HOW A LOCAL RESIDENT SUED SYDNEY TAR PONDS AND COKE OVENS
Q&A With Debbie Ouellette
OVER ARSENIC CONTAMINATION AND WON THE DAY
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By Michelle Moore
Debbie Ouellette is a former resident of Frederick Street in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Debbie was one of the residents involved in legal battles over the Sydney Tar Ponds and the coke ovens after finding arsenic in her basement in 1998, and is the only person to have won a claim. In 2013 the site was remediated and became known as Open Hearth Park.
She continues to fight in court and represents herself. In 2016, she reached an out of court settlement with two of the plant's former owners, Domtar Inc. and Ispat Sidbec Inc. A suit against the provincial and federal governments is ongoing. Virtually no signs of Frederick Street exist today; the homes have been demolished, grass and shrubs have pushed through the sidewalk and the street sign on the corner has been removed.
Debbie and her husband Richard bought their house on Frederick Street in 1984 to live in with their children Andre, Nancy and Steven. Soon after moving Debbie began to learn of the effects of living near the Coke Ovens; clothes left out to dry on the line would get covered in coal dust and cars had to be brushed clean before being driven.
WaterToday - How did you first know something was wrong?
Debbie Ouellette - In the spring of 1998, as work began on the Coke Ovens site, through the Joint Action Group (JAG) process. We were not informed by anyone this work was going to take place. I started to get sick with severe headaches, sore throat, burning eyes, I felt nauseated. I felt really tired and weak, with no energy. The worst symptom was the very severe headaches. I thought I was getting the 24 hour flu. When the kids started complaining they were feeling the same way I was, I walked over to some of the neighbours and asked them if they were getting sick and their replies were all yes. I went outside the next day to hang clothes on the line and I looked up at the coke ovens site and coal dust was flying everywhere and there was a strong smell coming from the work on the site. I said I bet this is what is making my family sick. We were not the only ones getting sick, anyone visiting Frederick Street went home sick after only a few minutes being there.
WaterToday - How did you come to find arsenic in the basement?
Debbie Ouellette - Every spring we had heavy rains falls that would flood the Frederick Street Brook that also flooded out our backyard. In 1998 the brook looked really different and this bothered me, seeing orange and yellow goo seeping from the embankment. When Environment Nova Scotia tested these seeps, high levels of arsenic and other chemicals were found, arsenic being the chemical of concern. After doing some homework reviewing many studies that were made for Environment Canada and Health Canada, I listed about thirteen that mention Frederick Street.
WaterToday - What happened next with the government and the relocation of your family?
Debbie Ouellette - What finally relocated us was when the results from the seeps in my basement came back and high level of arsenic were found. First my children were told they couldn't play in their own yard or the brook at the back of our property because of contamination and now I had to tell them they couldn't even go in their own basement because there was more contamination. I was so afraid for their safety, that I put a padlock on the basement door just as Elizabeth May had suggested. I remember that night going to a JAG meeting and I told everyone sitting at that table and governments, if my kids get arsenic poisoning from living in their own home there will be hell to pay. The very next day I got a call from Michel Sampson, the Nova Scotia Minster of Environment telling me they wanted my family to move into the Delta hotel that night.
WaterToday - How long did you stay in the hotel? How did you come to sell the house and finally move into your new home?
Debbie Ouellette - After spending 37 days at the Delta hotel we were given letters and told we had to leave. We had no place to go or move into yet. Stewart Matheson called me at four o'clock in the afternoon stating he had a low rental unit for us to move into, even though I had stated this is not what I wanted. We had no choice but to go live there, we stayed there for about 6 weeks in low rentals. The provincial government decided to buy the homes on Frederick Street at a price similar to what homes away from the area would cost, as well as pay for residents' legal fees and moving costs. They bought our homes but didn't replace the contents that we lost. Any monies owing on our homes; mortgage, loans, taxes, water bills, etc, were taken off the approximately $40,000 being offered to us by government.
After viewing many houses that were not suitable, mostly because they were not in our price range, we decided on a house on Mechanic Street, even though it was next door to an escort service. Not the place you choose to raise your family, but when you are financially handicapped, you have no choice. We decided to take the home. I asked government officials to notify me the day they planned to tear my home down on Frederick Street as I wanted to be there. I cried as it was hard to see our first home go down to the ground.
Debbie Ouellette - Photo: Michelle Moore
WaterToday - What long-term health problems have you and your family experienced?
Debbie Ouellette - On October 19, 1998, I began having severe pain on my right side and it just wouldn't ease up. I went to the hospital and they put me on intravenous. The next day, Dr. Phillip Smith told me he was going to operate that day. He later told me he remove a piece of my bowel, and it looked like something he had never seen in another person before. I was really upset when he told me what he found. I was in the hospital for three days. I wasn't allowed to lift anything for six weeks.
Our dog Queenie started getting sick. It looked like she had a growth on her face and she stopped eating and drinking. We took her to the vet, the doctor confirmed she had a tumor growing on her right side of her face. He told us to pick a day to bring her back to put her down as there was nothing more he could do for her. About a week later, we took Queenie back to the vet to be put down. It was the worst day of my life losing her. I just couldn't accept the fact she was the last dog to die on Frederick Street from cancer. Eight other dogs from Frederick Street had died before her from cancer.
Not long after, I discovered a growth on my abdomen that was growing. When I showed my doctor he said it was a tumor and he cut the growth out and stitched the area. The fear of living with cancer because of where I lived will haunt me forever. Nancy, our daughter, had precancerous cells since we left Frederick Street.
WaterToday - What can you tell us about the court case with Domtar Inc. and Ispat Sidbec Inc?
Debbie Ouellette - I can't talk about the settlement I got from Domtar Inc. and Ispat Sidbec Inc. In my opinion I feel they admitted guilt. They were the previous owners of these highly toxic contaminated sites and had a big part in polluting our air water and soil and our properties because there were no emission controls in place at the Coke Ovens Site and they and the new owners knew the harm they caused the people who are living in and around these sites.
WaterToday - What can you tell us about the ongoing court case against the government?
Debbie Ouellette - Everything is moving along to where we should be. Doing the list of documents, that's our next stage. That means they have to provide a list and I need to provide a list. When we go back to court in January, that would be our next step, so it's putting the documents on each side, it's what's called discovery. Because everything is a process, to me these courts should never go on as long as they do. Twenty years, come on … it should have been taken care of long ago. There should be a timeline, like 5 years. To drag on these cases for that amount of time, they expect people to drop dead, get it over with. That's what they expected me to do and I wouldn't do it, I wouldn't give up.
I certainly want to be compensated for the twenty years I put into this, number one... compensation for what they did to us. They polluted our land and they knew. If they didn't know it would be different but they knew because they had studies that were restricted, they knew the harm.
For almost twenty years I have gathered facts, evidence and proof of these health hazards as well as how the governments and previous owners were aware and is still aware of these hazards. Through these years, there were days that I felt like giving up, but I know this is what the governments is waiting for. Waiting for the residents to give up, but my health and the health and future of my family were put at risk by the levels of government and until the day comes that they admit to their mistakes, I will continue to prove my case.