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1988: Residents flee PCB fire near Montreal

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It's been a terrifying week for the residents of St-Basile-le-Grand, just south of Montreal in the Montérégie region. Late at night on Aug. 23, 1988, they were awakened by explosions at a nearby warehouse. Then a vast cloud of smoke spread out across 14 acres of the town, and emergency workers told them to flee the area. The source of the fire: 500 barrels of oil laced with the toxin PCB. It is the largest PCB fire in Canadian history.

In addition to being scared, the residents of St-Basile-le-Grand are furious. They had lobbied for years to get rid of the makeshift storage facility. And there are hundreds more like it across Quebec which some experts call ticking environmental time bombs. As we hear in this clip from Sunday Morning, many of the residents are still living in shelters. And they are living in fear for their future health, and that of their children.
• Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are organic compounds made up of a mixture of up to 209 chlorinated chemicals. A colourless liquid that doesn't easily dissolve in water or break down under high temperatures, PCBs were used commercially as coolants and lubricants in transformers and capacitors beginning in the 1930s.
• By the 1970s it became clear that PCBs were toxic to humans. They were no longer manufactured after 1977. PCB contaminated oil has been stockpiled across Canada since 1978.

• During their manufacture, use and disposal, PCBs can enter the air, water or soil and become a very persistent pollutant. They bind strongly to soil and water sediment, can travel long distances in the air, and do not break down easily in the environment. When they enter the food chain, they accumulate in animal tissue and can be very toxic to fish and invertebrates.

• In humans, PCB exposure often initially causes skin conditions like acne and rashes. It can cause liver damage, and is associated with certain types of cancer. There can also be health problems in the children of pregnant or nursing women who have been exposed to PCBs.

• The St-Basile-le-Grand fire caused 3,000 people to flee their homes. It was 18 days before they could return.
• In addition to the St-Basile-le-Grand fire, several other incidents put PCBs in the environmental spotlight in the 1980s and 1990s. On April 13, 1985, a truck transporting a PCB-containing transformer leaked fluid over 100 kilometres of the Trans-Canada Highway. The highway was eventually torn up, but there were health questions about travellers who had driven behind the truck.

• Also in 1985, PCBs were discovered in a lagoon area of a waste transfer facility in Smithville, Ont., and an expensive "decommissioning and remediation" program began.
• In 1989, British dock workers refused to unload a ship exporting waste from the St-Basile-le-Grand fire to the United Kingdom for destruction. The ship returned to Canada, where demonstrators attempted to stop it being unloaded at Baie Comeau.

• In the 1990s, PCBs were discovered on a sunken barge in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and at an industrial site in the Maritimes.
• All of these incidents led to more strict federal regulations on PCB management. After the St-Basile-le-Grand fire, new regulations were enacted to control PCB waste storage, and a federal PCB destruction program was launched.

• Money was also made available for PCB studies, and mobile destruction facilities were to operate across the country. However, many communities objected to mobile incinerators operating in their area.

Also on August 23:
1992: Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers agree to constitutional changes including an elected Senate, Aboriginal self-government and inter-provincial trade. This preliminary agreement sets the stage for the Charlottetown Accord.
Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning
Broadcast Date: Aug. 28, 1988
Guest(s): Dianne Cantin, Albert Lantel, Clifford Lincoln, Tom McMillan, Bonnie Robinson, Mary Sergeant
Reporter: Lynn Glazier
Duration: 12:18

Last updated: July 27, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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