CANADA

The high cost of protest

An ailing Saint John housewife campaigns to clean up the polluted air

JOHN DeMONT in Saint John November 6 1995
CANADA

The high cost of protest

An ailing Saint John housewife campaigns to clean up the polluted air

JOHN DeMONT in Saint John November 6 1995

The high cost of protest

CANADA

An ailing Saint John housewife campaigns to clean up the polluted air

It strikes with cruel suddenness—while she is shopping at the grocery store, watching television with her kids, lying asleep in bed with her husband. Suddenly, at least once a week, Judy LeBlanc’s inflamed bronchial airways swell shut, blocking the flow of air into what is left of her ravaged lungs. But somehow she always makes it to the aerosol machine that is never far from her side, slips on the mask and takes a precious hit of ventolin, a steroid that instantly opens her lungs— but leaves her heart pounding and brings on an hour of body-wracking spasms and nausea. LeBlanc is afflicted with a severe respiratory disease, bronchiectasis, a condition that her doctors say is aggravated by Saint John’s notoriously bad air quality. In her worst moments, LeBlanc fears she is living on borrowed time-just the spur, it seems, to turn an unassuming wife and mother into an unrelenting environmental activist who gets answers from city hall and respect from the province’s most powerful companies.

On one recent autumn day,

LeBlanc made her daily call to the Saint John Air Quality Hotline, set up by the provincial government earlier this year in response to widespread concerns about the city’s air quality. It told her that the levels of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and other pollutants were low enough for her to leave her modest bungalow on the city’s east side, where Saint John’s heavy industry is located. So the frail 95-lb. woman stood in the crowd outside the emergency department of Saint John Regional Hospital and watched a maple tree planted in memory of Cynthia Marino, who, together with LeBlanc, had waged a high-profile clean-air crusade and who died on May 29 after an asthma attack. Back home after the service, LeBlanc, 42 and a mother of two, had plenty on her mind—the health of her 14-year-old asthmatic son, Stephen, her own illness, the certainty of doctors and family that she is endangering her life by refusing to abandon the exhausting fight to improve the city’s air. And, of course, she thought about her friend Marino and their final, irrevocable promise. As LeBlanc explains matter-of-factly, “Cynthia and I always swore that if one of us died, the other would carry on the work.”

Marino, big and dark-haired, and LeBlanc, tiny and blond, first met at the inaugural meeting of the city’s grassroots Citizens Coalition for Clear Air last January. “There was instant chemistry,” LeBlanc recalled. “We were both quiet, middle-class housewives trying to deal with our sickness in silence.” Both could also hear the clock ticking: since being diagnosed with her disease in 1986, LeBlanc had lost a portion of her right lung and was forced to take huge amounts of antibiotics, steroids and other drugs to stabilize her condition. Marino suffered from a condition called brittle asthma, a form so severe that she could only breathe with the help of a pump attached through

her stomach. Living where they did clearly did not help. “Although air pollution is not a major cause of respiratory disease, it can exacerbate it,” says Dr. Robert Beveridge, a respiratory specialist at Saint John Regional Hospital, who treated Marino.

The gritty New Brunswick industrial city remains one of Canada’s environmental sore spots. A 1994 Environment Canada study showed that Saint John has higher levels of sulphuric acid in its air than any other Canadian city—about three times as much as Windsor, the next worse offender. Even more worrisome, perhaps, is research conducted by Beveridge that indicates that Saint John residents, on a per capita basis, are 50 per cent more likely to die of respiratory problems than people in any other New Brunswick city. He, along with scientists from the federal health and environment departments, has started a sweeping study into the links between pollution and illness in Saint John.

A prime source of the contaminants are smokestacks in the heavily industrialized areas of Central Canada and New England. But, Jeffrey Brook, a Toronto-based research scientist with Environment Canada, says that much of the pollution is homegrown. It pours out of the pulp mill, refinery and newsprint mill owned by the wealthy and powerful Irving family of Saint John, as well as the Lantic Sugar Ltd. refinery. Even greater concentrations come from the stacks of the electrical generating stations run by the provincially owned New Brunswick Power Co. Making matters worse is Saint John’s damp, foggy weather, which prevents the polluted air from quickly dispersing and speeds up the pace at which sulphur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid.

Marino and LeBlanc knew all about that as they sat in their first coalition meeting. Each had already taken her concerns to city hall. We heard the same old attitude,” LeBlanc declared. “Jobs always win out over clean air and water when push comes to shove in Saint John.” But the Citizens Coalition, made up of some 100 ordinary residents of Saint John, seemed to signal an angry new public attitude.

On the morning after the meeting, Marino called LeBlanc, sensing that the other woman shared her urgency. The pair quickly

became the group’s public face, addressing government committees and visiting industry executives, always backing up their arguments with voluminous scientific research compiled from expert sources. Astutely, they avoided singling out the Irvings—the city’s largest employer—and the other big industrial companies, which would have made it easy to dismiss them as anti-business whiners. “They came across as positive, rational people who just want to improve air quality,” explained Jim Knight, airquality manager for the New Brunswick department of environment Their positive approach was also appreciated by some of the targeted firms. “We give full credit to Mrs. Marino and Mrs. LeBlanc for reminding us that we must work with our neighbors,” says Jim LeBlanc, environmental affairs manager for Irving Oil Ltd.’s refining division. Among other new initiatives, says LeBlanc, the company now notifies residents when it concludes that emission odors from the east-end Saint John refinery will be a problem.

But what really seemed to give the campaign its spark were the personal stories of the two women and the private pain they shared with anyone who would listen. In March, they walked into the provincial legislature in Fredericton with a 4,100-name petition calling for tougher environmental laws and more stringent enforcement of anti-pollution laws. Confirmation of their newfound clout came in May, when Marino was invited to join the government-appointed Saint JohnFundy air resource management area committee. But on May 29, two days before her first committee meeting, Marino’s husband, Bob, found the 36-year-old mother of three collapsed on the floor, dead from an acute asthma attack. It was two weeks shy of her daughter Jennifer’s high-school graduation—and five weeks before the government announced that it was slashing in half the maximum sulphur-dioxide emission levels permitted in the Saint John area. “She had too many close calls to fear death,” says LeBlanc. “I feel certain she died knowing she had made a difference.”

LeBlanc would at least like to think so. Her doctors have already warned her that she is pushing too hard to keep her promise to Marino. In the past year, LeBlanc has lost 25 lb., her throat and mouth are constantly covered with blisters from a reaction to her medications, and her immune system has deteriorated to the point where even something as minor as strep throat could be lifethreatening. But in late October, as she prepared to check into the hospital for treatment, LeBlanc’s main preoccupation seemed to be gathering up her citizens coalition research materials so she could continue to work while under doctor’s care. “I’m committed to keeping my promise to Cynthia,” she says, “no matter what the obstacles.” Or, apparently, the price.

JOHN DeMONT in Saint John