After years of working and hoping, all Bernadine Bennett can do now is shake her head in frustration and wonder where to go from here.
Bennett is the daughter of a former Marystown Shipyard worker who died decades ago from lung cancer. She’s also co-chairwoman of The Marystown Shipyard Families Alliance.
The alliance was formed in 2006 as a lobby group for former yard workers who’ve developed health problems they suspect are connected to their time working.
It’s been a long, tough, battle at times, said Bennett.
“We thought we were getting ahead and getting ahead — and really today we’re no further ahead,” she said.
The Brian Tobin administration privatized the shipyard in the late 1990s, but it inked a deal to cover the cost of all environmental issues that existed up to the time of the sale.
In 2002, Peter Kiewit and Sons bought it. As part of that deal, the government agreed to continue covering those environmental liabilities, and lead paint was removed in 2009.
In 2010, the Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development said the environmental indemnity agreement (EIA) is limited to “physical assets” at the shipyard.
Workers have been seeking compensation for their ailments since the 1990s.
For more than two years, Bennett’s group has been waiting on the results of a report commissioned by the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC). That report was billed as a tool to help adjudicate compensation claims by former yard employees.
So far, the WHSCC has processed 38 claims from Marystown and approved 12. Some are still in the process of being adjudicated.
But when the alliance finally got a copy of the report last March, both it and its medical adviser rejected the document.
The alliance wanted a report specific to Marystown that dealt with the issue of multi-chemical exposure. What it got was a compendium of health science research from shipyards around the world.
The group has long argued that Marystown is a special case because of the high volume of work, and consequently chemicals, that went through the yard in its heyday.
Some of the work before the 1980s was also done inside without modern precautions, both factors that compound exposure to chemicals.
In a previous interview with The Telegram WHSCC CEO Leslie Galway defended the report, stating it will be valuable as the commission evaluates claims from shipyard workers in the province.
“We felt we needed to have the information from peer-reviewed science on the incidence of cancer in shipyard workers and use this scientific information to assist our adjudicators when adjudicating claims from Marystown,” said Galway at the time.
“The beauty of an international study is it takes in a huge amount of cancer information and relates it to the exposures that are quite typical in shipyards around the world.”
To be so completely disappointed with that report was a tough pill to swallow, said Bennett.
“We’ve worked very hard for six years. Anything we have said publicly ... has been said based on documentation. Like I said, we don’t pull things out of thin air. What we say is truth — and we can back it up.
“What we talk about in terms of science to support our claim of multi-chemical exposure is science — red seal, peer review, accepted, science. So to have a compensation board and a government not act on that ... and to put smoke-screens in place to delay us is very frustrating for us and for our families,” she said.
This issue has also made its way recently to the House of Assembly.
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball brought it up and got into a back and forth with Paul Davis, minister responsible for Service NL.
Bennett said she’s glad the issue was brought up publicly, but wondered if anything will come of it.
The next step for alliance members will be to collect their thoughts over the summer. They plan to hold a public meeting in the fall to update their members on their progress.
“Just to let our families know. For nobody else’s sake only these workers and our families ... we certainly need to gather everybody together every couple of years and let them know what work’s been done — on either side,” said Bennett.
“And where do we go from here?”
With files from The Telegram