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Former workers at chemical plant site passing to District control have suspicions about tumours John French Chief Staff Writer A beach at the tip of Howe Sound represents Squamish's future.

Former workers at chemical plant site passing to District control have suspicions about tumours

John French

Chief Staff Writer

A beach at the tip of Howe Sound represents Squamish's future. A passenger ferry terminal, hotel, conference centre, arts centre and more are envisioned to rise on the 71-acre parcel, which becomes property of the District of Squamish as early as this month.

But some of the people who worked on that land when it was a chemical plant and their families are more concerned about their own future - and if working with chemicals on what are now known as the Nexen lands caused them to contract cancer.

Nine years ago, Kathy Ciechanowski's husband George passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. George Ciechanowski was an active man through his 68 years, but cancer cut his generally healthy life short.

Remembering her husband isn't easy for Ciechanowski. Tears flow easily as she recalls her husband's attempts to beat cancer. She smiles while trying to hold back a wave of emotion as she describes her husband's love for the outdoors and his regular trips to the top of the Stawamus Chief.

Ciechanowski won't condemn her husband's former employer - but she wonders if the chemicals he worked around for 23 years were a factor in his death.

"George would come in, put down his lunch kit, I would come in and I would smell FMC," Ciechanowski recalled. "It was all around him. The company was aware of the possibility of people getting sick and they would send them for a thorough examination every year.

"They never found cancer in George until after CanOxy closed down. Three years went by and he was complaining that he had some discomfort in his stomach so I told him to go see the doctor."

The illness slowed Ciechanowski, but couldn't stop him - he even had his doctors create a portable chemotherapy system so he could continue his active lifestyle.

"George wanted to ski so much when he was with chemo," his wife said. "He would go skiing with a chemo bag attached to his arm."

But the treatment couldn't help. After the chemotherapy began he was tired, he had no appetite and he was often ill. He passed away in 1995.

Vince Richards did the same job as Ciechanowski at the chemical plant from 1974 to 2001. According to Richards, he is afflicted with the same illness that brought down Ciechanowski. Ciechanowski's cancer was first detected in his intestines and stomach and Richards has cancerous tumours in his intestines, liver and pancreas.

Richards feels his cancer was brought on through his work in the chemical operation and notes that one of his other co-workers who did the same work and handled the same chemicals recently lost his life to the same cancer.

"I'm laid up with it right now," Richards said. "One of the jobs was effluent treatment and we used to use a chemical there to measure how much mercury there was in the effluent. One engineer said the stuff shouldn't be used because it causes cancer."

Richards believes that a substance called Antimony Reagent brought on his cancerous cells."I was the guy who brought it [the risk posed by the use of Antimony Reagent] up at our safety meeting and it was hush, hush," Richards said. "About a week later they stopped using the stuff."

Richards claims that some time later, Antimony Reagent was brought back into use at the plant.

Former chemical plant worker Joe Kostiuk, who recently passed away after being diagnosed with cancer worked in a number of areas at the plant and his wife confirmed that he worked with Richards and Ciechanowski.

Kostiuk recently passed away. He was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, said his wife Olga."A spot was found on his liver," she said.

Kostiuk retired in 1991 after a 23-year career in chemical production. According to his wife, Kostiuk's tumour was left untreated because diabetes caused significant inner organ damage before the tumour was detected.

Tak Lamb, a former Nexen employee, played a key role in the production process with his knowledge of chemistry while the plant was operational and also created the technology used to clean up the chemical plant site.

Lamb said he used Antimony Reagent on a daily basis from the time he started at the plant in Squamish in 1980 until his work at the site finished in December.

"I heard that one caused cancer but I did not see the document," Lam said, referring to the technical document on Antimony Reagent.

He said that he was not told it was toxic and pointed out that before 1980 little was understood about the potential health impacts of many of the chemicals used. Technology improved and there was more information on the affects of the chemicals, Lamb said.

"At that time we were not told it was toxic," Lamb said.

According to the U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Human studies are inconclusive regarding antimony exposure and cancer, while animal studies have reported lung tumors in rats exposed to antimony trioxide via inhalation. EPA has not classified antimony for carcinogenicity."

Medical Health Officer Paul Martiquet said there is no data to support the theory of a link between the workers' cancer and the chemicals they handled. He said that cancer rates are monitored for the entire population of Squamish and he has never been asked to study cancer rates amongst specific groups of individuals in Squamish.

"Mercury would be the issue, the contaminant of concern, and it is more of a neurological poison rather than a cancer-causing poison," Martiquet said. "If former employees have a concern about cancer rates, the people should come to me. If there are a group of workers that feel they were exposed to a dangerous substance at work I also encourage them to talk to the WCB."

Martiquet noted that cancer rates in Squamish are at or slightly below the provincial average.

While mercury was the main concern when the plant operated, Richards said that he believes that he used a potentially cancer-causing chemical to measure mercury levels in the plant's effluent.

Richards and the many others who worked at the plant helped in the production of chlorine, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid. According to Nexen, at the plant's peak it employed 90 people.

The plant was built by FMC in 1965. FMC operated it until 1987 when Canadian Occidental Petroleum Ltd. (COPL) bought the plant. COPL operated the plant until 1991. The plant was shut down due to poor market conditions.

The COPL name was changed to Nexen after the Squamish plant was shut down.

In the plant's first ten years of operation, the full risks of the materials being handled weren't fully known and understood. As the health affects of the materials was realized changes were made to better protect worker health.

According to Nexen's public relations department, the company continued FMC's employee health monitoring program. Employees had annual check-ups with their doctors and regular blood and urine tests were taken from the workers. Nothing unusual was detected in the workers through the regular monitoring program, a company spokesperson said.

FMC is a member company of a program called Responsible Care. According to the FMC web site Responsible Care was launched to respond to public concerns about the manufacture and use of chemicals. The companies behind Responsible Care are committed to continually improve health, safety and environmental performance and keep a public record of their progress. Responsible Care was launched in 1988; a year after FMC sold its Squamish operations.

According to the FMC web site, the company has only one production facility in B.C. and that is located in Prince George.

An employee in the FMC public relations said the corporation would make a company spokesperson from the headquarters in Philadelphia available for an interview however the company didn't follow through and no spokesperson came forward.

Nexen indicates on its web site that it strives to minimize environmental impacts from its operations.

"That means a successful remediation program where we ensure the land around an abandoned wellsite or chemicals plant is as healthy or healthier than it was before we worked in the area," the company says.

Nexen lived up to the claim with its remediation work in Squamish as the company spent about $45 million to remove contamination from the BC Rail-owned lands at the tip of Howe Sound. The company was told to clean the site through a provincially issued remediation order. While FMC and BC Rail were also named on the order, Randy Gossen, Nexen's Vice President of Safety, Environment and Social Responsibility, said the other two companies did not contribute to the pollution removal efforts.

The site was cleaned to the point where local and provincial officials are confident that housing is an acceptable use for portions of the land.

Gossen believes that the money Nexen spent on the site after the chemical plant shut down was greater than the profits made by the plant during the years his company operated the facility. He said his company did the responsible thing in Squamish.

Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland is also satisfied with the Nexen remediation efforts. The local leaders felt confident enough about the clean up efforts that they supported a planning charrette for the area, which will pass to District control as soon as this month as part of the sale of BC Rail's operations to CN. Planning experts were brought to Squamish to help local residents create a set of basic design principals for community planners and developers to follow once development begins on the valuable peninsula.

"That site has gone through extensive clean up in the last 10 years and the last six years especially," Sutherland said.

Sutherland recognizes that there is always a concern about health issues. The mayor pointed out that much of the site was never contaminated and polluted areas went through an extensive cleanup that took ten years to complete.

"Nexen took the bull by the horns and did the work," Sutherland said. "If they hadn't done that we could be still battling it out in court. Who knows who would win? I know Squamish would lose."

"They went far beyond the remediation order. They did things to help us on their way out the door."

Kathy Ciechanowski's wife is looking forward to the redevelopment of the site. She's looking forward to walking along the waterfront and enjoying the beach at the south end of the site, which is proposed to bear the name "Nexen Beach" in recognition of the site's industrial heritage.

On the issue of whether or not the work environment at the chemical plant contributed to the growth of tumours in employees, there is no sure way at this point to know what, if any, role the workplace had.

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