Skip to main content

It seems as if no one in this small town north of Quebec City drinks the water - not the mayor, not the hairstylist, not even the nurse.

Yet the residents of Shannon get their water from what many consider a reliable source, the Canadian army.

But distrust for the Canadian Forces has run deep in the town of 4,000 ever since neighbouring CFB Valcartier revealed in 2000 that a toxic chemical linked to cancer was seeping into the town's water supply from the base.

Story continues below advertisement

"They're like the Mafia," hairstylist Nancy Nicol says in an interview in the low-slung bungalow that doubles as her salon. "The army hides everything."

Ms. Nicol has been organizing a benefit dinner for a local teen dying of brain cancer. "We don't know if it's related to the water," she says. "We may never know for sure. But a lot of people think it's to blame."

The toxic substance, an industrial cleaner known as trichloroethylene, or TCE, was used extensively at Valcartier's research facility and a nearby ammunitions factory until the 1980s. From dumping sites since given names like Lagoon C and Sector 214, the chemical made its way into the groundwater that feeds Shannon's private wells.

"Prior to the discovery of contamination in Shannon all the houses had private wells and were drinking [using]groundwater," says Bernard Michaud, a geological engineer who co-ordinates the Department of National Defence's cleanup efforts at CFB Valcartier.

"The major risk for the population was the consumption of contaminated water. And that risk was removed in 2001 and in 2004 with the money that DND gave to Shannon to install a water system.

"No more people in Shannon since 2001 drink contaminated water."

Mr. Michaud said TCE could create health problems if people drank the groundwater or inhaled its vapours.

Story continues below advertisement

He said the TCE is now 20 metres below the ground.

The Defence Department spent $3.5-million in 2001 to connect Shannon's aqueduct to a new, closely monitored well on the base.

Defence Department officials and Quebec's Health Department have insisted ever since there is no danger to the public. But official reassurances tend to fall on deaf ears here.

"I want nothing to do with water from the base," says nurse Marie-Paule Speiser. "They didn't tell us about the contamination."

Her accusation stems from evidence that suggests the army knew about its TCE problems as early as 1997 but withheld the information from the public.

Along with a retired local doctor, Ms. Speiser has launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government and a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. that owned the property where the ammunitions factory once stood.

Story continues below advertisement

More than 600 people have so far signed the lawsuit, which is seeking $81,000 in damages for each plaintiff. She says as many as 240 of them have cancer.

"We are convinced there is a cancer crisis in Shannon," she says. "I developed cancer not longer after moving here in 1991."

The army counters that it realized the scope of the problem only with subsequent testing. "We didn't know the plume was that far," says Mr. Michaud. "We were surprised."

The affected area stretches about five kilometres end to end. After crossing underneath Shannon the toxic compound empties into the Jacques-Cartier River to the west of the base, and is very slowly approaching the outskirts of Quebec City to the east.

"One of the objectives of DND is to contain the plume on the east side and also take a measure close to Shannon to reduce the level of concentration as low as possible," Mr. Michaud said.

The Forces have just finished $8-million worth of tests to explore its options. And while some of the proposed solutions sound far-fetched, such as injecting molasses into the groundwater, many have successfully reduced TCE levels.

Story continues below advertisement

"It's almost science fiction," Mr. Michaud acknowledged. "But I could have reached a point where we could do nothing. That's not the situation. I think we have options. That's good news."

Options, however, may not be enough to satisfy Shannon residents. The town has gone through most of a $19-million federal allotment to find an independent water source for the city, and now wants $11.5-million more to finish the job.

Shannon Mayor Clive Kiley told a local newspaper the town has little choice because so few trust the army to be forthcoming about what's in its water. "I've bought bottled water ever since," he said recently.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter