CANADA - Failure of Emergency System Angers Residents : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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Monday, March 27, 2000

Title: Failure of emergency system angers residents

By JANE SIMS, Free Press Regional Reporter Corunna residents want to know why their community emergency alert system didn't work after a sulphur gas leak this month at a Shell Canada refinery.

Many in the Lambton community say they were never alerted to the 10-minute leak March 16 that sent more than 30 people to hospital, mostly from a Corunna call centre.

The leak, caused when the plume on the refinery stack was snuffed out, involved sulphur hydroxide, which smells like rotten eggs and can cause eye and throat irritations, dizziness, nausea and even unconsciousness in high concentrations.

Normally, an emergency alert informs area residents of a need to evacuate or seal themselves in their homes by closing windows, depending on the substance spilled.

A meeting is planned for today, headed by the Community Awareness Emergency Response (CAER) committee, to discuss why the community didn't get that information.

Allen Wells, CAER's administrator, said the emergency codes weren't radioed out until noon, about two hours after the gas was released.

An immediate alert would have triggered a chain-reaction response to emergencies, including knocking on doors and setting up roadblocks.

"Why there was no announcement I can't say," Wells said. "Any incident that is likely to attract public attention and produce inquiries should have been (announced) as soon as it happened."

Shell Canada said it did tell authorities, but not through the expected channels. Spokesperson Lesley Taylor said OPP were told of the leak when officers arrived at the plant site, just as Shell officials were heading to Corunna to test the air and warn people of the danger.

"We may not have gone as far into the community as people would have liked. We obviously went to the area with the most impact first," Taylor said.

She said it was up to the fire department and police, not Shell, to order any evacuations or roadblocks.

"It was a very short, 10-minute incident," she said.

Taylor said Shell will conduct a full investigation. "We're going to be very forthright about what we did right and what we did wrong."

The provincial Environment Ministry is also investigating, said spokesperson Bob Massecar.

Residents are angry they weren't told of the problem and say they want some answers.

Mark Stephenson, a Sarnia firefighter, was home with his children on March break during the gas leak. His wife was working at a gas bar kitty-corner from the call centre and was never told about the risk by Shell, police or ambulance and fire officials.

"Maybe they might consider it a minor incident, but as far as I'm concerned any incident is not minor. And what about next time?"

Kacy Weeke, a mother of two and a home day-care provider, can see the Shell Canada stack out her front window, but didn't know about the leak until she smelled gas.

Weeke had gone to wake up her seven-year-old son, and ended up rushing him and the other children to her basement. No one came to her door to offer emergency help.

Eventually, she took the children to Sarnia.

"The emergency systems that we learned to rely on are not working and I think it is time to revisit them," she said.

Those systems are under review by the emergency alert committee. One idea is a paging system with a unit in each home that resembles a smoke detector.

Cal Gardner, Sarnia emergency planner, said the alert would be built into the 911 system and could get messages to people about chemical, weather and other emergencies quickly.

The Chemical Valley committee won't make any decisions about the response system until that report is available, likely in a couple of months.


-- (, March 27, 2000

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