The homecoming was bittersweet. On Sept. 10, after 18 days of living in hotels and with friends, computer programmer Jean-Pierre Girard, his wife and two children moved back into their bungalow at 172 de la Montagne St. They were among 3,000 residents of St-Basile-le-Grand, Que., and two other south shore communities near Montreal who were allowed to return home after authorities declared the end of a PCB emergency. Girard and his neighbors, clearly happy to be home, promptly began household chores, including cutting neglected lawns and washing cars. But last week, as residents awaited word of what compensation they
Many residents are worried about long-term health risks from the big warehouse fire
could hope to receive from the Quebec government, all was not yet well in the troubled community 40 km southeast of Montreal. Said Girard two days after his return: “We still have not seen the birds come back. People are wondering why there are no birds.”
The eerie absence of songbirds in the area was only one sign last week of the effects of the Aug. 23 fire at a dilapidated warehouse containing barrels of oil laced with the toxic polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs are known to cause birth defects and liver damage and, in laboratory tests, have caused cancer in animals. And while many residents expressed their concerns about long-term health risks from the fire, the Quebec government got on with a massive and costly clean-up job. Indeed, 3,800 barrels of toxic liquids remained in the badly damaged warehouse, and since the Aug. 23 blaze, firemen had been called back to the scene three times to deal with small fires. The exteriors of all homes in the area also still had to be decontaminated. As well, officials said on Sept. 9 that tainted fruit, vegetables and grain from surrounding farms would be burned.
Also under debate was the issue of who was ultimately responsible for the disaster— and the question of what compensation, if any, the displaced residents would receive for having to move out of their homes for almost three weeks. Although some lawsuits have already been launched, officials at the Quebec bar association warned that resorting to the courts could result in a legal quagmire and advised residents to negotiate a compensation package with the Quebec government. At the same time, local community-service clinics were gearing up last week for followup programs to help people face what could be years of stressful legal battles, financial and psychological difficulties and health concerns related to the fire and evacuation.
Indeed, such concerns have cast a pall over St-Basile, Ste-Julie and St-Bruno—normally quiet, middle-class bedroom communities where the majority of residents commute daily to jobs in Montreal. On Sept. 9, officials
A legal battle looms over what compensation— if any-St-Basile’s residents will receive
tried to allay some of the fears by releasing the findings of a panel of 10 scientists—including experts from the Geneva-based World Health Organization—before allowing people to go home. The experts, hurriedly assembled by the Quebec government, concluded unanimously after exhaustive testing of soil, air and water that the cloud of toxic smoke from the fire had done less damage than had at first been feared. The scientists declared in their report that the interiors of houses in the affected area were not contaminated. And Quebec Environment Minister Clifford Lincoln said that the scientists had detected only minute outdoor traces of PCBlaced oil “here and there.” Accordingly, the government ordered that all homes be professionally cleaned and that all crops in the adjacent rich farming country be destroyed.
Most residents of the St-Basile area wasted no time in returning to their homes. Forty-eight hours after the all-clear signal, more than 90 per cent of them had left their temporary quarters and claimed the passes at police checkpoints that allowed them into the secured area. Quebec Police Force officers who supervised the homecoming operation said that there were no reports of serious problems, looting or damage to homes. Declared Johanne Gagné of Champagne Street, who has two children and is pregnant with a third: “It was not an easy experience, but all of us just want to get things back to normal.”
About 60 families initially refused to go home, saying they were not convinced that the danger was passed. But by the middle of last week, after more meetings with scientists and government officials, most members of that group had decided to go home. “We have been reassured that there is no danger now,” said Denis Paquin, the group’s spokesman. “But a lot of us also feel that things are not exactly as they were before in our homes. Not everyone is going home with smiles on their faces.”
In one indication of continuing discontent, lawyers filed at least three class-action suits on behalf of residents, as well as several individual lawsuits. Lawyer Michel La Roche, an area resident and co president of the local citizens’ committee, told Maclean’s that the main targets for lawsuits would be the municipality of St-Basile, the warehouse owner, the Quebec government and Hydro-Quebec, whose PCB-laced oil was stored inside the warehouse. But La Roche, and indeed other lawyers, warned residents that lawsuits would be long and very risky affairs.
Indeed, in the wake of the fire, officials at the Quebec bar association said that the potential legal implications of the disaster are so enormous that they were establishing a special advice clinic for residents. The bar association has advised citizens to protect their future right to sue by making sure that proper notices of claim—the first step in a lawsuit—were filed with authorities before the deadlines imposed by law. As a result, several thousand such notices were filed within 15 days of the fire.
At the same time, though, the association has cautioned people against clogging the courts with unnecessary, frustrating and costly legal battles—and to negotiate a comprehensive settlement package with the Quebec government. “We feel that the normal court processes are not the proper avenue to settle something like this,” Guy Gilbert, the head of the bar association, told Maclean’s. “Trying to establish blame in court for this would be a very risky venture for most ordinary citizens and might take years.”
To that end, the St-Basile citizens’ committee has drawn up a list of demands that includes provisions for a special law to compensate residents for financial losses and damage to their health, even if such damage is detected years from the date of the fire. Said committee spokesman Pierre Boisclair: “None of us wants to have to go to court. All we want is what is fair.”
In fact, the majority of people in the StBasile area are awaiting an official offer from the province. For its part, the Liberal government of Premier Robert Bourassa has already advanced money to residents to cover some expenses. And the government apparently has accepted the fact that it must pay some form of compensation. Supply and Services Minister Gilles Rocheleau, who is responsible for civil protection matters, is working with his cabinet colleagues to design what government spokesmen describe as a “financial aid package” for the people of StBasile. But there was no indication last week of when the aid package would be ready or how complete the payments would be. And Sylvie Maturin, a spokesman for Rocheleau, said, “We are developing a program now to pay for people’s expenses and losses, but it would surprise me enormously to see anything resembling a damage settlement.”
The bill for even basic losses could prove to be staggering. Temporary lodging and restaurant meals for the evacuees alone, according to the preliminary total last week, cost approximately $4 million. That figure does not include fire-fighting and decontamination costs, overtime for police and other government workers, reduced real estate values, destruction of crops and lost business for as many as 200 businesses located inside the evacuated zone. Said Marie Andrée Jobin, a provincial environment department aide: “It is too early to tally up the cost, but we are talking about millions and millions of dollars.”
Meanwhile, in the wake of the fire, Quebec authorities have moved to tighten up regulations regarding the storage of PCBs in the province. There are now more than 500 PCB storage sites in Quebec, and by the end of this month, government officials say that they hope to have inspected all sites with two or more tons of PCBs. The government also intends to inspect all smaller PCB sites by the end of November and has introduced new standards for storage sites, including complete concrete floors, noncombustible building materials and smoke, heat and burglar alarms. Violation of those standards will now result in higher fines, with the minimum increasing to $30,000 from $5,000 and the maximum to $1 million from $50,000.
At the same time, Quebec police last week continued their investigation into the business affairs of the major shareholder of the ill-fated warehouse, Marc Levy of Montreal. According to one report in the Montreal Gazette, Levy had told a business acquaintance that he was contemplating returning to Quebec from Florida—where he lives part time. Meanwhile, on Aug. 31, police charged Alain Chapleau, a 27-year-old laborer, with arson in connection with the fire, which burned out of control throughout the night of Aug. 23. Chapleau, who since his arrest has been held in Montreal’s Parthenais Detention Centre without bail, was scheduled to have his preliminary hearing on Sept. 21.
But that was of little consequence for the people most directly affected by the disaster. Indeed, workers at the community-service clinic in the St-Basile area said that they were bracing for an expected wave of residents suffering postdisaster symptoms such as depression, anxiety and heightened family problems. In fact, clinic director Jean-Yves Leblanc has asked the provincial government for a special budget of $250,000 to deal with such problems over the next six months. Said Leblanc: “People have been very anxious, and we will have to help them manage this stress somehow.” Still, it may be years before life in St-Basile returns to normal.
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