Island of woe

Elizabeth Gray November 3 1980

Island of woe

Elizabeth Gray November 3 1980

Island of woe


Elizabeth Gray

The fainthearted may choose to skip to the end of this story, but if they do they will miss its point. The point is not that there will soon be a study done on the environmental fluoride poisoning of human beings on the St. Regis Mohawk Reserve on Cornwall Island in the St. Lawrence River (Maclean's, July 30, 1979). The point of the story is how the political process has prevented such a study from being done for more than a decade.

The story varies with the many participants over the years: bureaucrats, scientists, lawyers, diplomats, politicians elected and nonelected, captains of industry and the Mohawk farmers and their families on St. Regis. The versions conflict at many points and jibe at others. There are, as former Conservative health minister David Crombie puts it, “many hidden agendas.” Crombie’s own agenda, in the summer of 1979, was only one of many never completed.

Last week the process, having run its course through a maze of power centres and vested interests, came to rest in Ottawa. Here the brokers of the Treasury Board had to decide how high a price to put on human health. The asking price was $1.6 million.

The Mohawks on St. Regis had been successful dairy farmers for more than a century—until 1959. That was the year Reynolds Metal Co. built its aluminum processing plant across the St. Lawrence River in Massena, N.Y. With

few pollution controls, Reynolds spent its first 10 years of operation spewing 300 lb. of fluoride emissions an hour directly downstream to Cornwall Island and St. Regis. Even after New York state regulations forced the company to reduce its emissions to 75 lb. an hour by 1975, Reynolds’ gift to the St. Regis Indians had been an appalling 25 million lb. of airborne fluoride contaminants over the past 20 years.

The Mohawk way of life has become the victim of a man-made industrial plague. The once-healthy 350 head of cattle have dwindled now to a crippled, stunted herd of less than 100. Birds have flown away; bees have disap-

peared; crop yields have fallen. The white pine line the shore like dried skeletons.

First signs of trouble to plant and animal life had appeared in the early ’60s. By the early ’70s the Indians began to suspect, not illogically, that their own health might be endangered. Across the border, Reynolds’ officials stoutly insisted the company’s emissions were now within state safety limits. From time to time company representatives visited the reserve offering compensation, per cow, to individual farmers. Health officials in Ottawa, under pressure from St. Regis, conceded a possible link between the aluminum plant and the dying cattle, but refused to acknowledge that human health might be at risk. There was no evidence that fluoride emissions injured humans, Ottawa insisted.

Indeed there was no evidence. The National Research Council’s John Marier, who at the time was working on a fledgling NRC report on environmental fluorides, agrees that “there had been very little work done on fluorides at that point. The existing data was very meagre.” If the existing data is any less meagre today, it is due to the dogged persistence of the St. Regis Indians.

In June, 1977, the International Joint Commission held public hearings in Massena on the Reynolds-St. Regis problem. In addition to airing a lot of breast-beating, the hearings gave the problem official status on the ongoing bilateral agenda between Ottawa and Washington. Trans-boundary environmental bureaucrats got out their briefing books.

A second and unofficial result was that a number of strangers met for the first time at Massena. One was George Hunter, an Ottawa lawyer interested in environmental matters. Another was Lloyd Tataryn, a journalist soon to publish the book Dying for a Living about the politics of industrial pollution in Canada. Tataryn was working for the National Indian Brotherhood at the time and advising the St. Regis band. The band invited Hunter to act as legal counsel.

Hunter soon discovered the Indians were developing an agenda of their own. Right at the top was legal action against Reynolds in the U.S. courts. Fed up with waiting for help from the feds, they had commissioned their own studies: one, from Lennart Krook of Cornell University, on the cattle, another, from Clancy Gordon of the University of Montana, on the state of the reserve’s vegetation.

Hunter had to decide whether this was enough to take into court. After consulting with environmental lawyers south of the border he realized that, despite Krook and Gordon, the avail-

able data was still too meagre. “We needed a full epidemiological study on the effects of fluoride on human health,” Hunter recalls. “Such a thing had just never been done at St. Regis. So we had to find a guy to do it and convince the feds to finance it.”

Tataryn turned up Bertram Carnow, professor and director of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois and well-known in Canada for his work in Kitimat, B.C., on fluorides and in Red Lake, Ont., on arsenic. Of Carnow,Tataryn says, “He’s the kind of guy who makes all public health officials look silly.” Says Hunter, “Over

at Health and Welfare, Carnow was regarded as very much a hired gun.”

But he agreed to do the study and, by the beginning of 1978, negotiations for federal funding were in full swing. Marked by acrimony and mistrust on both sides, the Carnow period in St. Regis politics almost saw agreement at one point on a $500,000 proposal. But the government wanted a bureaucrats’ committee to monitor Carnow’s work and, most important of all to the Indians, it wanted control over the use of the study. It became clear to Hunter that the question of who headed the study was no less important than the future use the Indians made of it. He recalls one incident in February, 1978.

“There were bilateral meetings scheduled in Washington and St. Regis was to be on the agenda. We asked for observer status and External Affairs turned us down. So we went anyway. I got a phone call from a Canadian government official telling us to go home, that we were embarrassing Canada! The next day the U.S. state department volunteered to brief us on what had gone on. But our own government wouldn’t deal with us. They didn’t want the Indians to get the wherewithal to swing on their own.”

Shortly after the Washington episode,

the Carnow negotiations ended in angry stalemate. Ottawa told the band that $500,000 was too much money. The long, cold winter of 1978-79 began—and when it was over a federal election had been called. Liberal Health Minister Monique Bégin was succeeded by Conservative David Crombie, a man who knows a hidden agenda when he sees one. St. Regis reminded Crombie of “those old urban rumbles” in Toronto’s Cabbagetown that had launched his political career in the ’60s.

Bertram Carnow was still the bête noire of his officials and the favorite son of the Indians. Not wanting to de-

cide himself, Crombie suggested that an outsider, Dr. David Parkinson, formerly of Toronto and an activist in lead pollution, lead a team of international scientists to decide who should do the St. Regis study. Unspoken was the understanding that the Parkinson team would endorse Carnow. In writing was the assurance from Crombie that the Indians could make use of the study “in other jurisdictions.”

A letter from External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald arrived for Crombie shortly thereafter, stressing that the interests of private citizens must be handled across the border by appropriate government officials. “There was a sniff of territorial imperative about the letter,” Crombie recalls, and he replied that nothing would be defined until Parkinson finished his work.

But Parkinson never did finish and Bertram Carnow never got the job. The Indians claim Parkinson vetoed Carnow because he wanted the job himself; Crombie says the Parkinson team had doubts about Carnow’s professionalism. But the wrangling was still unresolved when the Clark government fell and Crombie suffered a heart attack. When Monique Bégin returned to her old portfolio last February, one of her first acts, at the request of the band, was to termi-

nate Parkinson’s work. Her second was to initiate yet another study.

In May she announced that Dr. Irving Selikoff, of the prestigious Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, would start work immediately. This Selikoff did, collecting samples over the summer and setting plans in motion for the world’s first major study on the reaction of humans to the environmental contamination of fluorides. But even that study was almost stillborn when the Treasury Board last August discovered the price: $1.6 million, a far cry from Carnow’s modest $500,000. For two months the Treasury Board stalled

and Bégin lobbied; last week, sitting in his band council office on St. Regis, Lawrence Francis got word that the study would be funded.

After he had told his staff, Francis lost no time in calling the Washington lawyer who is seeking an injunction on behalf of the band against Reynolds Metals in federal district court. The goahead to Selikoff will immeasurably strengthen their case, although they already have some powerful ammunition. In addition to the studies commissioned by the Indians, including Bertram Carnow’s preliminary report, they have a letter from Canada’s U.S. ambassador, Peter Towe. In an ironic departure from previous policy, Towe says Canada supports the right of private citizens to fight trans-boundary disputes on their own.

One can only hope it’s not too late for St. Regis,where a once-prosperous agricultural community is now down to eight barns and eight farmers and schoolchildren who show alarming signs of chronic fatigue. “I have nothing left to do but maintain the fight,” says Francis. “I only have nothing but to be optimistic.” t;£>