CANADA

A CAMPAIGN SETBACK

THE UPROAR OVER DISPOSAL OF PCBs CASTS A SHADOW ONTO PREMIER BOURASSA’S PLANS FOR RE-ELECTION

September 4 1989
CANADA

A CAMPAIGN SETBACK

THE UPROAR OVER DISPOSAL OF PCBs CASTS A SHADOW ONTO PREMIER BOURASSA’S PLANS FOR RE-ELECTION

September 4 1989

A CAMPAIGN SETBACK

CANADA

THE UPROAR OVER DISPOSAL OF PCBs CASTS A SHADOW ONTO PREMIER BOURASSA’S PLANS FOR RE-ELECTION

As a bright sun burned a shroud of damp fog away from the Baie-Comeau, Que., waterfront on the morning of Aug. 24, eight trucks became visible on the town’s federal government dock. On their flatbed trailers: 15 large white containers packed with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) waste. The night before, gangs of stevedores had unloaded the containers from a Soviet freighter, turned away the previous week from Britain, while squads of provincial police—some with full riot gear—kept hundreds of angry protesters behind barricades at dockside. But what appeared at first to be a defeat for the citizens fighting to keep the PCBs out of Baie-Comeau turned out to be at least a temporary victory: even as the night’s clandestine unloading operation proceeded, a Quebec Superior Court judge was signing an injunction which ordered that the containers go no farther. The court went on to order a hearing, scheduled for this week, on whether to ban the unwanted wastes from the region permanently. Declared protester Giselle Hamel, a homemaker who has lived in the area since 1962: “This battle is not over yet. We will not be the garbage can of Quebec.”

Although experts insist that the risk of PCBs has been overstated, Hamel’s determination reflected the concern across the country about the storage of chemical wastes. And last week’s events ensured that the question of how to dispose of 3,500 tons of PCBs left over from the 1988 chemical warehouse fire in St-Basilele-Grand, near Montreal, would continue to

cast a shadow over Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s campaign for re-election on Sept. 25. In Baie-Comeau, Superior Court Judge Paul Corriveau, who issued last week’s injunction, criticized those responsible for allowing the overnight unloading of the wastes. And this week’s planned court hearing threw into doubt Bourassa’s plan to move the PCBs temporarily to an isolated Hydro-Québec power plant outside Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s home town. In Ottawa, federal Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard last week termed the continuing affair “a national embarrassment.” Until Corriveau became involved, however, Quebec’s plan to move the first of 170 containers of St-Basile PCBs to the Manic 2 Hydro site, 30 km outside Baie-Comeau, had unfolded with almost military precision. As the first protesters gathered in a downtown park at about 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 23, trailer trucks and police vehicles converged on a wharf two kilometres away. As darkness fell and fog rolled in off the St. Lawrence River, about 1,500 demonstrators headed toward the waterfront. There, the marchers halted, stopped by steel riot fences, a

row of grim-faced police and fog so thick they could no longer see the jetty where the blackhulled Nadezdha Obukhova was scheduled to arrive shortly before midnight.

By 10 p.m., cold and fatigue had sent many of the protesters home. But a core of about 300 cheered energetically when an organizer announced that Corriveau had agreed to hear their request for an injunction against the unloading of the PCBs the next morning. At about the same time, a bailiff served notices of Corriveau’s decision on Hydro-Québec officials and to the director of Dynamis Envirotec Inc., the Quebec company with a $7.9-inillion contract to oversee transportation and disposal of the St-Basile PCBs.

What neither the protesters nor the judge had apparently expected, however, was that Hydro-Québec and Dynamis would still proceed with the government’s plan. When, shortly after 1 a.m., protest leaders informed Corriveau that the Nadezdha Obukhova was being unloaded, he quickly issued a formal injunction ordering the work stopped and the containers returned to the freighter’s deck. That new order reached Dynamis executive Martin Clermont in Baie-Comeau at 3:40 a.m. The ship’s captain, Nikolai Abalakov, got the same message at 4:01 a.m. By then, however, the containers were already on the wharf. And by 4:30, the ship had left its moorings and departed. It quickly became evident that Corriveau, at least, was not prepared to let the matter end with his intentions having been disregarded. As Corriveau wrote in his early-morning injunction, “One must think that, despite the legal action brought to their attention, [Hydro-Québec and Dynamis Envirotec] in concert with the police, took advantage of the darkness of the night to accomplish what the petitioners wanted to prevent.” In the morning, Corriveau brusquely refused requests from Hydro-Québec and Dynamis to allow the wastes to be moved from the dock to Manic 2, pending his final ruling. And the following day, the judge went further, citing 13 people involved in the unloading—including the Soviet captain—for contempt of court. Corriveau ordered the 13 to appear before him Sept. 28 to answer the charges, which carry penalties of $5,000 or up to a year in jail.

For her part, Quebec Environment Minister Lise Bacon, who was briefed by telephone throughout the unloading operation by her officials at the scene, insisted that she had not been aware that Corriveau’s injunction had arrived before the ship departed from BaieComeau. And her press secretary, Jocelyne Richer, said that Bacon had not instructed officials to proceed with the unloading in defiance of the earlier court notice. Said Richer: “That order didn’t come from us.”

While the furor showed no signs of ebbing, some experts continued to insist that the risks posed by the PCBs stored in Quebec and else-

where across the country have been greatly exaggerated. The manmade liquids were banned as a suspected carcinogen in 1977. But, according to engineer Philip Jones, founding director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto, for one, more recent research has shown that the compounds pose little risk when properly handled. “The public is unduly concerned,” said Jones.

But the unwanted PCBs seemed certain to continue to bedevil Bourassa’s re-election campaign. This week, Corriveau was to decide whether to order the PCBs removed entirely from Baie-Comeau, a possibility that would force the government to draw up a new plan for their disposal. Meanwhile, protesters set up a tent and mounted a 24-hour guard near the entrance to the wharf in order to prevent any further clandestine movements of the cargo. By midweek, a second Soviet freighter turned away by British dockers because it was carrying Quebec PCBs for incineration in Britain was also due back in the St. Lawrence River. It was a situation that Bourassa’s Parti Québécois rival, Jacques Parizeau, seized upon with evident relish, branding Bourassa’s handling of it “incompetent.” Whatever their danger to health, in politics, at least, PCBs are still a potentially hazardous compound.

MICHAEL ROSE in Baie-Comeau with BRENDA O’FARRELL in Montreal