08/30/2013 01:28 EDT | Updated 10/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Montrealers surprised to learn they live next to a PCB dump

MONTREAL - It was a "huge surprise" to Richard Dore when he learned this week that the company behind his suburban home had been storing toxic materials for years.

"We bought it in 2009 and obviously we were not aware of these things behind the house," the 50-year-old father of two teens said Friday.

"It's a good thing that we're not selling our house right now because it would be worth nothing."

Toxic materials had been present there for years but were only detected in March after a spill of about 1,000 litres on the property, which backs onto a residential area in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire.

Reliance Power Equipment Ltd., the company that had been illegally storing PCBs, has been repeatedly warned since then to clean up the mess but the warnings have been ignored.

The incident has stirred memories in Quebec of the 1988 St-Basile-le-Grand crisis, where thousands of people were evacuated from their homes following an explosion at a warehouse where PCBs were stored.

"You can imagine all the other places where maybe there is some stuff like this ... and we don't even know about it," Dore said.

"That's the scary thing now."

Dore said everyone in the neighbourhood is hoping the dangerous materials are quickly removed, but he just shrugged that there was not much he could do about it.

The provincial government kept the incident quiet since March. News of it only emerged this week, five months after the spill.

The mayor of Pointe-Claire said he hadn't even heard about it — although his own administration was actually aware in March.

The company now has a Tuesday deadline to provide a plan of action to secure the site and remove the PCBs.

Quebec Environment Minister Yves-Francois Blanchet said in a statement Friday that Reliance has agreed to comply.

He said he welcomed the company's response but still has his doubts. He said everything will be done to guarantee the cleanup order is respected.

"My level of trust has been conditioned by the company directors' behaviour of the last few years and it's very weak," he said.

Along with getting rid of the dangerous materials, Blanchet said the plan should include the installation of security measures like intruder-detection equipment and fire-detection and sprinkler systems.

Mayor Bill McMurchie says Pointe-Claire also has doubts about the company's intentions.

"We are skeptical in a sense that, over the years, this operation has gone on and it has been undetected and that is a disappointment to us," he said.

McMurchie admitted he and council members only found out about the problem this week — even though his city administration was the one that first detected the problem and tipped off the provincial government.

McMurchie, who is not running in the upcoming election, expressed no blame toward his administration for not informing council.

He said the Quebec government, however, should have informed the public sooner.

"I would suggest that if there was a question of informing the population, that that whole file from the time it started was in hands of the (Quebec) department of sustainable development," he told reporters during a news conference at city hall.

"For reasons known only to them, they chose not to make it public."

Reliance sells new and used electrical equipment.

PCBs, a component in older transformers, are linked to cancer and other adverse health effects including damage to the nervous system.

McMurchie tried to reassure families living nearby.

"It is our impression that there is absolutely no danger to the children in that area," he said.

He also said he hoped that all potentially dangerous sites would now come under the microscope.