MAC: Mines and Communities

Canadian Press: N.B. government kept residents in dark about lead contamination: council

Published by MAC on 2006-06-16

Canadian Press: N.B. government kept residents in dark about lead contamination: council

FREDERICTON (CP) - The New Brunswick government withheld information for decades about lead contamination and related health risks in a northern industrial community, an environmental group alleged in a new report Thursday.

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick claims the province had several warnings about higher than normal levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic linked to a smelter in Belledune, but did nothing to alert residents.

"The public health scandal here is that in 1981, it was clear to both the provincial and federal governments that there was a significant risk to people's health and they never told them," David Coon of the council said following the release of the 93-page document, called Dying for

"They were kept in the dark."

The council said it obtained government documents that trace a legacy of denial and neglect dating back to the 1960s, two years after the lead smelter complex opened in the small rural community on the Bay of Chaleur.

It found the federal government had discovered high lead levels around the Belledune school in 1968, which was just hundreds of metres away from the smelter.

The council said the documents show the province ignored the federal government's recommendation to investigate the levels.

In 1981, years after sheep living near the facility started dying, the director of Health and Welfare Canada's bureau of health and safety told the province that the smelter posed a health risk to the community.

Again, the province did not inform the residents, the council says.

"The health of those people was sacrificed to concerns that government departments seemed to have had about rocking the boat with the company," Coon said.

The council has asked the province to hold a public inquiry into the matter and compensate people in the area who have been affected by the smelter.

Provincial Environment Minister Trevor Holder said he would review the issue and consider cleaning up properties that have been harmed by contaminants in the soil or water.

"We've made it clear that if we have to sit down with any property owners, we're certainly there to look at trying to come up with some form of remediation for it," he said, adding that officials are looking at one site that has shown some contamination.

Inka Milewski, who wrote the report, said the government only started revealing the extent of the problem in a 2005 provincial health study that found Belledune residents had higher death, disease and cancer rates compared to other parts of the province.

The study showed that lead levels in the bodies of pregnant women and children were within the normal range.

Seven pregnant women and 47 children were tested for lead levels, which ranged from 0.3 to 3.7 micrograms per decilitre.

According to Health Canada guidelines, blood-lead levels below 10 micrograms per decilitre aren't a medical concern.

The study showed that residents are at a greater risk of contracting certain cancers, but the health minister maintained the cancer and mortality rates are not linked to the region's heavy industrial activity.

The province also found in a study earlier this year that soil samples in the area contained levels of lead and cadmium that were higher than federal guidelines.

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