MAC: Mines and Communities

Province warned about Belledune health hazard, documents show

Published by MAC on 2006-06-16

Province warned about Belledune health hazard, documents show

Last updated Jun 15 2006 09:30 AM ADT

CBC News

Thousands of documents tracing the secret history of Noranda's Belledune smelter show scientists repeatedly warned the New Brunswick government that heavy metal contamination posed a potential danger to human health.

The smelter in northeastern New Brunswick has generated controversy for decades, amid fears that lead and cadmium contamination was causing more health problems than normal — including higher cancer rates— and lowering property values.

But even though provincial officials continue to insist there is no known link between heavy metal contamination and high cancer rates in the Belledune area, the documents — which span the past 25 years — show that federal and provincial scientists believed the lead and cadmium that is still present in many backyards could pose a health risk.

Environmentalist Inka Milewski, who has been researching the history of the smelter for the New Brunswick Conservation Council, obtained the government documents through access to information legislation.

Milewski said the memos, studies and reports reveal a persistent knowledge on the part of the province that heavy metals created a health risk in the Belledune area.

Noranda found heavy metals in lobster

The documents reveal a history that begins in 1977, when Noranda scientists acknowledged contamination in a research paper they presented at a conference in San Francisco. The scientists found a sudden increase in cadmium levels found in lobster taken near the smelter

In 1980, Noranda requested permission from the government to start smelting zinc at its Belledune operation, after years of smelting lead.

The province ordered an environmental impact assessment of the project, which eventually gave Noranda the green light to smelt zinc — though the company eventually abandoned the plan.

But one year later, a joint committee of federal and provincial scientists reviewed the EIA and criticized it as being full of "deficiencies," both in assessing the potential impact of zinc and the existing contamination.

It said the Belledune area is "highly contaminated" and the EIA does not give the reader an "honest appreciation of the gravity of the situation."

* Read the EIA critique: The joint federal-provincial review of the zinc smelter EIA, which faults the EIA's findings on potential zinc contamination and existing lead and cadmium contamination. The EIA gives the green light to the zinc smelter, which Noranda eventually abandons for
unrelated reasons.

"It's a scathing review of the environmental impact statement," said Milewski. "They basically say that the assessment isn't reflective — doesn't reflect the reality of what is happening in Belledune, that it's already a highly contaminated environment."

Toxicologist finds "no significant contamination"

The provincial government then hired consultant toxicologist D. J. Ecobichon to look at the contamination of food and water in the area.

Ecobichon's study found "no significant contamination," but when his report was passed onto Health Canada and Environment Canada, federal officials pointed out in a letter that "the report does not provide evidence that a health hazard does not exist either."

Milewski said despite that, government officials over the years referred to Ecobichon's report as a "health study" and used it to discount concerns about pollution-related illnesses.

"Health Canada and Environment Canada say, you know 'you can't publish this as it is. It really is not going to stand up to scrutiny. You need to go back and do more sampling.' And the report is never published and never really released. It's always just a draft."

* Read the Ecobichon critique: A federal critique of the so-called "health study" by Dr. D. J. Ecobichon, a study which does not come to any conclusions about peoples' health.

In 1991, the provincial government assigned a provincial bureaucrat named Wilf Pilgrim to assess the air quality in Belledune in light of a new provincial clean-air strategy.

Milewski's package of documents includes Pilgrim's first draft of a report he would eventually send to government.

"Basically he says, yes, the heavy metal contamination is highest two or three kilometres from the smelter, but there are high levels of certain metals beyond two to three kilometres, in some cases as far as nine or ten kilometres," she said.

But the finding of contamination nine kilometres away was never published.

One of his superiors, Paul Monti, wrote a memo critiquing the draft. He said Pilgrim's report appeared biased. While he acknowledged a problem in Belledune, Monti said the draft would not pass scientific review. He also said that publicizing the report as it was could be "messy" and cause "a lot of casualties."

Monti also said Noranda might sue over the report and recommended "judicious editing."

* Read the documents surrounding the Pilgrim report: *A summary from the first draft of a Belledune assessment by Wilfred Pilgrim, provincial DOE. This page contains the reference to contamination nine kilometres away.
*A memo by bureaucrat Paul Monti that suggests there will be "casualties" if the Pilgrim report is released as is and recommends "judicious editing."
*A summary page from the final version in which there is only a vague reference to contamination outside the immediate 2-3 km area around the smelter.

Milewski described the result: "Gone from the second draft is all the information from the literature, the scientific literature, on the human health impacts of exposure to lead and other heavy metals, but gone also is this reference to contamination beyond the two to three kilometres. They say, well, at some point there are some exceedances, but there's no distance given."

When the final version was released four years later, there were more changes.

"All the health recommendations are gone, for blood testing, for dust testing, for having the company fund a public awareness program, and a reference is made to a study, the Ecobochin study, that found there is no health risk associated with heavy metal contamination or heavy metal
levels in the Belledune area," Milewski said.

Province failed to protect residents, Milewski says

For Milewski, the critiques from Health Canada, the continued mischaracterization of the so-called "health study" and the "judicious editing" of the Pilgrim report all point to a single conclusion about two successive provincial governments in New Brunswick.

"They had an obligation to protect the residents of Belledune, and they failed to do that. And the legacy of that failed system is two generations of residents who have unnecessarily suffered the effects of exposure to heavy metals."

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