts, regulators and government – so far – failing to do what needs to be done to hold SNC-Lavlin Group Ltd. and the government appropriately accountable.
You have incredible integrity and courage, and stood united as a community; you have already been hugely victorious and may be more so. That makes it worth trying and to keep going! Please, keep going! I know how brutally painful it is to be civil plaintiffs in Canada’s legal industry, but, please, keep going. Your case benefits us all, and our drinking water.
Sincerely all my love and support,
PS The real victory is in the doing. The doing will show future generations the deep extent of corporate control of our courts and “regulators” when our youth read these horridly anti-citizen, anti-health, anti-water, pro-polluter rulings.
Thirsting for justice in Shannon, 20 years after tainted-water scandal, Twenty years after learning their water was contaminated, residents of Shannon, QC, are debating whether to keep fighting for their cause by Jesse Feith, Feb 29, 2020, Montreal Gazette
SHANNON, QC — Maintenance workers loaded the 45-gallon barrels into their trucks and went into the “mountains,” as they called the area, to dump the waste into pre-dug holes the size of large classrooms.
Sometimes a bulldozer would follow and pour soil over the barrels to bury them. Other times, the workers would empty the barrels directly onto the ground, their contents slowly oozing out like molasses.
The few workers who would later agree to speak about the dumpsites described them as swamp-like, brimming with a dark liquid and void of any vegetation. On clear days, the sun would reflect off the surface like a mirror.
Among the waste contained in the barrels was trichloroethylene, a chemical solvent and carcinogen more commonly known as TCE.
It was used on the Valcartier military base, northwest of Quebec City, as well as at a national defence research centre and nearby munitions factory as early as the 1940s. Workers would apply TCE during different phases of manufacturing ammunition, most often to degrease and clean metal components.
The practice of dumping it on the grounds came to a halt around the same time federal waste disposal regulations were enacted in 1985.
But the damage had already been done.
As the toxic waste seeped into the ground, a 4.5-kilometre-long plume of contaminated groundwater travelled west from the military base toward the Jacques-Cartier River, pooling beneath the soil in the neighbouring town of Shannon.
Oblivious to it all were the town’s residents. They relied on private wells for drinking water.
In late 2000, tests conducted at one family’s house revealed disturbing results: Not only was TCE present in their water, but the concentration level was 35 times more than what Health Canada considers acceptable today.
After calculating what appeared to be a disproportionate number of illnesses and cancer cases in town — including one street where nearly every resident had fallen sick — a group of residents decided they needed to take action.
In 2003, they filed a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit against the federal government and a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. that owned the munitions factory.
Now nearly 20 years later, after two disappointing rulings and the deadline to try their chances in Supreme Court looming, residents are debating what to do next: accept the court’s findings or keep fighting.
Jean Bernier backs out of his driveway and begins driving toward Shannon’s main strip, a few blocks away from his home.
A 66-year-old retired electrical engineering teacher, Bernier is often referred to as the walking encyclopedia of the town’s battle against the federal government.
He’s lived in Shannon since the army posted his father at the Valcartier base in 1961. After spending his childhood on the base, he later built his home just outside what is now known to be one of the most contaminated residential areas in town. He raised his three children there.
“It’s a very nice place,” he says as he winds through the town’s residential streets, “especially if you don’t know what’s underneath you.”
Throughout the drive, he points to black pipes poking out from the snow. There are seemingly hundreds in the area, marking where drilling was done to test for contamination.
About 10 minutes from his home, he slows his Dodge Caravan to a halt. To his right is a series of condemned-looking buildings behind a fence lined with signs: “Danger: no admittance.”
“This is Sector 214. The worst of the worst sites,” he says, shaking his head. “Tests found 71,000 micrograms per litre here. The standard today is five. Do the math. It doesn’t make any sense.”
His words are tinged with a mix of resentment and anger all these years later.
As a child, he would often venture into the woods with friends to play around the different lagoons where employees dumped TCE.
Even then, he says, there were rumours about the toxic waste accumulating. At the time, it only fuelled childhood curiosity. To have it confirmed so many years later felt like a betrayal. Someone must have known, he says.
The town advised residents as soon as it became aware of the tests conducted in 2000. That’s much better than we got in Rosebud, Alberta and other contaminated communities in the province. Our authorities told us in letters that our dangerously explosive and toxic water is safe to live with, breath in during bathing, and ingest while refusing to tell us what toxic chemicals were intentionally injected into our drinking water aquifers.
The notices arrived in mailboxes that December as people were preparing to host for the holidays: stop drinking your water, stop bathing in it, and if you must shower, open your windows to avoid taking in vapours.
A sense of shock set in. Though 40 or so residents were convened to a meeting, hundreds showed up. They packed both floors of the local community centre, squeezing in where they could. A horde of people pushed up against the entrance. Everyone wanted to know what was going on.
“I can just remember the looks on people’s faces,” said then-mayor Clive Kiley, who had the unenviable job of trying to lead the meeting. “People were terribly upset.”
At the meeting were Bernier, Marie-Paule Spieser and Claude Juneau. By the next month, they would form a citizen’s committee that ultimately spearheaded the class-action suit. They filed access-to-information requests for all communications between the army base and local health authorities, poring over hundreds of documents spanning decades.
Juneau, 87, had worked as a family doctor in the area between 1960 and the late 1990s, including as head of pediatrics at the local hospital for 20 years. He likes to joke he not only knows everyone in town but likely brought them or a family member into the world.
People started turning to him with questions, but he didn’t have any answers. When he first heard of TCE, he was oblivious to what it was and what, exactly, it could mean for residents to have been consuming it for years.
He went to the toxicology department at the nearest university and started inquiring about the solvent. He remembers the eerie feeling that washed over him when he learned of the possible symptoms.
TCE has been known to cause kidney cancer and linked to liver cancer as well as increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It can also cause other conditions, including gastrointestinal issues, nausea, impaired heart function and skin rashes.
Juneau thought back to the abnormally high number of patients he had treated who had cancer and other illnesses he now learned could be linked to the solvent. He remembered a family of five all suffering from gastric problems. Why, he wondered, had he always filled so many prescriptions for digestive issues?
He put together medical questionnaires and began asking around town. Bravo! Brilliant!
On a small V-shaped street, in what would later become known as the “red triangle,” almost every family had been afflicted by cancer. In one house alone, three unrelated people — a couple and the previous owner — had suffered from colon cancer. The couple’s son had also died of leukemia.
“I was convinced from the beginning there were too many cases,” Juneau says today. “And you still can’t change my mind.”
The group decided early on Spieser would be the right person to be the lead plaintiff in the case, making her the public face of the battle moving forward.
Spieser, 57, lives in the “red triangle.” When she moved there in 1991, she had two young children at home. She experienced health issues that seemed to ease when she was away from home.
“I just couldn’t let it go,” she says today.
While the residents prepared their case, the town also sued the federal government.
A series of out-of-court settlements ultimately resulted in the federal government paying $35 million to build the town a new aqueduct system.
Kiley says he knew from the beginning the town’s lawsuit needed to be separated from the class-action suit: He could tell residents were ready to fight tooth and nail for their case and it would not be settled quickly.
The town, meanwhile, needed to focus on ensuring it had safe drinking water. And how tragic is that!?
“We had to try to push for a good water supply for the people,” he said, “so at least they wouldn’t be living in this fear all the time.”
The residents’ class-action request was filed in 2003 and approved in 2007. By the time it got to trial in 2011, a doctor and two nurses hired by the group had concluded there were 489 cases of cancer in the town, including 72 clustered around the most contaminated area.
The trial went on to extend over 115 days in 2011, with the court hearing a total of 74 witnesses. In what became a battle of expert witnesses, the judge heard complex and often contradictory testimony on topics like epidemiology, oncology, hydrogeology and toxicology.
He also heard testimony from 17 people who either had cancer themselves or who spoke on behalf of a family member who had fallen ill. Bernier, Spieser and Juneau attended as often as they could — as did others from the community who had lost loved ones.
Sitting around Juneau’s kitchen table on a recent weekend, the trio struggled to explain the emotions they experienced while waiting for the judge’s decision. I will never forgive the horrific stresses and agony awaiting the nine supreme court of Canada justices taking a year and a day to rule in my hearing against the AER on a very simple matter of law – does the Charter rule supreme in Canada (the law says it does, but not petro-judges). I expect they knew how they were going to rule before the hearing took place but couldn’t figure out how best to defame me to make the world stop listening to me and keep frac’ing going full steam ahead in all its abusive toxic glory.
Before the trial ever began, Bernier says, a lawyer they consulted asked them what they were hoping for. Spieser told him they were focused on three things: for the defendants to recognize their guilt, for an apology and for compensation.
Bernier recalled the lawyer leaning back and smiling widely. “Well,” he told them, “you can forget about the first two.”
Superior Court Justice Bernard Godbout rendered his 140-page decision on June 21, 2012.
In what was taken as a bitter disappointment, Godbout ruled the group had not proven the TCE was to blame for an abnormally high number of illnesses in Shannon, rejecting the causal link between the contamination and the diseases.
Godbout underlined that he heard contradicting evidence on how and when the TCE seeped into the groundwater and reached water supplies. Without tests being done at the time, it was impossible to know the TCE levels in residents’ wells throughout the years. aha, the good old standby, useful to protect corporate polluters: no baseline testing, or not enough baseline testing, or, sorry, we changed the baseline testing you did get to make it post-pollution testing, or as Encana (now Ovintiv) likes to do – lie to the media and on their website denying the baseline testing they did on my well, saying I refused to cooperate, and refused to allow the company to test my well. I asked Encana for baseline testing, and fortunately for me, Encana provided it. The results say my water poured clear, the tester did not observe any gas present. But, since the baseline testing in my case is so damning, Encana lies about it. In North America, we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t when it comes to testing of drinking water contaminated by industry, enabled by our courts and regulators.
The suit initially sought compensation for anyone living in Shannon since 1953 and members of the Canadian Forces living on the base within the town’s boundaries during the same period.
But the judge only awarded compensatory damages to what the group would later describe as a “laughably small” proportion of the population.
The court granted those who lived in the “red triangle” $1,000 for every month they lived there between December 2000 and December 2001. what an incredibly nasty insult~! The dates represent the time at which residents first learned of the contamination to when houses were connected to the municipal aqueduct system. People with children during that period were eligible for an additional $3,000 lump sum, bringing the total possible compensation to $15,000.
The ruling in effect reduced the matter to a “neighbourhood disturbance” under Quebec’s civil code. The compensation was for having been deprived of drinking water due to the contamination.
The disappointment in Shannon was immediate. Many became disengaged with the case. Of course, that’s the intent with such insulting rulings.
“We had good, qualified witnesses who were recognized as experts by the court that believed in the link and put their name behind it,” Bernier says.
“But every time they testified, the other side had two experts saying the opposite,” he adds. “It was a 180-degree difference. The judge was repeatedly faced with two experts saying completely different things. How was he supposed to decide?”
Spieser admitted to a feeling of defeat. She had put so many residents’ stories on her shoulders and felt she let them down.
But the group remained determined. They consulted with their lawyers and filed an appeal the next month, arguing the trial judge erred in law.
It would take nearly another eight years for the three judges of the Quebec Court Appeal to rule on the case — and when they did last month, again the ruling did not recognize the link between the TCE and specific health problems.
There were small victories, however.
The judges ruled residents had suffered more than a nuisance by being deprived of safe drinking water — they had also suffered fears of being exposed to TCE. The court tied those fears to the fault committed by the defendants by unsafely disposing of contaminants for so many years despite red flags about the practice.
Documents filed in the proceedings suggested the military base was aware its water supply had been contaminated as early as the mid-1980s. The munitions factory had expressed similar concerns in the early 1990s. But Shannon was never warned.
In the end, more residents were made eligible for compensation and for a longer time — five years instead of one — increasing the maximum amount some residents could receive from $15,000 to $63,000 in total.
As television reports started spreading news of the judgment, Bernier’s phone and email flooded with people calling to know what it meant. Had they won? Had they lost? Was it some sort of half-victory?
The group is still wrestling with how to interpret the judgment. There were important gains, yes, and it is a big step forward compared to 2012’s ruling. But it’s still so far off what they were initially seeking.
“The crux of the matter remains the link between TCE and the illnesses,” Spieser says. “To not have convinced the judges about it … is difficult.”
For Chantal Mallette, who lived on both the army base and near the most contaminated area in Shannon, it remains a bitter denial of justice.
When her son Alexandre fell ill, she wasn’t aware of the contamination in Shannon. After learning about it, she remembers talking to a neighbour outside.
The first thing he did was start pointing to houses in the area where people had cancer. Mallette felt numb as the magnitude of the situation sunk in.
Less than two years later, in 2009, Alexandre died of brain cancer. He was 18 years old.
Mallette has been an outspoken critic of what happened in Shannon ever since. She attended the trial as much as possible and followed the case closely when she couldn’t.
She had promised Alexandre she would, she says.
“Morally, there’s been no justice,” she says. “Money won’t bring the dead back. It won’t change anything. But as long as there’s the smallest opening, the smallest chance to appeal this, I think we need to keep fighting.” YES YES YES! Brava Brava Ms. Mallette!
The group has until March 17 to decide whether it wants to seek leave to appeal the ruling with the Supreme Court of Canada.
They’ve been meeting with their lawyers since last month, drafting lists of questions they have about the most recent judgment.
Bernier says the people he hears from who are part of the class action are split 50-50: some want to continue the fight, others wonder if they’ve taken it as far as they can.
Regardless of the outcome, there may be no decision or level of compensation that will alleviate the concerns people in Shannon continue to live with.
The contaminated plume that migrated beneath the town remains there today.
Though residents are no longer drinking TCE-laced water due to the new aqueduct system, they worry that fumes continue to creep into their homes, a phenomenon called vapour intrusion.
And with research showing TCE-linked symptoms can take years to appear, they fear for their children. If, say, someone lived in Shannon but worked outside of town, they only ingested contaminated water at home. But children in town were in it all day long: at home, at school, during sporting events.
“You do everything you can to raise your kids and make sure they’re healthy, then something beyond your control happens and no one wants to take the blame for it,” says Kerry Ann King, who raised her three children in Shannon.
King’s mother, 68, died of brain cancer in 1998. Her father, 69, suffered through colon issues before dying in 1996. Whenever her children fall sick today, she can’t help but think of the worst.
“I think, in the end, justice needs to be served,” she adds. “This is a really worthy cause because what happened just isn’t right. And it needs to be shown that it’s not right so it doesn’t happen again.” I agree.
With the years removed from the initial ruling in Superior Court, Spieser wonders whether the case was always destined to be decided in higher courts. She now sees that decision as having set the table for future action — a trampoline that could be used to the next step.
“For as long as we’ll be able to fight for certain points we think are just and fair, then we will do it,” she says. “If one day we run out of runway, then we’ll stop.”
As she says this, Juneau and Bernier speak up to repeat what they’ve said all along: They’re not doing this for themselves but for all the people who weren’t able to defend themselves.
The mood in the room becomes heavier.
Together, the three of them start listing the names of residents who have died.
As the court proceedings dragged on, the stories of those who became sick faded to the background. Names became numbers. People’s struggles with cancer were debated like statistics.
But to the group, they were always people they knew. Families they promised to fight for.
“You know, these judgments don’t make us lose our convictions,” Spieser says. “Maybe, because of the limits of the law, we’ll never have a decision that is just. But it will never change what we believe in.
“That’s why we’ve fought all these years.” And one day, one day, maybe, just maybe, a court will do the right thing for ordinary Canadians poisoned by corporate greed.
Comments to the article:
It figures that SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. was involved in this.
Take it all the way to the Supreme Court. You have to to set a precedent. What they did was just wrong and the judge should’ve seen that in all the cases of cancer. Shame on the people who did this. They knew not to drink the water and said nothing.
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