Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Port Colborne lawsuit - What does it all mean?

Source: The Tribune
By Mark Tayti
Jan 3, 2010

PORT COLBORNE — Sitting in a Welland courtroom with her name attached to a high-stakes class action civil suit against nickel giant Vale Inco is not something Ellen Smith ever thought she might be doing.

Roll the clock back a decade or so and Smith lived a relatively normal life on the east side of Port Colborne. She had lived in her Rodney St. house for a couple of years and was raising a couple kids with her husband.

That was before news broke in the community about elevated nickel levels in the soil. Her own property was tested at 16,000 parts per million and 91 Rodney St. became one of 25 properties under Ministry of Environment orders against Vale Inco slated for remediation.

Then came the Community Based Risk Assessment (CBRA), an in-depth study that has been going on since near the turn of the last decade.

Smith got interested once she found out there were elevated levels of what have come to be known as "chemicals of concern" in her neighbourhood.

"I didn't know what it all meant," she said.

Ten years later, Smith still worries about what it all means. Her two children were raised in the home red-flagged by the ministry.

Sitting in on literally hundreds of CBRA meetings have done little to ease Smith's concerns. She said the scientific community is at odds on what the long-term health affects might be.

"Is there going to be human health problems? Nobody knows. The whole idea of not knowing has kept me involved."

Smith said there is still a lot of interest in the class action lawsuit that got underway in Welland in the fall and is scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 11, 2010.

"People stop me on the street and ask me how it's going," she said. "I am constantly getting phone calls from neighbours and people who have lived in the neighbourhood. People are interested."

The class action case deals specifically with real estate values and what impact chemical contamination may have had on those values since the news broke.

What the class action suit does not take into account is the very real stress the whole situation has had on families in the Rodney St. neighbourhood.

When the class action was certified, it was initially Wilf Pearson who was named as plaintiff.

A decision was made to remove his name and replace it with Smith's because of Pearson's ongoing health issues.

Regardless of the outcome, one thing Smith is never getting back is the time she invested tracking the process, attending meetings and researching on the Internet in order to answer that nagging question.

"There was a cost to the quality of life with my family," she admits. "There is always that worry in the back of your head as to the long-term affects of elevated levels of nickel in the soil."

She said a decision was made to separate the health issues from the real estate issues in the ongoing court case. She had hoped the CBRA would answer the questions concerning chemical exposure.

The more time that passes, the more she doubts it.

"I don't think the CBRA will accomplish anything — other than compile data," she said. "I am never going to get that question answered."

Smith said Vale Inco has spent millions to do the study. She believes the money would have been better spent by sitting down with property owners and coming to some out-of-court settlement.

"The scientific community is at odds with itself," she said. "A lot of the process has become political."

She said the class action suit represents anyone with property within the city's borders, who has owned the property as of September 2000.

For her part, she has spent several days in Toronto in the discovery process and has spent about four days on the stand during the trial giving evidence and being cross exzamined.

"Talk about stress," she said when asked about the trial. "Physically and mentally, it takes a lot out of you."

She said the CBRA and the lawsuit have dragged on for so long that many people have forgotten about it or they think it's over. Attendance at CBRA community meetings and open houses held to vet reports has dropped off and only a handful of Rodney St. neighbours remain actively engaged.

There have been times during the court case when Smith has been one of a sparse few in the gallery to witness the two legal teams argue the fate of the community.

"Whatever the outcome, it affects virtually every (property owner) in Port Colborne," Smith said. "I think there are just over 6,000 households. There is a lot of weight on my shoulders but I am not alone. I have a fantastic team of lawyers."

She is hoping a decision on the case will be handed down by the summer of 2010.

Despite all that Smith has encountered along the way, she has no regrets, other than the time lost with family.

Smith also plans on seeing things through to their conclusion.

"It's been 10 years of learning," she said. "I never had a interest in anything like this until it happened to me."

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