Sickness, depression and a smell of rotten eggs
Family made ill by gas emissions
Blame the Bruce heavy water plant
Toronto Star - April 10, 2004
by Kate Harries — Ontario Reporter
Inverhuron, Ontario —: Stephanie Bourgeois remembers the day she got gassed.
She was 11, playing on her family's farm in the shadow of the Bruce nuclear power complex.
The gas was hydrogen sulphide, also known as sour gas. It was used at a
nearby Bruce installation to extract the heavy water essential for
moderating the nuclear reaction and the cooling of CANDU reactors.
"Flaring," the deliberate release into the atmosphere of excess amounts of
the noxious and even potentially fatal gas, was a daily occurrence here
from 1973 until 1997, according to Ontario Hydro which operated the plant
then. "It smelled like bad eggs," Stephanie, now 26, recalls. At the time,
she had no idea that anything untoward had occurred. But in the ensuing
months and years, she got depressed, angry and suicidal.
"My main memory is just how sad and upset I was. I just didn't want to be
alive. Those were years of hell."
Her father, Eugene Bourgeois, remembers being hit by gas in 1985 and again
in 1988. He was working in his fields and "this thing came up behind me
and whacked me on the head. I saw stars."
The rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide in low doses is well-known, and
the "knockdown" effect is a constant danger, especially at oil wells,
where sour gas is common. Concentrations of 700 parts per million knock
people out and can be fatal.
Normal neurological behaviour can also be thrown for a loop. A 1995 study
of people exposed to hydrogen sulphide flared from an oil refinery in
California recorded problems with balance, story memory, visual recall,
colour discrimination and recognition of number symbols.
That's what happened to Bourgeois. After the 1988 incident, he found he
couldn't add, he couldn't articulate, he couldn't make decisions, symptoms
that McMaster University psychiatry professor Ramona Carbotte would
conclude resulted from exposure to neurotoxic fumes.
The effects gradually abated although Bourgeois feels that he never
regained his pre-exposure capacity.
Meanwhile, during the years when the Bruce heavy water plant was in
operation, Bourgeois lost an average of one- quarter of his lambs each
spring. The norm is 5 per cent. There were other anomalies. One year, half
the flock went blind for a week.
Researchers have extensively investigated the effects of hydrogen sulphide
on farm animals such as sheep and pigs and on lab mice and rats.
But there are no rigorous scientific studies of what happens when sheep
are exposed to the gas, either at high concentrations over a few minutes
or at low levels for hours.
Nevertheless, Ontario Hydro, as it was then known, insisted its emissions
couldn't have caused the problems on the Bourgeois farm, four kilometres
from the heavy water plant. They chalked up the lamb losses to a statistical anomaly.
At one point, Hydro offered to buy him out. But Bourgeois wouldn't go
away. He still won't.
He wants an explanation. Not of what happened. "We know what happened," he says.
Experts he retained had unravelled the mystery by 1991: At certain times
of the year, a thermal layer of warm air forms; the toxic plume of
heavier-than-air hydrogen sulphide gets pulled to ground level and
collects in low-lying pockets — like his farm. Documents he subsequently
uncovered showed that Ontario Hydro had known all along.
What he wants is an explanation of why it continued to happen, why the
utility was implacable in its refusal to accommodate his modest demands.
"All I wanted was a simple phone call," he says. "I wanted them to notify
me so I could take precautions for my family and my sheep. They said it
would be too onerous."
Bourgeois says his long quest for answers cuts to the heart of what's
wrong with the regulatory process and is an object lesson for Ontarians
considering a massive expansion of nuclear capacity.
On Feb. 4, the process gave him a last chance to hold the operators of the
heavy water plant to account.
The occasion was a board meeting of the Canadian Nuclear Safety
Commission, formerly the Atomic Energy Control Board, to consider Ontario
Power Generation's planned decommissioning of the heavy water plant.
On the agenda: a submission by Bourgeois on how sour gas flaring affected
him, with a request that the board order a "full and public environmental
mediation process and so put to rest the questions of whether the Bruce
Heavy Water Plant has caused the effects recorded here."
Some officials attending had a long history with the Bourgeois case. Keith
Mombourquette is a long-time Ontario Hydro employee who is now overseeing
the demolition of the heavy water plant for OPG. Patsy Thompson, the
commission's director of environmental protection for nuclear facilities,
authored two reports on Bourgeois' high lamb losses, which she attributed
to the age distribution of his sheep.
But only five of seven commission board members were present for the Feb.
4 meeting, and the lamb saga was new to most of them. Two expressed
puzzlement that Bourgeois was again coming forward, seven years after the
heavy water plant had closed.
OPG vice-president Ken Nash said he, too, was puzzled. "I don't know of a
reference where we said that he had to come here and we wouldn't deal with
But that is exactly what had happened, as Bourgeois, who took part in the
hearing by phone from California where he and his wife, Ann, were on an
annual wool sales trip, explained.
He referred board members to OPG's December, 2002, environmental
assessment report. It itemizes 12 of his comments that the utility left
unanswered. At the end of each, there is the repeated statement that "Mr.
Bourgeois will have an opportunity to comment directly to federal
authorities ... during the post-submission review period."
Inverhuron is a small cottage community clustered around one of Ontario's
loveliest beaches. A provincial park adjoins the 1,400 hectare nuclear
site. The hinterland is a prosperous agricultural community.
For Eugene and Ann Bourgeois, who bought their farm in 1974, it was a
perfect location. They weren't deterred by the nearby Douglas Point
nuclear generating station and the original Bruce A nuclear power plant,
then under construction. The initial stage of the heavy water plant, which
had begun operating the year before, barely showed on the horizon, and the
flaring of hydrogen sulphide wasn't mentioned.
"The nuclear plant, I had no fear of. I did the research and I concluded
it was safe," Bourgeois says.
He remains a supporter of the nuclear process — but he doesn't support the
industry or the government oversight system that he says betrays citizens
to powerful corporate interests.
"I have a lot against improper management, I have a lot against corruption."
"The only explanation I can think of is that our government is corrupt. It
is corrupt because it devised a regulatory structure that is entirely
geared to ensure that the people who are harmed have no voice."
Exposing corruption is not part of the day-to-day business of the Canadian
Nuclear Safety Commission, a federal regulatory agency with roughly 500
employees. Many of the commission's senior engineers worked previously in
the nuclear industry here and abroad.
The staff is overseen by a seven-member board appointed by the federal
cabinet. Unlike similar nuclear watchdogs in the U.S. and Europe, all the
board members are part-time, except for president and chief executive
Linda Keen, a career public servant with a masters degree in nutrition science.
The main job of the CNSC is to ensure that radioactive materials are used
safely, whether they're in hand-held devices for scanning pipeline welds
or sprawling nuclear power stations. And Canada's heavy water plants are
part of the extended nuclear family subject to the agency's control.
Keen opened the discussion Feb. 4 by declaring that only "appropriate" and
"applicable" issues would be addressed. Commissioner Chris Barnes pushed
hard for a wider debate, politely clashing with Keen in a restrained academic manner.
`The only explanation I can think of is that our government is corrupt'
The second-longest serving member of the commission, Barnes is a professor
of earth and ocean sciences at the University of Victoria with an
international research reputation. He quickly jumped to the heart of the
conflict, pointing out that both OPG and the commission's own staff had a
record of simply "responding" to the concerns repeatedly raised by Bourgeois.
"I'm not sure that either are necessarily going to provide a full and
comprehensive comment or analysis to the points that the intervenor
(Bourgeois) is making here," Barnes said, suggesting the evidence from the
Bourgeois farm be examined by an outside panel of experts in agriculture,
meteorology and epidemiology.
His suspicions were confirmed when both OPG's Nash and the CNSC's Thompson
repeated past positions. "I would be totally reluctant at this point to
agree to any further specific scientific examination of what I consider to
be a past grievance," Nash said.
Thompson concurred: "I am not sure that going to external experts again
with the same database would provide a different analysis."
Final debate on the issue took place behind closed doors, as is the
Eugene Bourgeois grew up in Kitchener, studied philosophy at the
University of Waterloo, then chose to wrest his living from the land.
With Ann, he runs the Philosopher's Stone Wool Company, a business that
prospers by standing economic precepts on their head. He pays the 50 odd
farmers who supply him with wool $2 a pound, rather than the market rate
of 20 cents; the higher price buys him a quality fleece, with the softness
that distinguishes his wool.
It's been seven years since this farm and its community of people and
animals last suffered the strange and frightening effects of the gas,
which for the sheep consisted of an in utero change that resulted in lambs
being born without the nursing instinct.
But the memories still tear at the heart: day blurring into night as
Bourgeois tried to teach the tiny creatures to suck, as he milked the ewes
and dribbled the life-giving fluid into tubes pushed down the lambs'
throats, as he watched life flutter to a standstill.
"I can still hear this one mother, she was a 17-year-old ewe, lying out by
the barn, just bawling and bawling for three days because she'd lost her
lamb. It was a beautiful lamb. It just didn't have the reflex."
The effect on Stephanie was the hardest to take. Her parents watched
helplessly as she turned against them and her two older siblings.
"She got angry, violent," Eugene says. "She threw things. She locked Ann
in the basement."
As Stephanie became suicidal, her distraught parents sought help, first, at
Children's Hospital and, then, at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.
Because of Ontario Hydro's insistence that gas levels were too low to have
caused her condition, medical authorities cast around for other explanations. At
one point, they accused Eugene of having sexually abused her.
"That was the biggest joke," Stephanie says disdainfully. "It was an
outrage," Bourgeois recalls.
In 1994, Bourgeois discovered a "significant event" report in Ontario
Hydro records. In 1983, his neighbour Howard Campbell, since deceased, was
knocked down by hydrogen sulphide.
"I asked him," says Bourgeois, who now owns Campbell's farm. "I said, `Why
didn't you come forward? It would have been helpful.' He just shrugged."
Other documents revealed that the thermal internal boundary layer — the
meteorological phenomenon that can trap a chemical plume — was flagged to
Ontario Hydro and the federal regulator in the early 1970s as a potential
problem if the heavy water plant was built at the Bruce site. Ontario
Hydro commissioned a further study of the effect in 1984.
But no one told Bourgeois.
In 1991, he retained some experts to look at whether his experience could
be related to the hydrogen sulphide.
Ontario Hydro insisted that it would have taken concentrations 5,000 times
higher than the 25 parts per billion recorded by a monitor near his farm.
John Lumley, an engineering professor at Cornell University who is an
expert in meteorology, decided that the first step was to look at the monitor.
"He read the user manual, and he discovered that it averages data over
more than four minutes," Bourgeois says.
This averaging and the short exposure period meant that a hydrogen
sulphide concentration of 100 parts per million (considered potentially
fatal for exposures of eight hours or longer) would be recorded by Ontario
Hydro's monitor as below 100 parts per billion. Even more damaging, Lunley
concluded that the monitors would miss any hydrogen sulphide which hit the
farm, because the plumes were a mere 90 metres across.
But neither Ontario Hydro nor the Atomic Energy Control Board would accept
these findings, or the findings of R. J. Reiffenstein, a pharmacology
professor at the University of Alberta and leading expert on the gas, or
those of John Wyngaard, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State
University and expert in how hazardous materials spread in air, or those
of many other physicians, occupational health and agricultural experts who
concluded gas fumigation was the probable cause of Bourgeois' problems.
Bourgeois didn't expect his submission to spark a debate among commission
"I was very surprised when Barnes started to speak up," he says. But when
the formal ruling was released March 12, it was obvious Keen's view, and
not Barnes', had prevailed.
Six paragraphs of the 12-page Record of Proceedings dealt with the saga of
Eugene Bourgeois and his stricken lambs, restating the now-solidified
positions of OPG and CNSC staff.
"Based on this information, the commission considers that a further
assessment of past operating effects of the BHWP (Bruce Heavy Water Plant)
is not necessary."
OPG had got its decommissioning plan approved without having to make any
accounting of its part in what happened to Bourgeois.
"A really useless decision," he says angrily. "It doesn't address the
issues that I raised, the issues of transparency, the lack of the
precautionary principle, the lack of concern by staff, it doesn't address
the really weird lambing records that we have."
Stephanie has put the pain of her illness behind her.
"I think they're evil people," she says of whoever was responsible. "But
I've let it all go. But I think they should apologize to my dad."
An apology won't be good enough for Bourgeois, though. He remains focused
on his goal.
"I genuinely hope that at some stage I can have an independent review of
this issue. I think it would be of great service to the industry and the
province to get to the root of this problem."
He wants his experts and the nuclear industry's experts to testify in a
public forum. He wants to put names and faces to those who made the decisions.
"Let them defend themselves in public, and then, if as a society we feel
that's what we want, fine."
With files from Peter Calamai in Ottawa.
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