Former Giant Mine worker says arsenic exposure damaged his spinal cord

A former Giant Mine employee who says arsenic poisoning left him severely injured is calling on the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission to rehear his claim.

Stephen Petersen fights for review of Workers Safety and Compansation Commission decision to deny his claim

Giant Mine in Yellowknife, as it looked in 2001. A former Giant Mine worker, Stephen Petersen, is taking the Workers Safety and Compensation Commission to court over its decision not to review his claim that exposure to arsenic in 1988 left him paralyzed. (CP PHOTO/Chuck Stoody)

A former employee at Yellowknife's Giant Mine who says arsenic exposure left him with spinal cord damage is calling on the Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission to rehear his claim.

In his original claim, Stephen Petersen, 64, said exposure to arsenic in 1988 left him with mobility issues and unable to control his bladder. The WSCC denied his claim saying there was no evidence that linked his symptoms to arsenic exposure.

According to court documents, Petersen says he was exposed to toxic chemicals, including arsenic, while working as a Treatment Recovery Plant Operator at Giant Mine in July 1988. Petersen says he was asked to clean up a spill containing arsenic, cyanide, lead and mercury without protective equipment. He says he did the cleanup wearing only jeans and leather boots.

Hours after his shift, Petersen says he woke up barely able to walk and had lost control of his bladder. He went to the hospital in Yellowknife and was sent to Edmonton for treatment. He says by the time he arrived at Edmonton, he was completely paralyzed and had to be carried out of the plane on a stretcher.

There he was diagnosed with acute transverse myelitis. Myelitis is the inflammation of grey and white matter in the spinal cord. It has a number of possible causes including multiple sclerosis, poliovirus, tuberculosis, rabies, syphilis and exposure to toxic chemicals such as arsenic. 

In court documents, Petersen says he went through months of physiotherapy to regain mobility. Twenty-seven years later, Petersen still requires a urinary catheter, and uses a cane to walk.

In 1996, Petersen's original claim to the WSCC was denied. The commission said it couldn't see a link between the chemical exposure and the myelitis. It said that because myelitis has a number of other possible causes, the commission couldn't be sure exposure to toxic chemicals is what caused Petersen's condition.

Tests Petersen underwent in 1988, included in court documents, showed that he had no viruses or signs of multiple sclerosis. Tests did find that he had been exposed to a "very high level of arsenic."

In 2011, Petersen saw a physician at the Occupational Health Clinics of Ontario Workers, Dr. Noel Kerin. In his report, Kerin stated "it is more likely than not" that the chemical exposure contributed to Petersen's disease.

Petersen submitted Kerin's findings to the WSCC saying that this new information meant the commission had a duty to review his claim. The WSCC denied Petersen's request saying that Kerin's report did not constitute new substantive evidence.

Now, four years later, Petersen is asking an N.W.T. Supreme Court judge to review the WSCC's decision not to review his claim.

The WSCC is calling on the court to dismiss Petersen's request. It argues that under the rules of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, if Petersen wanted a review of its 2011 decision, he had only 30 days to ask for one.

Petersen says he couldn't afford the legal costs at the time.

Both parties are scheduled to appear in N.W.T. Supreme Court on Dec. 4.