The community of Cartier is located about 20 kilometres north of Sudbury. Its population, according to the 2006 census, was 302, but as a result of extensive soil contamination, it’s probably somewhat less than that today.
Cartier has no medical services, no shopping, no pharmacy and no schools. It is a company town, appealing to residents because of jobs with the railway.
A parcel of land in Cartier is owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. It was used as a railroad and a locomotive fuelling and maintenance facility from 1950 until 1981. Back in 1943, CPR built a water treatment system to service its own property and several residential properties, as well as the local fire station.
As a result of unintended leaks and spills of diesel fuel on the CPR property, there was soil contamination on a part of the CPR property and on surrounding property.
In 1999, CPR discovered that groundwater outside of the CPR property had been affected by the contamination. At the end of 2001, CPR closed its water treatment and distribution system and stopped delivering water to 31 homes, two businesses, the fire hall, the community centre and the railway building.
The railway eventually bought 19 local properties and demolished them, since there was no available source of drinking water for those homes. Today, there is a large tract of vacant brownfield land where those houses once stood. A few houses remain close to the demolished ones, although they may well be within or close to the plume of underground diesel fuel.
In 2004 and 2005, 55 individual court actions against CPR were started by Timmins lawyer Erin Cullin on behalf of local residents. Each related to a separate piece of property and sought damages for environmental contamination. CPR filed statements of defence in each case.
In 2008, James and Lillian Bellefeuille asked the court to convert their claim to a class action on behalf of all past and present Cartier property owners and businesses. This has the potential to result in about 95 additional properties becoming the subject of litigation.
Approval for the class action was granted last November and an appeal to the divisional court was dismissed in April.
Barry Lebow, a Toronto-based valuation expert on real estate stigma, was retained by the law firm handling the class action to prepare a report on the diminution of values.
He has visited the community several times and has personally smelled diesel oil in the tap water. Many local wells are contaminated by diesel fuel.
Lebow tells me that there is virtually no resale market for homes in Cartier. Real estate agents who take listings of property for sale are obligated to disclose to potential buyers the contamination issues in the community.
Property values have dropped, finding a buyer for a local home is difficult, and obtaining traditional mortgage financing for a buyer ranges from very difficult to impossible.
Some homeowners say they can only obtain property insurance for fire and theft. One resident reports an unusually high percentage of cancers and stomach disorders compared to the general population.
Homeowners also complain about a perceived lack of action by the federal and provincial governments. Comprehensive remediation efforts seem a long way off.
At press time, no response to a request for comment had been received from the lawyers for CPR.
Unfortunately, contaminated areas in larger communities — such as Lynnview Ridge in Calgary, Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., McClure Cres. in Scarborough, the Inco refinery in Port Colborne, and the Sydney tar ponds in Cape Breton Island — command more public and government attention and action than the tiny hamlet of Cartier.
If a similar oil spill happened in Toronto, it would have been cleaned up years ago. Cartier’s residents deserve better treatment.