09/17/2013 01:50 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

Quebec government steps in to clean up illegal PCB site

MONTREAL - The Quebec government has stepped in to clean up a PCB dump in a Montreal suburb after the company illegally storing the dangerous material failed to do so.

But that hasn't been very reassuring for Tania Emond, a mother of three young children, who lives in a house directly behind the property.

When it was reported last month that toxic materials had been present for years on the site in suburban Pointe-Claire, she ripped up her above-ground swimming pool and stopped eating vegetables from her backyard garden. The PCBs were only detected in March after a spill of about 1,000 litres on the property.

"We had vegetables and salads from my garden and everything was great," she said in an interview Tuesday. "Then, the moment we found out, when my roommate came home, we went on the Internet and we found out this information. I was scared (and) we're no longer eating the vegetables from my garden."

Emond, 30, even picked up vegetables that were lying in her garden because she was worried her dogs might get sick.

"Whatever was starting to rot, we just picked it up because we didn't want the dogs to eat it," she added.

Reliance Power Equipment Ltd. had been given until last Thursday to provide an action plan to secure the site and remove the PCBs. But inspections carried out last weekend confirmed the company did not carry through on any of the measures it had promised to take.

During a visit to the site Tuesday, Quebec Environment Minister Yves-Francois Blanchet announced his department will now take charge of securing and decontaminating the site.

He said getting rid of the PCBs could cost as much as $3.5 million — and that doesn't include decontamination of the soil, if necessary.

The Quebec environment minister said his patience with Reliance had reached its limits and he did not rule criminal charges being laid against the company.

"There's an inquiry being made now and I do not want to interfere with that," he said.

Companies have been hired to make the site secure, while a contract has also been signed for the disposal of the PCBs.

Emond takes no consolation in Blanchet's cleanup plan.

"I'm not going to be OK with them cleaning up because the government takes a long time to do things and I'm scared that they're going to take a long time to do this," she said.

Emond is allowing her 19-month old son, seven-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to play in the backyard — but only for about two hours every day.

Paul Nadeau, who also lives behind the Reliance site, said he wasn't interested in finding out whose fault it was that residents were not informed sooner.

"I'm interested in finding out who is going to fix it and fix it quickly," he said.

Nadeau, 61, added that "the protection of citizens goes way further than the values that everybody is debating these days." That's a reference to the intense debate over the controversial charter of values being proposed by the Parti Quebecois government.

"We have language police, we have scarf police, maybe we need PCB police."

Blanchet said the company will be asked to reimburse all the costs that have been assumed by the province.

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.

The provincial government had kept the more recent incident quiet since March. News of it only emerged last month, five months after the spill.

Bill McMurchie, the mayor of Pointe-Claire, admitted last month he hadn't even heard about it — although he notes that his own administration was actually made aware in March.

At Tuesday's joint news conference, the mayor said the environment minister's announcement provides assurances to citizens and the community that the PCBs will be removed as quickly as possible.

"The issue of immediate urgency was removal of the PCBs and it's now clear this will be done," McMurchie said."Once the PCBs have been removed, the site will become an industrial land site, which will have to be decontaminated."

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