News  Valcartier residents sue federal government

Suit alleges that chemical used by Canadian Forces base causes cancer

A fter years of delay, a class-action lawsuit filed by residents of the Valcartier Canadian Forces base and the neighbouring town of Shannon is slated to begin in October.

The residents of Shannon and the Valcartier base are suing the attorney general of Canada and SNC Technologies Inc. for damages suffered as a result of the substance trichloroethylene (TCE) seeping into the town’s water supply.

TCE, used by the SNC Research Centre and Valcartier garrison to clean munitions since the 1940s, has been known to cause cancer. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Charles Veilleux, asserts that the TCE in the town’s drinking water is responsible for 440 cases of cancer in Shannon and Valcartier.

“[The residents of Shannon and Valcartier] want payment for their losses,” said Veilleux, who has been working on the case since the class-action lawsuit was filed in Quebec Superior Court in December 2003.

“They have been buying bottled water for several years, [as well as] medication and hospital treatment. It’s a lot of money. [The contaminated water] has caused very serious health problems.”

One of the residents’ main grievances is that they were never informed by the Valcartier base or the Canadian government that TCE had contaminated their water.

According to Veilleux, the minister of national defence gave Shannon $3.5 million to build a small aqueduct after the TCE was discovered. The aqueduct has been effective in stopping more TCE from getting trapped in the area groundwater, but traces of the chemical remain.

After filing for a class-action lawsuit in December 2003, the municipal government of Shannon settled for a $19-million payment in 2004. In 2009 the federal government gave an additional $13.5 million for damages in return for a denial of responsibility by the federal government.

Although filed in 2003, the class-action was not certified by the Quebec Superior Court until March 2007.

“There were protestations from the defendants,” said Veilleux.

“They tried everything to protest [the lawsuit]. They protested because [the lawsuit was filed] in front of a Quebec Superior court and not a federal court.”

According to the Department of National Defence (DND) web site: “In 1997, Valcartier Garrison discovered the solvent [TCE]…in its waterwork system, coming through the groundwater.”

“A series of initiatives were immediately implemented to bring TCE concentration levels [in Valcartier] to within acceptable limits,” reads the DND web site.

Marie-Paule Spieser, who represents the town’s residents as the case’s plaintiff, said that TCE was discovered in the water supply in December 2000.

“My neighbour worked in the SNC factory. They tested his water and found there was TCE in it,” said Spieser.

TCE evaporates harmlessly once it enters an open river, but traces of the chemical have been trapped in the groundwater beneath Valcartier base and Shannon – covering an area of about five squared kilometres – since the SNC Research Centre and the Valcartier garrison first started using TCE in the 1940s.

According to the DND web site, in July 2006 the DND “began pilot tests to assess the performance of in situ technologies for removing TCE from contaminated groundwater. The goal [was] to find the most effective technology to keep the TCE plume from spreading outside garrison limits.”

These technologies included air-sparging barriers, which vaporized the TCE in the groundwater, and zero-valent iron barriers, which involve introduction of zero-valent iron into the groundwater, causing the TCE to chemically decompose.

But according to Veilleux, these high-tech solutions have not completely solved the problem.

“There is still TCE [in the water] under the homes of some people [in Shannon],” said Veilleux.

“TCE is volatile, and it builds up. There is up to 1,200 micrograms per litre in some homes.”

Veilleux added that TCE has been known to cause cancer 35 years after exposure. As a result, the contamination of Shannon’s groundwater could affect the towns’ residents for many years to come, and could have affected many of the towns’ former residents, who left before the substance was discovered.

“We believe the contamination started earlier [than the 1940s]” said Veilleux.

“It may get to 500 cases [of cancer] before the trial starts,” he said, due to the slow effects of TCE on the body.

Spieser now represents more than 2,000 people affected by the TCE contamination.

“I lost confidence [in the water],” said Speiser. “There’s still a little bit of TCE in the water. No one ever told us about that.”

The federal government’s lawyer, Chantal Sauriol, did not respond to The Daily’s phone calls.