From The Gazette

Pointe-Claire

PCBs: ‘No excuse’ for not warning residents; Provincial and municipal officials

  • A man looks into the Reliance yard.
    A man looks into the Reliance yard.
    Photo credit: John Kenney, The Gazette

Provincial and municipal officials had no legal obligation to inform the residents of Pointe-Claire that there was an illegal stockpile of hazardous waste in the middle of their community, but experts say they should have done so anyway.

The discovery of an unmonitored yard full of old transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on Hymus Blvd. following an oil spill on March 26 was undoubtedly disconcerting for Quebec’s Environment Department, said risk communication expert William Leiss – and that’s probably why it chose not to broadcast the news.

“PCBs are a rather notorious substance,” said Leiss, a professor at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies who has written several books on risk communication. “The rationale in these cases is that officials consult the relevant minister and the minister says: ‘Well, the public will panic.’ “No, the politicians will panic. The public rarely panics.”

Leiss said there is “no imaginable excuse” for failing to inform the people of Pointe-Claire about the spill at the yard – owned by Reliance Power Equipment – and the resulting infiltration of toxic PCBs into the surrounding soil and surface water, “because they could very well be at elevated risk and they would want to know if they are.”

Aside from the ethical considerations, the government also took a big public-relations gamble by choosing not to divulge the information on its own terms when it had the chance, he added, resulting in residents finding out through a report published in the Journal de Montréal on Tuesday.

“Eventually, everything comes out … especially in this day and age and especially with social media,” Leiss said.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet defended his department’s choices, saying that no warnings were issued because the site, such as it is, poses no “immediate danger” to public health.

Unfortunately for Blanchet, keeping the original discovery a secret will make it much more difficult to convince residents that they are safe, said Peter Sandman, a New York-based risk communications expert who has served as an adviser to numerous public institutions. “Why should neighbours, or anyone else, trust what officials have to say about the degree of risk posed by the PCBs when those officials didn’t even tell them the PCBs were there?” he asked.

Sandman echoed Leiss’s sentiments, explaining that even if full disclosure results in some uncomfortable questions (how the government could remain unaware of the illegal storage facility for over 15 years, for example), it’s always much better to come clean from the start.

“Of course people do sometimes overreact even if they’re told about a risk promptly and empathically. But they’re much, much likelier to overreact when they’re told belatedly by a third party.”

According to Montrealbased environmental attorney Christine Duchaine, the municipality of Pointe-Claire and Quebec’s Environment Department were not required by law to automatically inform citizens of the spill in the Reliance yard. Situations like that are assessed on a case-by-case basis, she said, and then a decision is made about whether the public needs to be in the loop.

“There’s nothing that forces the ministry to emit any information,” Duchaine said.

She was careful to add, however, that the government has a responsibility to protect citizens. If a failure to communicate were to result in injury or death, then the province could be liable.

“There’s a lot of things that are not written in black-andwhite in the law, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have some kind of obligation … there’s a moral obligation.”

The situation in Pointe-Claire is all the more embarrassing for Blanchet and his staff considering that over the past several weeks, politicians at all levels in Quebec have been calling loudly for increased transparency from railway companies in the wake of the disaster in Lac-Mégantic (at present, these firms are not required to tell cities and towns what hazardous materials they are transporting and in what quantities).

If it wants to begin repairing the damage, said Sandman, the Environment Department must now be as forthright as possible.

“They should apologize for having failed to trust that the public wouldn’t overreact if told promptly about the PCB problem. They should acknowledge that now people may not entirely trust what they say about the degree of risk and the cleanup plan. And they should promise to keep the neighbours in the loop from here on in.”

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