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Activists doubt soils study is valid
By Denis St. Pierre, The Sudbury Star, March 3, 2009.
Frustrated by the process and suspicious of the results of a landmark study on industrial pollution in Greater Sudbury, environmental activists say it may be time for the community to launch its own, independent research.
"It's a really good idea and we're looking into it," said Joan Kuyek, chairwoman of the Community Committee on the Sudbury Soils Study. The committee was formed last year by activists and city residents concerned about the process and findings of the Sudbury Soils Study and the study's Human Health Risk Assessment.
The soils study, which has cost more than $10 million to date, is being funded by the city's two major industrial polluters, Vale Inco and Xstrata Nickel. The two companies also have had representatives directly involved in the decision-making process behind the study, prompting critics to question the project's validity and objectivity.
As a result, activists are now contemplating the merits of launching an extensive testing program that would be independent of any influence from the mining companies.
"It's a really good idea and we're looking into it," confirmed Kuyek.
"Like 64 per cent of Sudburians, we don't really trust the findings of the Human Health Risk Assessment."
She was referring to an informal public-opinion poll on the study.
"We can't rely on the Human Health Risk Assessment."
The merits of a community-based testing program were advocated last weekend at a public forum in Sudbury attended by about 50 city residents and members of the soils study community committee.
An independent testing program in Sudbury was strongly recommended by environmental activists from New Brunswick and Port Colborne, Ont., who attended the forum.
Testing of lead concentrations in the blood of Sudburians, for example, "would force the issue" and possibly compel government to order more comprehensive study of human health issues related to industrial pollution, said New Brunswick activist Inka Milewski.
"The need for doing a blood/lead level study in Sudbury is absolutely essential," said Milewski, of the Health Watch Conservation Council of New Brunswick, which is pushing for greater research into the effects of decades of lead-smelting in the community of Belledune, N. B.
"Nothing has been more powerful in Belledune than to do our own testing and sampling," Milewski said. Launching her own soil testing in New Brunswick several years ago prompted government and industry to conduct testing and studies of their own, she noted.
Independent testing in Sudbury also was advocated by activist Diana Wiggins, who has been active in risk-assessment issues related to Vale Inco operations in Port Colborne, where a $750-million class-action lawsuit has been launched against the company.
"I would highly suggest that," said Wiggins, who also offered a cautionary tale about the reliability of basic laboratory tests commissioned by mining companies.
The community group in Port Colborne investigated the reliability of test results by purchasing soil samples from an American supplier that itemizes the precise chemical content of the soil. Identical samples then were sent to three labs, including the lab that conducted testing for the environmental study funded by Vale Inco, Wiggins said.
"Two of the three tests came back accurate," she said. The third, inaccurate test came from the lab hired by Vale Inco for official testing in Port Colborne, she added.
To date, industry and public authorities have not responded to the community group's startling findings, Wiggins said.
"We attempted to have a meeting about it with the technical committee and that meeting ended with everybody walking away from the table," she said. "So nothing has happened with it, yet. The ministry hasn't acted on it, the health department hasn't acted on it, they've just kind of swept it under the carpet. But we are going to use that information and ... ultimately the province is going to have to decide what to do about it."
It will take some time for community activists in Sudbury to determine if they can finance and organize independent testing of soil or human health impacts, Kuyek said.
"There's a lot of questions around costs and other issues. If you're going to do that, you have to have it designed properly. You would need a lot of volunteers, lab fees would be expensive and you would want a respectable body to be behind it as well. So those are the things we'll have to look at. Whether we can do it or not, I don't know. But the committee thinks it's a good idea."