May 21, 2019

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Squires shifts blame for St. Boniface soil subterfuge

Documents show province knew about contamination weeks earlier than previously announced

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2018 (274 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The provincial government withheld — for at least six weeks — test results that showed soil in South St. Boniface was contaminated with heavy metals, then misinformed media about when the lab results were in and why residents were kept in the dark.

Documents obtained by the Free Press through freedom of information requests on Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires’ email account show the Manitoba government knew soil in the Winnipeg neighbourhood was contaminated with heavy metals — including lead — as early as June 4.

The area is home to many gardens where vegetables are grown. Soil samples taken from eight of those gardens came back with lead levels well beyond acceptable limits.

Lead is linked to developmental and neurological problems, and can lead to permanent and profound health defects. No amount of exposure is considered safe.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2018 (274 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The provincial government withheld — for at least six weeks — test results that showed soil in South St. Boniface was contaminated with heavy metals, then misinformed media about when the lab results were in and why residents were kept in the dark.

Documents obtained by the Free Press through freedom of information requests on Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires’ email account show the Manitoba government knew soil in the Winnipeg neighbourhood was contaminated with heavy metals — including lead — as early as June 4.

The area is home to many gardens where vegetables are grown. Soil samples taken from eight of those gardens came back with lead levels well beyond acceptable limits.

Lead is linked to developmental and neurological problems, and can lead to permanent and profound health defects. No amount of exposure is considered safe.

Instead of informing affected residents, as well as the wider neighbourhood and public, the provincial government failed to disclose the lab results for more than two weeks before Premier Brian Pallister called the St. Boniface byelection June 19. (The legislature seat became open after longtime NDP MLA Greg Selinger stepped down.)

When the heavy metal contamination was finally made public — the same day of the byelection on July 17 — Squires used the media blackout rules which govern provincial byelections as an excuse for why residents weren’t immediately notified.

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires told journalists in July she couldn't talk about the high levels of lead found in St. Boniface soil because of a media blackout due to the byelection. (ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires told journalists in July she couldn't talk about the high levels of lead found in St. Boniface soil because of a media blackout due to the byelection. (ANDREW RYAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)

She later said she was told by Crown counsel not to release the results until after the polls closed.

"It gave me great discomfort that I wasn’t able to go public the minute I found out about this and wasn’t able to hold a press conference and have full disclosure," Squires told the Free Press at the time.

Residents whose properties tested positive for heavy metal contamination weren’t notified until July 13; the wider public wasn’t made aware of the results until July 17. Squires repeatedly said she’d first learned about the results one week to 10 days (July 3-6) before affected residents were informed.

But the documents obtained by the Free Press make clear that isn’t true. Squires, alongside sustainable development’s top brass, knew about the results much earlier than she repeatedly told the media.

On June 4, Sustainable Development director Don Labossiere wrote an advisory note, which also carries the name of acting assistant deputy minister Tracey Braun, laying out the results of the soil testing.

In an email briefing for an 11:30 a.m. meeting June 21 between Labossiere and Squires — which turned up in a freedom of information search of the minister’s inbox — the advisory notice is included as an attachment.

During a phone interview Monday, Squires walked back her past on-the-record comments about when she first learned about the lab results, saying she’d got the date wrong.

South St. Boniface residents didn't receive results of soil samples taken in the area for months. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

South St. Boniface residents didn't receive results of soil samples taken in the area for months. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

"I should have not ball-parked the date when I first learned about the results," Squires said, referring to repeated comments she’d made to Free Press reporters.

"But what I can tell you is that I learned of the results on June 21. I had a meeting in my office with (Labossiere) who brought this to my attention. I do understand that he had written an advisory note dated June 4."

Between June 4 and June 18, the lab results would have been available to be released both to affected residents and the public, since no byelection had been called.

During that time, however, Squires claims Labossiere and Braun failed to inform her about the results, despite a number of face-to-face meetings with Braun. When asked who — if anyone — the advisory note containing the lab results was given to, Squires said Monday she wasn’t sure.

"I don’t know if (the advisory note) was given to anybody between June 4 and June 21. I’m very disappointed that my assistant deputy minister did not bring this to my attention... That’s unacceptable and that is going to be reviewed," Squires said.

She added she’s launching a formal review into the department’s reporting process to "ensure that timely and sensitive information is not in the department for two weeks before it gets to my office or my attention."

Squires repeatedly side-stepped questions Monday on why she didn’t inform the public on July 17 her department had received the lab results as early as June 4.

The letter affected St. Boniface residents received with their soil-sample results. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

The letter affected St. Boniface residents received with their soil-sample results. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Files)

Numerous area residents who spoke to the Free Press said the feeling in the neighbourhood is the provincial government doesn’t care about them, and this latest revelation adds more fuel to the fire.

"You don’t know what to think anymore. There’s a whole month’s difference there. You have to wonder why the information would be held back like that. It’s concerning, it’s disappointing," a spokesperson for the South St. Boniface Residents Association said Monday.

"You can’t prove intent, but that’s a big delay, especially when you consider the potential harm. What are you supposed to think?"

Another area resident who spoke to the Free Press, who asked not to be named, was more direct. She said she thinks the province withheld the results because it was concerned how the news would affect Conservative candidate Mamadou Ka’s chances in the byelection

When told about that resident’s comments, Squires dismissed them.

"There is absolutely no truth to that whatsoever... There was no way I could withhold something I wasn’t aware of," she said.

A spokesman for Manitoba Sustainable Development did not respond to a request for comment.

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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History

Updated on Monday, August 20, 2018 at 7:04 PM CDT: adds deck

9:04 PM: adds info about legal advice received by Squires

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