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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 his comments."

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'
Eugene Bourgeois

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 commission's practice.

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 London's 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 board members.

"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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