08/28/2013 17:53 EDT | Updated 10/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Pointe Claire firm given 24 hours to get rid of PCBs

Quebec Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet has given a Pointe-Claire company, Reliance Power Equipment, 24 hours to remove PCB-laden oil from its West Island property, where it has been illegally stored for the past 15 years.

Blanchet's ministry found out about the presence of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) last March, after public works employees in Pointe-Claire detected an unknown substance leaking into the city's storm drains.

The environment ministry confirmed Tuesday that it had investigated the March leak of 800 to 1,200 litres of oil containing the chemical compound — long-used as a coolant and insulating fluid but banned decades ago because of its environmental toxicity and danger to human health.

Ministry officials said they have been negotiating with the company for weeks to to clean up the site, to no avail.

Now the minister says if the company fails to act, the ministry itself will move in to undertake the cleanup — and send Reliance Power Equipment the bill.

"We will go forward with an order, as we did with Lac-Mégantic, following which we might be called to do it ourselves and take control of the assets of the company, in order to pay for what will have to be done," Blanchet said.

Extra security in place

The minister has also ordered that extra security be posted at the company's site in an industrial park on Hymus Boulevard, to ensure the PCB-laden oil is not tampered with.

This morning, there were two security guards in evidence.

"The real question is whether or not having two or three policemen and a couple of security [guards] is enough," said Michel Bouchard, a senior research associated with the McGill-UNEP Collaborating Center on Environmental Assessment.

Bouchard said PCBs pose the greatest danger if they catch fire and, since it will take months to clean up the site, he said having security guards in place round the clock will be key to keeping the public safe.

Bouchard urged the government to take tough measures against the company for flouting orders to remove the PCB-laden oil.

"People are supposed to obey the law, and if they don't they have to pay the price," he said. "I think having severe sanctions to these companies would be a signal to everyone else: Don't fool around with environmental risk."

PCBs not mentioned on MEQ website

Earlier today on CBC's Daybreak, the deputy environment minister, Michel Rousseau, said the ministry of environment (MEQ) had listed the spill on its website, and it was under no obligation to inform the public beyond that.

"There [are] about 600 spills like that each year, and every spill is on the website," Rousseau said.

However, Daniel Green, a spokesman for the environment group Société pour Vaincre la Pollution (SVP), said the government should have been more explicit about the nature of the March spill and a second spill in April on Highway 15 involving a truck transporting PCB-laden oil from the same company.

"The government knew it was PCB waste and decided to hide this information from the public," he charged.

Green said the website lists the hazardous spill at the Reliance company's address, but it does not name the company nor does it explicitly mention PCBs.

"If you look on the website, it does talk about transformer oil," Green said. "But since the early 80s, most transformer oils have only mineral oil in them...PCBs have been banned. PCBs have been replaced [in] most electrical equipment."

"The government in my opinion [has] misinformed the Quebec public. It may be in contravention of the Quebec access-to-information act that obliges bureaucrats to inform citizens of something that is dangerous, that has happened or that may happen."

"It's a question of community right to know."