TURNED AWAY BY BRITISH PORTS, QUEBEC'S PCBs BEGIN THE LONG JOURNEY HOME TO MORE CONTROVERSY
TURNED AWAY BY BRITISH PORTS, QUEBEC'S PCBs BEGIN THE LONG JOURNEY HOME TO MORE CONTROVERSY
A chorus of jeers greeted the Soviet freighter Nadezdha Obukhova as it tied up at Liverpool’s Royal Seaforth Container Terminal last Wednesday. At dockside, a crowd of protesters led by activists of the international Greenpeace environmental organization waved placards with skull-and-crossbones emblems and slogans that read “Take it back to Quebec” and “No thanks. Take it back.” The object of their hostility: 15 sealed containers holding 180 tons of chemical wastes laced with potentially hazardous polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), transported from Montreal on the black-hulled vessel for incineration in Britain. To the
protesters’ delight, the ship pulled out only hours later without unloading the PCBs after dock workers held fast to a vow not to touch the cargo. A profoundly embarrassed Quebec government then made hurried, and equally controversial, arrangements to store the shipment along with tons of other PCB wastes at a hydroelectric station in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s isolated riding of Charlevoix, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. And in Britain, as the Soviet freighter set its return course for Canada, Greenpeace spokesman Sue Adams said, “Our hope now is that all industrial countries, including Canada, take responsibility for their own waste.”
For Quebec Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa, the sorry international saga of his province’s unwanted PCBs has threatened his attempts to make the environment a central issue of his campaign for re-election on Sept. 25. But the PCBs on board the Soviet freighter—left without a disposal site by a spectacular 1988 warehouse fire in St-Basile-le-Grand near
Montreal—also focused attention at home and abroad on the problem of housing and destroying dangerous chemical waste. In fact, the proposal to store the rejected PBCs at Quebec Hydro’s remote Manic 2 generating station— 30 km northwest of Mulroney’s home town of Baie-Comeau—immediately touched off protests. Declared BaieComeau resident Guylaine Martin: “If they don’t want them in England, then I don’t see why we have to have them here.”
The PCBs that the Nadezdha Obukhova was carrying—the second shipment from Quebec to be rejected in Britain in a week— came _ to public attention in a dra| ma tic fashion on Aug. 23, " 1988. That was when a privately owned chemical-storage warehouse filled with barrels of PCB-laced oil burst into flames near the small town of St-Basile, 40 km southeast of Montreal. Dense smoke drifted in a dark pall over neighboring farmland, and more than 3,000 local residents had to evacuate their homes for 18 days. A report on the fire, presented on Aug. 3 by Quebec Fire Commissioner Cyrille Belage, soundly criticized both the Liberals and the former Parti Québécois government for failing to adequately monitor the warehouse, which had been jammed beyond legal limits with barrels of PCB-contaminated wastes. But it was the Quebec government’s attempt to address the still-unsolved problem of how to dispose of the remaining 3,500 tons of waste not consumed by the warehouse fire that sparked the latest uproar.
Quebec environment officials apparently thought that they had dealt with the problem earlier this summer. In July, they signed a $7.9-million contract with Montreal-based Dynamis Envirotec Inc., a Canadian agent for ReChem International Ltd., a British company that owns a toxic waste disposal facility near Pontypool, Wales. Under the agreement, Quebec was to ship containers loaded with StBasile PCBs to ReChem’s Welsh plant for destruction. The contract was similar to others reached between Canadian owners of PCBs— among them, the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission—and three active commercial disposal sites in Britain over the past several years. But, while earlier shipments had arrived and been disposed of without incident,
Quebec’s agreement with ReChem coincided with a mounting campaign by the British wing of Greenpeace to stem the flow of toxic wastes into that country. Said Paul Horsman, director of the organization’s toxics unit:
“We are becoming the dumping ground of the world.
These wastes should be dealt with by the countries that produce them.”
The Quebec plan began to go awry on Aug. 9, when British Greenpeace activists in orange inflatable boats met the Soviet freighter Khodozhik Saryan, carrying PCBs from Montreal’s Dominion Textile Inc. as it tried to enter the Thames estuary port of Tilbury. Hours later, authorities turned the ship away after dock workers refused to unload the PCBs. That action set the pattern for last week’s refusal by dockers to unload the Nadezdha Obukhova and their warning that a third ship carrying PCBs from St-Basile would also be sent back to Canada.
As it became evident that the Liverpool dockers would not unload the Nadezdha Obukhova, Quebec Environment Minister Lise Bacon instructed her officials to prepare a list of alternative storage sites. And at 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 16, Bacon’s office called Baie-Comeau Mayor Roger Theriault to inform him that the PCBs would be stored nearby. An announcement of the decision, at first planned for 2 p.m. that day, was delayed for four hours, however, when Theriault and a hastily assembled delegation of other Baie-Comeau-area mayors insisted upon a meeting with Bacon in Quebec City.
The mayors demanded—and won—a number of assurances from Bacon. Among them: a guarantee that the PCBs would not be stored at the site for longer than 18 months, a promise that no other PCBs from other regions would be brought in, and an undertaking that the provincial government would act quickly to solve local PCB pollution in the St. Lawrence River from nearby industry. Said Theriault: “We are just like everyone else—we didn’t want the PCBs in our backyard, but we knew we couldn’t prevent the government from doing what it wanted. So we tried to get as much out of them as we could in return.”
At week’s end, it seemed clear that no final decision on what to do with the PCBs would be made until at least next July, when a special commission of inquiry into Quebec’s toxic waste problem is expected to deliver its report. But, even so, the province’s interim plan to store the St-Basile wastes at the Manic 2 site remained far from assured. The plan called for the two Soviet freighters to unload their hazardous cargos at Baie-Comeau on their arrival back in Canada next week. Containers from both vessels would then be transported along a winding, 30-km road to Manic 2, while the remaining 6,320 tons still in St-Basile would be moved by road to Montreal and then by ship to Baie-Comeau. But as public opposition to the plan mounted, some Baie-Comeau dock workers declared that they would refuse to handle the cargo, and 700 employees of the Manic 2 plant also threatened to block the shipment.
With the controversy over the government’s handling of the PCBs clearly far from over, the Baie-Comeau storage plan quickly became an election issue. PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau said that inspections of the Manic 2 storage site by provincial environment officials last fall and last spring revealed several violations of the standards for such facilities. The site, Parizeau said, was found to lack proper alarms and warning signs, did not have an acceptable sprinkler system and was poorly guarded. The Quebec government’s decision to place the PCBs there, said Parizeau, “was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.” But Environment Quebec spokesmen insisted that problems at the site had been rectified. Declared Bacon’s press secretary, Jocelyne Richer: “The changes that were required by the inspectors were carried out, and the site now meets all government regulations. It will be even more safe after we implement the special measures for the St-Basile shipment.”
But in the background of the debate was uncertainty over the scope of the health risk that the manmade PCBs pose. A fire-resistant, oily liquid made with PCBs was widely used as a lubricant and coolant in electrical transformers for decades until its potential as a health hazard led to its banning in many countries—including Canada in 1977. Since then, tons of PCB compounds have gone into storage in the industrialized world, awaiting the development of facilities for their destruction. Although researchers have produced cancers in laboratory animals with PCBs, the chemicals have not been directly associated with disease in humans. But they are a potential hazard in another way: if they burn at relatively low temperatures, as in the St-Basile fire, they can produce other toxic chemicals.
In Britain last week, some observers accused Greenpeace of overstating the risks posed by the Quebec wastes.
Noted Sir Hugh Rossi, chairman of the all-party House of Commons Environmental Select Committee: “Public anxiety over the importation of PCBs is understandable but groundless.” Rossi lamented the decision to turn the Canadian wastes away. Said Rossi: “This is highly regrettable. It will mean a loss of income and will hit companies which are world leaders in treating these chemicals.” And in Montreal, Claude Rivet, emergency co-ordinator for Environment Canada, observed that the PCBs from St-Basile had been packed so securely in triple-sealed steel containers that they could be stored almost indefinitely without danger. Said Rivet: “They are packed as if they were live explosives. If we are guilty of anything, we are guilty of being too careful.”
But such reassurances have failed to allay public concerns. Environment Canada estimates that, in 1977, approximately 16,130 tons of PCBs were in use. Most of that is still being stored at hundreds of sites across the country, because only one disposal facility in Canada— in Swan Hills, Alta.—is capable of destroying the chemicals at temperatures high enough to avoid producing the dangerous byproducts.
Negotiations to ship the StBasile PCBs to Swan Hills for burning were suspended when Alberta officials told their Quebec counterparts that they could not immediately accept the wastes for disposal due to a backlog of locally held PCBs slated for destruction.
Meanwhile, plans to construct similar disposal facilities elsewhere have frequently met intense opposition. In Quebec, Sanivan Group Inc., a Montreal-based company, has proposed
to construct a PCB incinerator in remote northwest Senneterre, near Val d’Or, 550 km northwest of Montreal. Sanivan already operates a storage depot for toxic wastes in the area, and the town council of Senneterre gave the project its blessing, a decision bolstered by an opinion poll that found that 58 per cent of the community’s residents favored the incinerator project. But the plan was put on hold when residents of the surrounding area—especially in the nearby city of Val d’Or—strongly opposed the project. Indeed, Val d’Or Mayor Marie St-Germain threatened last week to organize a human blockade of the highway leading to Senneterre if the government tried to ship the St-Basile PCBs there for storage.
Quebec has also been examining the possibility of using portable incinerators to destroy PCBs in the communities where they are already g stored—a solution that I would bypass possible local § opposition to large facilities si such as that proposed for g Senneterre. But the Quebec government has so far withheld its approval from one such proposal being promoted by the SNC Group of Montreal.
The federal government also has been examining a similar proposal. Last fall, thenEnvironment Minister Thomas McMillan announced that Ottawa would acquire portable incinerators of its own in order to dispose of PCBs under federal control. He said that the first hazardous materials to be destroyed would
be 2,500 tons of soil at an airbase in Goose Bay, Labrador, contaminated with PCBs in 1977 when oil leaked from old transformers used in defence communications equipment. However, opposition by local residents, environmental reviews and delays in completing federal emission standards have put the project many months behind schedule, and so far no wastes have been destroyed.
Nor has McMillan’s successor, Lucien Bouchard, had any success in imposing national standards for disposing of PCBs. In fact, the federal Environmental Protection Act contains a gaping loophole in a clause that allows provinces to exempt themselves from federal standards. Every province except Prince Edward Island has chosen to do so. And Bouchard has so far failed to deliver a sweeping new environmental standards policy first promised late last autumn following the November election that returned the federal Conservatives to power.
But, for now, whatever political stain is to be left by the PCBs seems destined to discolor the doorstep of Bourassa’s government. Last week, protesters booed Bacon as she arrived in Baie-Comeau to explain her proposal. And the province’s powerful Confederation of National Trade Unions threw down a challenge to the Liberal leader with a communiqué issued late in the week. “If Bourassa thinks there is no danger,” the document asked, “why doesn’t he make this gesture of solidarity at home, in his own riding?” Clearly, for the embattled Quebec premier, it was a question with no easy answer.
MICHAEL ROSE with JOHN HOWSE in Calgary, BRUCE WALLACE in Ottawa, BRENDA O’FARRELL in Montreal, and IAN MATHER in London
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.