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Report hints at decades-old Belledune coverup - Health minister pledges he'll study report's allegat

Published by MAC on 2006-06-15

Report hints at decades-old Belledune coverup - Health minister pledges he'll study report's allegations
NB Telegraph-Journal | Provincial News

By Carl Davies - Telegraph-Journal

As published on page A1/A2 on 16th June 2006

An incendiary report released Thursday charges that government ignored warnings dating back 40 years indicating pollution in the Belledune region was making people sick.

The report, titled "Dying for Development: The legacy of lead in Belledune", carefully documents a series of both federal and provincial government reports that stated pollution - mainly from the Noranda smelter - has affected people's health. The report, penned by Inka Milewski of the Conservation Council, details reports and their recommendations and conclusions that were ignored, altered, or kept from the public eye over the years.

Ms. Milewski said Belledune is "the poster child for everything that is wrong with how provincial and federal governments protect people in their environment. "There has been a gross miscarriage of justice in Belledune, and there is a need for restitution."

A government health study released last year indicated higher rates of mortality and certain cancers in the Belledune region, and a follow-up study by the provincial government indicated the current levels of lead in vegetables, fish and milk produced locally pose no risk to people's health.

Another provincial study is about to be launched in partnership with Memorial University to determine what caused the high rates of disease in the area. "None of the reports that have been done to date have answered that question," said Health Minister Brad Green. Mr. Green pledged to look back at some of the allegations in the Conservation Council report, which he took no issue with Thursday. But the minister said he was "much more focused" on the present and the study determining what's at the root of health problems in the Belledune region.

Ms. Milewski believes the root of the problem is the smelter. "It really isn't difficult to connect the dots," Ms. Milewski said. She pointed to data stretching back more than 30 years that showed among other things "astonishing" lead levels in and around the Belledune School as high as 40 times the currently accepted safety levels. "Those are exactly the people who are having these health problems," she said. "Can you imagine what the blood levels might have been in those children?" Ms. Milewski said action could have been taken long ago to stem the problem. "The province knew that there were health risks," she said. "They did nothing. They did nothing to intervene and protect the citizens. "They just allowed those people to go on with their lives not knowing they were risking the health of their children."

The paper trail unearthed by Ms. Milewski dates back to 1968, when federal scientists found high levels of lead in the community and recommended an investigation. The report was not made public and no action was taken. In 1973, lead poisoning was suspected in the deaths of sheep in the area, yet Ms. Milewski says little was done to determine why. By 1981, the federal health department alerted the province that lead posed a risk to people in the area and immediate measures were needed to reduce contamination.

Local residents were not informed they were at risk, according to Ms. Milewski's report. That same year, a study was started on lead levels in food and water in the region. Five years later a draft report was produced, and while the report concluded there was "no significant" contamination, the report and results were never made public. In 1991, a report from the province's environment department determined Belledune was one of the "most seriously contaminated" areas of the province.

Amid concerns Noranda would sue the province, the report was altered and the conclusions changed. Ms. Milewski said the paper trail pointed to a "public health scandal" that "must never be allowed to happen again." She said the coverup reached the highest levels of government.

"Assistant deputy ministers, deputy ministers knew "... absolutely. If the deputy minister knew, then I'm sure the minister knew." Ms. Milewski said the latest report from the province indicates several properties in the vicinity of the smelter still have contaminated soil and she called for an immediate cleanup. "We're going to take some time to review this report," Environment Minister Trevor Holder said. "If there are any properties that need remediation, we will work with those property owners."

Mr. Holder said his officials are testing in the area right now and promised results "relatively soon "... not months, not years. "This government is clearly taking this issue much more seriously than other administrations have." Neither Mr. Green nor provincial epidemiologist Cristofer Balram would rule out the possibility that pollution from the past has contributed to health problems being experienced today. "You cannot say that you can rule out everything. It's impossible," Mr. Balram said.

Opposition MLAs were measured in their response to the report. "We have to address these issues now that we know these issues are there," said Liberal health critic Victor Boudreau. "Regardless of what happened in the past, we have to look to the future and address it." Environment critic Stuart Jamieson, who was a member of cabinet in Frank McKenna's Liberal government, said, "I'm not going to make any excuses for the former government I was a member of. "There's a lot of
former governments involved in this issue. I think it's time we moved on and got things cleaned up." Ms. Milewski said what happens now is key. "I think the province has been given a really good opportunity to do the right thing."

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