Quebeckers launch class action over cancer cluster near military base
QUEBEC — Marie-Paule Spieser lost her best friend to a rare form of liver cancer in September of 2000. As an experienced nurse in her mid-40s, Ms. Spieser knew something had to be wrong.
Her friend's husband had also been diagnosed with cancer and it seemed nearly every household in the neighbourhood where she lived was stricken with some form of the disease.
Then a few weeks later, just before Christmas, Ms. Spieser along with the 4,000 other residents of Shannon, a small town located just outside the Valcartier military base near Quebec City, learned that their water supply had been contaminated for years with the chemical solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, a probable carcinogen.
Eight years later, Ms. Spieser, who has also suffered health problems allegedly caused by high levels of TCE found in her home's drinking water, is now the leading plaintiff in a huge class-action suit that includes 243 current residents with cancer allegedly linked to TCE. The lawsuit has ballooned to more than 1,300 people, including many with other illnesses allegedly linked to TCE and relatives of deceased persons who once resided in Shannon. According to lawyers, the number could eventually reach as many as 2,000.
“I still live in Shannon and I can't wait to leave,” Ms. Spieser said Friday. “It is scandalous. In a news report yesterday we learned that the federal government knew about the contamination as far back as 1978, yet they did nothing to warn people. What were they doing?”
As word spreads across the country to the hundreds of military families and former residents who lived in Shannon between 1953 and 2003, the case may turn into the biggest class-action suit of its kind in North America.
“A lot of people on that military base got cancer. … So it's bigger than just a lawsuit. It's really a deep wound to the heart of small-town Canada,” said Stephen Clarke, one of the group's lawyers.
Recent Canadian toxicology studies paid for by the class-action group assert that TCE is at the core of the community's health problems. For instance, the odds of three unrelated people in the same household getting colon cancer are estimated to be one in 3.6 billion. Yet that is exactly what happened to three people who had lived in one of the Shannon homes. Michel Lemoine, 70, and his wife Aline Perron Lemoine, 69, were recently diagnosed with colon cancer and then learned that the woman from whom they had bought the house in the mid-1980s, Monique Dumont, now 69, was diagnosed with the same type of cancer.
Other test results recently conducted at a specialized laboratory in Pittsburgh, also paid for by the Shannon contingent, said the cancer incidence in Shannon was directly linked to the TCE contamination. “I have no doubt that the toxicology reports have determined the direct link between the cancer incidents and the trichloroethylene in the water,” said toxicology expert Michel Charbonneau, who worked with the Pittsburgh group.
In one instance, 30 cancer cases of residents living in the 55 homes located in what is called the heavily contaminated “red triangle” zone were all said to be linked to TCE.
There was also mounting evidence to suggest that the contamination was far greater than expected. In a sworn affidavit by a former employee of SNC Technologies, Marcel Paquet, who died last year, testimony showed that up to a dozen 45-gallon drums of the contaminant were dumped daily over many years in large manufactured lagoons that eventually contaminated the nearby soil and underground water supply.
The federal Department of Defence, as well as the current owners of SNC Technologies, are among those named in the class-action suit.
Defence officials did not return a request for comment. Federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Josée Verner and provincial Health Minister Yves Bolduc said Friday they are closely monitoring the case.
The suit is scheduled to be heard in Quebec Superior Court next October.