by Andrew Chung
Published on Monday, January 10, 2011 by The Toronto Star
MONTREAL—Marie-Paule Spieser won’t drink water from a tap. Any tap. Anywhere.
Such is the psychological legacy of learning 10 years ago that the well from which she and her young children were drawing their drinking water was laced with a toxic chemical, trichloroethylene, at levels considered unsafe by public health authorities.
She watched a best friend die of a rare liver cancer. She saw so many others in their small military town stricken with various forms of the disease. Among them was a couple, each diagnosed with intestinal cancer, improbably the same kind as the previous owner of their house.
Spieser thinks about her kids, who were just 3 and 5 years old when they moved into their house in Shannon, a town next to CFB Valcartier, near Quebec City. They drank the well water. They bathed in it. They’re now 23 and 25.
“I’m scared mostly for them,” she said. “I’m scared for this entire generation. It’s like making a 2-year-old child smoke.”
On Monday, those worries will be laid bare in Quebec’s Superior Court, as the trial in a huge class-action lawsuit against the federal government and two private companies finally begins.
Scheduled to last up to six months, the trial pits Spieser, on behalf of the hundreds of current and former residents of Shannon, against the Attorney General of Canada, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems-Canada Inc. (GD-OTS) and Société immobilière Valcartier.
The latter, a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin, owns the land where plants pumped out munitions during World War II. SNC-Lavalin purchased the factories in the 1980s and grouped them in a division called SNC-TEC. That was later acquired by General Dynamics.
The class-action suit is asking $200 million in punitive damages for the roughly 2,000 people who have so far registered to take part, in addition to individual financial damages.
The suit alleges the government and these companies were negligent in handling and disposing of trichlorethylene (TCE) and in informing the public of the dangers once they were known.
It claims the TCE migrated into their drinking water and that many cancers and other health problems found in Shannon — at rates much higher than in the normal population, according to their medical experts — are the result of exposure to TCE. The allegations haven’t been proven in court.
The government intends to show the suit has “no basis.”
The plaintiffs, for instance, must prove that any health problems were recognized scientifically as being linked to TCE.
“We intend to demonstrate to the court that this is not the case,” justice department spokeswoman Francine Robichaud indicated.
TCE is a man-made substance whose use has diminished since the 1970s. It was used as an industrial degreaser and in military equipment maintenance.
The class-action suit names witnesses who suggest the TCE was buried or dumped into garbage pits and lagoons for years.
One report on tests of an aquifer that supplied water to the factories showed levels of TCE up to 71 milligrams per litre – about 1,500 times higher than the recommended safe level for drinking. The factories didn’t close until 1991.
However, it wasn’t until December, 2000 that public health authorities, alerted to tests being done by SNC-Lavalin itself on wells in the area, informed residents of the problem.
In a 2008 report cited by the plaintiffs, Quebec City toxicologist Raymond Van Coillie says there were five times more cancers in 55 residences exposed to TCE in Shannon compared to 55 residences not exposed.
Spieser’s 25-metre well was pronounced safe and clean when it was dug. Yet nearly from the outset she began suffering gastric problems, nausea and fatigue. Over the years doctors thought it was an ulcer. She thought it was her diet.
It wasn’t until she took a vacation outside the region in 1998 that she felt better. She thereafter switched to bottled water and her health problems dissipated, she claims.
The plaintiffs also suggest they have, through a lab in the U.S., been able to trace cancers in Shannon to use of the industrial solvents.
But others think the links aren’t so obvious. Health Canada’s own website states: “An association between any specific type of cancer and exposure to trichloroethylene has not been consistently observed (in studies).” Nor is there consistent evidence of effects on human development.
The plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, Charles Veilleux, argues this is like the tobacco companies denying any link between smoking and cancer.
“The fact that those companies still claim that is irrelevant,” Veilleux said, “because people know (the truth).”
“The fact that for years TCE was dumped into the environment and was percolating to reach underground water, it’s a disaster.”
GD-OTS didn’t respond to a request for comment. SNC-Lavalin has forwarded all questions to the government.