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Case #275

Hunger strike brings about environmental justice


After sitting on the steps of Ottawa's Parliament Hill every day for two weeks, ingesting only water and Gatorade, Elizabeth May had lost 15 pounds and was too weak to get around without a wheelchair. Still she talked ceaselessly to government officials about the children whose pictures she had brought with her, many of whom were born with birth defects and whose lives revolve around allergies, migraines, and medications because of the poisons in their backyards.

When the government of Nova Scotia shut down the Sydney Steel factory in 2000, after operating the plant for over 30 years, it left behind one of North America's largest hazardous waste dumps. Much of the effluent accumulated in the "tar ponds," a tidal estuary that now holds 770,000 tons of toxic sludge. (New York's infamous Love Canal contained 21,000 tons.)

In what she calls a "snap decision," May began a hunger strike on May 2 to call attention to the plight of Sydney residents. The benzene, tar, cyanide, and other by-products of the steelmaking process that have seeped into the soil and groundwater can cause various cancers, heart and kidney disease, and brain damage. Some citizens live with respiratory problems, hair loss, burning eyes, and high levels of premature births. The city's 25,000 residents are primarily working-class people, raising questions of discrimination that have not often been aired in Canada.

On May 18, Federal Health Minister Allan Rock okayed a $7 million assessment program that would lead to permanent relocation for neighborhoods that have a health risk. Declaring victory, May called off her strike. Some residents are unhappy that any moves are still months in the future, but May sees the recognition as a big step forward.

"We're really twenty years behind in having a legislative process to deal with these issues," May says. "The term `environmental justice' is practically unknown in Canada." With this victory, it's getting known now.


Location: Sydney, Canada
Action: Boycott/Strike
Setting: Developed World
Extent of Action: Regional (within a country)
Issues: Environment, Human Rights
Year(s): 2000
Outcome successful
Source: Sierra, September/October, 2001, p81


Prepared By: rja, 3/02
Rating: 1
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