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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Burning Trust

Air Date: Week of

Residents of Hamilton, Ontario say they were burned in more ways than one by a huge industrial blaze that blanketed their city in toxic smoke for days. It was a disaster, they say, that could have been prevented. For four days last July, a black, toxic cloud hung over the city of Hamilton; Canada's "steel city" on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was the worst fire in Hamilton's history and one of the worst fires of its kind in the world. The Hamilton conflagration was a plastics fire: polyvinyl chloride, or PVC plastic. As hundreds of tons of PVC burned, it released huge amounts of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, one of the most carcinogenic substances known. Some residents say the Hamilton blaze was not an accident: it was the culmination of years of bungling, mismanagement and misjudgment by a slew of government officials. And experts say it could happen again elsewhere in the industrialized world. Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty prepared the following documentary examination of a disaster that need not have happened.


CURWOOD: For 4 days last July a black toxic cloud hung over the city of Hamilton, Canada's steel city on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was the worst fire in Hamilton's history, and one of the worst fires of its kind in the world. The Hamilton conflagration was a plastics fire. Polyvinyl chloride or PVC, used to make plastic pipes and countless other products. And as the hundreds of tons of PVC burned it released huge amounts of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, one of the moist poisonous substances known. The Hamilton blaze was not an accident. It was the culmination of years of bungling, mismanagement, and misjudgment by a slew of government officials, and experts say it can happen again almost anywhere in the industrialized world. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty prepared our report.

(Children yelling)

WOMAN: Twenty after 7, I'm sitting outside in my little respite time before I have to get the kids ready for bed. I hear Bang Bang. I don't think twice, I just go in, I start the water for their bath. The next thing I know my son comes to me and says Mommy, there's a fire. And I said to him, No there's not. Don't tell stories. Because we had had a small discussion before that. And he said Mommy, it's a nuclear. And he's 4 years old, but he had seen a documentary just fresh in his mind the night before about a mushroom cloud. We looked outside and I saw it, and immediately I panicked, because I'd never seen anything like this before in my life.

(Horns, sirens)

(FIREFIGHTER)MAN: It's definitely the biggest fire I've ever been at. My first reaction was, I want to retire. (Laughs) You know, I just thought, I don't want to go there, you know, because I knew how bad it was.

(Horns, sirens, crackling flames)

WOMAN 2: The public officials told us, day 1, everything is fine, day 2, everything is fine, day 3, everything is not so fine. You may want to get out of your homes. It's absolutely despicable. I don't know who they were looking out for but I have to say it doesn't feel like they were looking out for my family and myself.

(FIRERFIGHTER)MAN : I've had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about getting cancer and dying of cancer or leukemia or, you know, am I a walking corpse?

WOMAN 3: Why did this fire happen? Who's responsible? I've got 2 beautiful children that God entrusted me with. What the hell do I do now?

(Voices, sirens)

CARTY: It's the questions that remain, now 4 months since the fire. The disturbing questions of firefighters who fought a blaze unlike any other. The unanswered questions of citizens who endured the acrid fumes and cannot understand how this happened. This is a story not just about a fire but about a place: Hamilton's North End, an old working-class neighborhood where every house is different and the cultural diversity matches the variety of vegetable gardens. Hamilton's North End is also speckled with industrial sites, one of them the size of a couple of football fields. Just 100 yards from residential neighborhoods. Just 300 yards from the Hamilton General Hospital. The city of Hamilton has declared a state of emergency on only 2 occasions in its history. Both were because of this site. To the people of the North End, it has been nothing short of an environmental horror story.

FOURNIER: Right now we're staring at the former Plastimet site, which is pretty much a disgusting heap of twisted dark metal. And it stinks. (Laughs) My name is Charlotte Fournier and I've lived in the North End for 4 years. My husband's family, however, has lived here pretty close to 7 generations now. There used to be a small canal, and that's where my great grandfather used to skate and play hockey. Unfortunately, they closed in the canal with a lot of toxic dump crap, I don't know, and the Earth swallowed it up.

CARTY: The mess in her back yard has made Charlotte Fournier curious about the history of this industrial site, a history she has been piecing together with her neighbor, Anne Gallagher.

GALLAGHER: My understanding is that many different factories have operated out of there, all dealing with scrap metal and metal processing from what I understand. We've had residents call us and tell us that their father worked there in the 40s, and they used to burn battery acid. At some point in the 80s, they had been approved to handle high lead dust. And the assumption is that that lead dust was buried there.

CARTY: Anne Gallagher and Charlotte Fournier are just 2 of a group of North End residents who have suddenly become activists. They have ferreted out hundreds of pages of government documents. They have discovered that a scrap metal company called USARCO used to operate here, belching out pollution. So much pollution that in the late 1980s, USARCO's owner Frank Levy pleaded guilty to 10 counts under the Environmental Protection Act. Then the company went deep into debt and its bankers put it into receivership in 1990. No one was responsible for watching over the toxic materials left on the site.

OFFICIAL: Report on status of USARCO properties for the Ministry of the Environment, April 1993. The front yard area used to store transformers is possibly contaminated with PCB oil...

CARTY: The official from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Energy, the MOEE, was shocked by the contamination he found in early 1993. He made a point of warning about containers he found, of chemicals and liquid mercury.

OFFICIAL: The laboratory located within the office area of the building contains a large assortment of chemical re-agents that if mixed could cause violent reactions. As this area is in a state of disorganization and is susceptible to vandalism, it is recommended that this area be cleaned up and all materials removed.

CARTY: That provincial environment report was either ignored or fell into a very deep filing cabinet. In the summer of 1993, what preoccupied local officials were the repeated fires on the site, apparently set by vandals. They left the buildings charred and damaged. In fact, USARCO was a regular stop for the Hamilton Fire Department. Over the past decade, firefighters were called to the site no less than 26 times. But despite all the attention, it appears no one gave a whole lot of thought to those containers of chemicals and mercury. They were never removed.

(Newscast music up and under)

WOMAN REPORTER: The city of Hamilton, Ontario, declared a state of emergency today. As many as 100 Hamilton school children have admitted to passing around mercury that came from an abandoned warehouse in the north end of the city. Local health officials have sealed off the warehouse, and they're trying to figure out how the whole thing started.

GALLAGHER: School children had gained access to the building and had gotten hold of liquid mercury. It beads, it's shiny, it moves in a very weird sort of way that would appeal to kids. And they were passing it around. And it is highly toxic. Two-hundred-fifty-five children were exposed. Nine children were hospitalized. Nine schools were involved, and I believe 4 bad enough to require clean-up.

MAN REPORTER: Clean-up crews will be at the plant for the next few days scooping up the chemicals they see and searching for more. The company that used to work out of the building is bankrupt, so it's likely local taxpayers will get stuck with the cleanup bill.

CARTY: And indeed they were: a cleanup bill of $60,000. The city of Hamilton tagged the $60,000 onto Frank Levy's municipal taxes. Taxes which were already in arrears, a tax bill which would eventually total $2 million. It became a classic case of a municipal Catch-22. Because of the toxic waste, the property was more of a liability than an asset. So, in 1994, the receivers gave the property back to the owner. And even though the city could have seized the property to recover its taxes, they wouldn't touch it. It would have been an invitation for scores of other polluting industries to dump their problems in the taxpayers' lap. The USARCO site was like an unwanted orphan.

FOURNIER: I'd walk by once in a while to go to the Tim Horton's on the corner. Never once did I see anybody working there. I didn't even know that it was a working building.

CARTY: In late 1995, Charlotte Fournier and other residents of the North End were unaware that a new operation had started up on the USARCO site. Frank Levy, who refused me an interview, had leased part of the property to Jack Lieberman, the owner of a company called Plastimet. Plastimet called itself a PVC plastics recycler. It applied to the province for a certificate of approval to operate, but was eventually told that this kind of operation did not need a certificate of approval.

FOURNIER: I, I, I consider myself very naive now, because I thought no, we have people in certain situations that take care of this. I don't have to worry about this. Well hello!

CARTY: Hello indeed. Plastamet started storing PVC on the site in October of 1995. It was not until September of 1996 that the Hamilton Fire Department became aware that the operation existed. No fire inspections had occurred for almost a year. And when fire inspectors did tour the site, they slapped Jack Lieberman and Plastimet with 20 violations of the Ontario Fire Code. The Fire Department set a deadline for compliance.

GALLAGHER They were given a deadline initially, I believe at the beginning of November of last year, to fix them. But it wasn't really a deadline, it was a negotiating point. We're being told, well they were complying with, you know, they fixed some of the violations. They fixed the violations that basically did not cost them anything to fix. They fixed the most minor violations. The important ones, the fire wall, the sprinkler systems, those were the ones that were still under negotiation in the first week of July.

CARTY: In fact, by July 11, Plastimet was supposed to provide a letter committing itself to a plan. But that would be 2 days too late.

(Yelling children, playing)

COOK: When I first heard of it, I was on the mountain and we had been out home inspecting, and we had had the call come in. So we walked down to the end of the street that I was on and I looked over the mountain brow and I could just see this massive, massive amounts of smoke. If you've seen the Gulf War pictures, it's large amounts of rolling smoke, black, blacker than I've ever seen. And I said to the guys, I says Guys, we better get the heck back to the station, I said, because I think we'll be going.

(Sirens, horns)

CARTY: George Cook is 28 years a firefighter. It is a hot July 9th, and he is called in to fight the biggest fire he's ever seen.

COOK: When I got there, the building had collapsed. The walls had collapsed, the roof had collapsed in. The product that was burning was about maybe 12 feet high, large cubes of crushed plastic. All we were doing at that particular time was, you know, pouring massive volumes of water on the flames.


FOURNIER: The amount of people that were around us was just incredible. Gawking, staring, playing, eating ice cream, eating popcorn. We were being entertained by this fire. And nobody was telling us to leave. It was like this is okay, again the false prophet. The government could have told us all to leave at that time, knowing what was in there. However, they chose to let us all watch.

(Crackling flames)

COOK: Due to the large amounts of water that was put on the fire, there was a large amount of runoff, and there was a big lake. In fact, the guys had christened it Lake Simcoe because the fire was at the corner of Simcoe and Wellington Streets, and this water was up to 2 feet deep in some places. When I was walking through this water, I tripped over some hose that was submerged underneath this water. My face went under the water. Swallowed some of the runoff, went in my ears and my eyes, and down my throat and that kind of thing. And you know, I just kind of shrugged it off, I laughed. And one of the guys that saw me made a joke about going for a swim.

GALLAGHER: We got a hold of a transistor radio and tried to listen to any reports on the news. Which they reported there was a fire. We never heard the phrase PVC plastics. And I think we went to bed with the assumption that it would all be over by tomorrow. And the next day there seemed to be no change; it was burning as high and as bright.

WOMAN REPORTER: A toxic scare in Hamilton, Ontario, today as thousands of residents hid behind sealed windows and doors. The threat came from smoke billowing from a fire at a plastics recycling plant...

CARTY: It is Thursday, the second day of the fire. And there are growing concerns about the toxins that are produced when hundreds of tons of PVC plastic burns. There are also reassurances from the Medical Officer of Health. Dr. Marilyn James tells the public the smoke is no worse than a bad smog day in Hamilton.

JAMES: Smoke and fumes are, you know, cause irritation and such. But to date, we haven't identified major toxins that would cause immediate concern.

GALLAGHER: One of the first comments I believe that I saw on the news from Dr. James was not to worry. There may be chemicals present within the smoke but they were going high into the atmosphere and basically dissipating, I guess, like pixie dust or something. And it's human nature. You know what? I wanted to believe that. I would have been --if Matthew Bramley of Greenpeace had not raised concerns, I'm sure that many of us would have thought everything is fine.

WOMAN REPORTER: Joining us from Hamilton is Dr. Matthew Bramley. He's a chemist with the environmental group Greenpeace. Dr. Bramley...

FOURNIER: It did get to the point where the entire community was saying okay, I don't care what public health and the MOEE is saying. Talk to me, Greenpeace.

BRAMLEY:... because of the dioxin production. Dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known to science, literally. And when we've got a fire like this, we get a huge production of dioxin. And it's going to be in the ash and in the smoke and in the...

COOK: Well, seemingly the Ministry of Environment was saying that there was no immediate danger and that it was just, you know, the same toxicity as a regular fire that you would get. It sounded strange to me because I didn't know, you know. Because the Ministry of Environment is saying one thing and Greenpeace is saying another. We were getting conflicting reports.

(Crackling flames)

GALLAGHER: I was sitting here on the Thursday afternoon, with my daughter who was in the dining room drawing. And she looked out our back yard and said, Mom, I can't see the back of our garden. And I looked out, and we were engulfed in smoke. And at that point I did panic and I had run out to the side of the house. The Red Cross had set up and was feeding firefighters and emergency workers, and I had said, you know, what is going on? And they said, it's just that the wind shifted, you're fine. And at this point I'm choking and gagging. I ran in the house. We threw the kids, and the dog, in the car, and we were out of there.

(Music swells)

WOMAN NEWSCASTER: Good evening. There's a state of emergency in Hamilton, Ontario tonight. Hundreds of people are out of their homes. Police wearing gas masks went directly...

CARTY: On the third day of the fire, with weather conditions trapping the toxic smoke close to the ground, the Medical Officer of Health orders an evacuation. But there is no evacuation for the firefighters.

(Breathing through a mask; crackling flames)

COOK: After the second day I felt really bad. I was fatigued. Headaches, shortness of breath, that type of thing. There was a lot of -- lot of chlorine burning. And when this was mixed with the water it was coming down as hydrochloric acid. One fellow I know had, the skin on his hands were peeling in between his fingers, were all peeling off. We're employed as firefighters. You know, some people say well maybe you should let it burn, and that might have been a good idea, too, just to let the product burn. You've got to do your job, we're firefighters and that's what we've got to do.

(Creaking sounds)

COOK: I had brought in some heavy equipment Saturday morning, backhoes and bulldozers and that kind of thing, exposing the product to the, you know, to the hoses and that kind of thing. Basically, that was when the fire was knocked down.

MAN REPORTER: People who live near a burned-out plastics plant in Hamilton, Ontario, have been told they can go home. Police have lifted an evacuation order. Officials say the levels of toxins in the air are normal, but Greenpeace chemist Matthew Bramley says the ash from the fire at Plastamet contains toxins.

BRAMLEY: The question is, where has this dioxin gone to? Is it mainly confined to the fire site, or have substantial quantities gone out in smoke?

FOURNIER: Can you smell that? Can you taste it? I call it chemical mouth. I remember my microwave went on fire and it smelled up the house for days and days and days, and that's the same smell. You can smell charred metals.

CARTY: Three months after the fire, the Ministry of the Environment is overseeing a cleanup of the Plastimet site, getting rid of the charred rubble, and scraping off up to half a foot of topsoil. The Ministry has found 500 tons of plastic that was not burned. It had been stored outside the collapsed building. That suggests that Plastimet had a lot more plastic on the site than the original estimate of 400 tons, and even that had been too much for the fire department. Three months after the fire, no one can get rid of the questions.

FOURNIER: I want to know what I can do to make sure that my children are going to be safe. And from there, why did this fire happen? Who's responsible? Why are we not qualifying for a public inquiry?

CARTY: In fact, everyone seems to want a public inquiry. The city; the regional government; the fire, building, and medical departments; the firefighters themselves; and the residents of the North End. They all want the power of a provincial inquiry to find out what went wrong. But in the provincial legislature in Toronto, the Minister of the Environment and Energy, Norm Sterling, faces his critics with a steadfast refusal.

MAN: Minister, what are you afraid of? What else are you waiting for. Why don't you do what the Minister of Health said on August 22nd, and call a public inquiry today?

STERLING: Mr. Speaker, I am waiting for evidence that there is some wrongdoing or something wrong with regard to somebody's conduct during this. (Yelling in the background) Whether it be a fireman, the Medical Officer of Health, or the Ministry of Environment or it be anybody else. You don't call in an inquiry for fun. You call it because in fact there is some evidence of wrongdoing with regard to some public official, and none has been presented to me.


CARTY: And so, the residents of the North End are doing their own inquiry of sorts. They meet over kitchen tables with their Freedom of Information documents, and they gather at community meetings with a determination to hold their local politicians and city officials to account.

MAN: Sir, isn't your agency responsible for authorizing this place to be a recycle, PVC recycling plant?

OFFICIAL: No, no, there was no certificate of approval necessary for that facility to operate as a recycling facility.

MAN: So basically what this was, was a garbage dump in the middle of the city of Hamilton.

OFFICIAL: Do you have the person here who said it can't be recycled?

MAN: The next speaker is Dr. Paul Johnstone from England.


MAN: And actually, I'll turn it over to him right now.

(Cheers and applause from the audience)

JOHNSTONE: My name is Paul Johnstone. I'm Principal Scientist for the Greenpeace research in the UK. Today, when I inspected the site, and it was the first time that I'd seen it, there were still very substantial quantities of plastics still on the site that were unburned. And amongst that stockpile of plastics were bales of vinyls, for which no significant recycling market exists. And the question, I think, that pertains there is: why was this site allowed to accumulate this material, particularly when of course you stockpile something like this, not unnaturally it presents ultimately a fire hazard.

CARTY: The Ontario Fire Marshal's office says local governments do not have enough power to crack down on fire code violators, or to prevent plastic recycling plants from setting up near residential neighborhoods. The fire marshall has been unable to determine the cause of the Plastimet fire. He has not ruled out arson. In fact, more than one third of all chemical and waste fires are deliberately set. Another third are of unknown origin. Greenpeace scientists Paul Johnstone says that looking around the world, there are similar patterns everywhere.

JOHNSTONE: Certainly we're seeing an increasing number of fires at plastics recycling facilities. We've seen fires like this in Sweden, we've seen fires like this in Germany, we've seen fires like this in Chile, we've seen fires like this in the UK. And the simple reason for this is that far more plastics exist than there are facilities capable of doing something useful with them. So what tends to happen with them is they're either shipped abroad, or they end up in landfill. And the other thing that may be of significance, that with similar materials in the United Kingdom, we've recently uncovered several schemes where people are being paid to take this material away.

CARTY: However, some manufacturers in the vinyl industry say operations like Plastimet give recycling a bad name. They insist that PVC plastic, properly melted down and reformulated, can be reused, and there's a good market for it. But Plastimet was just storing, sorting, grinding up the plastics, and moving them out.

(Ambient, echoing voices)

MAN: We've been talking with the firefighters themselves, the guys who, you know, actually stood there in the face of it for 4 days...

CARTY: Finally, there are still questions about Hamilton's fire department, about its decision to fight the blaze as a normal fire instead of declaring it a hazardous materials fire, which in turn might have given firefighters more personal protection from injury. In the fire stations men say there is an unusual sense of fear and uncertainty. There are still dozens of reports of recurring symptoms among the men who fought the Plastamet blaze: severe headaches, fatigue, respiratory difficulties, and a couple of cases of chemically induced asthmas. And they're worried about cancer. You can hear it in George Cook's voice.

COOK: A few years ago up in Kitchener, I think it was 1987, there was a chemical fire. And about 3 or 4 years later a couple of guys started dying. And I think in total there was about 5 guys died, young guys getting cancer. That's what's going through my mind. You know, I'm 53 now, am I going to see 60 kind of thing? Seemingly, I'm only getting two thirds of the oxygen into my, going through my lungs than I would normally get. So I've had a lot of sleepless nights thinking about getting cancer and brain damage from the lead content of the water that I swallowed. And you know, am I a walking corpse?

FOURNIER: I feel like I've been lied to, and I'm a 28-year-old woman who had blind faith and trust in my government, because I figured I'm a taxpayer, they're taking care of me. I know I'll be fine. And what's bothered me the most about this whole situation is that dream is gone. That little bubble has bursted. And now I feel like I'm totally out there by myself. I've got to check everything now.

CARTY: The cleanup of the Plastimet site is expected to cost $4 million. There may eventually be other costs. Dioxins persist in concentrate in the food chain. The dioxins released at Plastimet are now part of our environment. Here in the North End, though, new soil tests register very little dioxin. It's likely been dispersed by the rain and the sun and the wind. That's good news today for Charlotte Fournier and her neighbors. The bad news is that those same tests revealed dangerous levels of carcinogenic PAHs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in the corner park. The park will be fenced off, the soil removed. Apparently, it's contamination left over from a different industrial occupant of the North End. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Hamilton, Ontario.



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