Of Citizens, Corporate and Real

There's a story from British Columbia that warrants exposure across the country because it speaks to the issue of citizenship - the flesh and blood kind, the corporate variety and their differences. Let's call this a comparison-shopping column in deference to our dominant cultural paradigm. Which of the following citizens would you choose?

It all started with two high-school students, Matthew Clive, 17, and Kevin Kelln, 16, doing a science project for their grade 11 class at North Burnaby's Alpha Secondary School. The goal was "to determine the effects of the Chevron refinery on the surrounding environment and community."

The refinery in question is on Burrard Inlet. When they got the results of their groundwater tests back from the private lab, they discovered the water, taken from north of the refinery, was contaminated by MTBE, a gasoline additive.

They then discovered that MTBE is so potentially dangerous and so persistent once it enters the environment that a CBS 60 Minutes report referred to it as "the biggest environmental crisis of the next decade."

The United States announced a phase-out plan last year. California has moved even faster to discontinue its use because it has more than its share of the hundreds of public water systems that have been ruined by the stuff. Possible human health problems include cancer, asthma and depression of the central nervous system.

When Mr. Clive and Mr. Kelln revealed their findings to the community, with the help of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, Chevron simply denied there was a problem. Their community affairs manager Ray Lord told the media that "there is nothing operationally here that would indicate any problems."

That was on April 8. But Chevron had a different story for the B.C. Ministry of the Environment (ME). Four days earlier they had told ME staff about "finding a 'pool' of MTBE-contaminated groundwater" on their site with concentrations "significantly higher than those found off-site."

Matthew says Chevron called him at home and told him he wasn't being "helpful." Chevron's manager, Tom Kovar, penned a letter to the company's Community Advisory Panel decrying the "unwarranted alarm" that was being created.

Stay with me now, dates are important here. Just days after the students revealed their findings, Burnaby's Director of Engineering did his own testing of the same sites examined by the students. He found levels three times as high as theirs. He informed Chevron of the test results on April 17, two days before Mr. Kovar wrote his letter.

In the meantime, Burnaby City Council was becoming infuriated with being kept in the dark. At two heated meetings it discovered that the Ministry of the Environment had a verbal agreement with Chevron not to reveal the on-site MTBE contamination to the public or to Burnaby council. It wanted Chevron to have time to get its story straight, something "we do all the time" admitted ME spokesman Ray Rob.

The Ministry, said Mr. Rob, was aware of a "plume" of contamination covering over 2,500 square feet at a depth of 100 feet. Readings were as high as 2,000 times greater than that found by Burnaby's Engineering Department.

But that's not all. The flurry of testing resulting from the students' chance findings has now revealed that the "plume" of MTBE also contains benzene. And if you think MTBE is bad, benzene is one of the world's nastiest chemicals. We know it causes lymphoma, leukemia and other blood diseases. Chevron's Ray Lord informed me that Workers' Compensation inspectors did an unscheduled examination of the site and were satisfied that workers were not in any danger.

I asked Matthew Clive what he thought about all the commotion he and Kevin had caused. "If we hadn't done this, no one would have known. But the thing that concerned me the most was the secret agreement that, as long as all the contamination remained on the [Chevron] property, they wouldn't say anything publicly. Then it was off the site and they still didn't say anything."

Chevron says the off-site levels are barely above the acceptable levels for drinking water. But that's hardly the point. There wasn't supposed to be any MTBE off-site. And this sixty-five-year-old refinery is falling apart, with numerous accidents and spills over the past few years. What was Chevron planning to do when it closed down? This is where disasters like the Sydney Tar Ponds get started. Despite this, corporate lobby groups insist that voluntary self-regulation is the way to go. God help us.

One last note. Corporate citizen Chevron is part owner of rights to offshore oil in northern B.C. British Columbians might want to ask how they could trust Chevron with such a delicate operation (if it goes ahead) when we can't even trust them to keep their own site clean or tell the public about contamination?

Maybe we could ask real citizens Matthew and Kevin to keep an eye on them.

Thank you for reading this story…

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