A Toxic Story

Back in about 1990, I worked for two weeks at McGill University, in the department of Physical Plant. During those two weeks, my boss spent most of his time out of the office, and I was left pretty much on my own with little to do, other than answering calls from enraged people around the campus who wondered why the director of Physical Plant had not got back to them for several days.

There was no one to turn to for answers. I was alone in an echoing room at the end of a hallway. My boss’ staff of underlings were in another part of the building, working on an important project. I only ever met one of them, a timid black man with trembling lips and hands, who appeared to go around all day in a fog.

So here I was, a temporary secretary working for a boss who had told me on the first day not to bother him with emergency calls for things like broken boilers and other ordinary disasters. I spent my days taking down messages, and passing on excuses – the boss was out on another call, he was “on the road” – when in fact he was having lunch with high-up administrators. I rarely saw him, and when he came in, he spent most of his time locked in his office sending faxes to a stockbroker in New York.

One day, while filing a memo I had just typed, I came across a folder filled with minutes of meetings concerning a very serious problem on McGill campus: toxic waste.
Having nothing else to do for the afternoon, I began reading three years’ worth of reports, memos, letters, and meetings, attended by my absentee boss and McGill’s top administrators, detailing the gravity of the situation.

Vast quantities of toxic and radioactive materials – including PCBs and dioxins — were lying around the campus, poorly stored in basements, in close proximity to students, staff, and patients at the medical facilities. There had already been cases of illness and even a few deaths caused by radioactive waste in the basement of the McIntyre Medical Building. And barrels filled with toxic chemicals were standing in barrels behind buildings on the main campus. There had been a few near-disasters: in the summer of 1987, torrential rains and a flash flood had caused the radioactive materials in the McIntyre basement to overflow downhill into residential buildings on Peel Street.

McGill was maintaining a toxic waste dump in the middle of a commercial and residential area in downtown Montreal.

There had been meetings with the Quebec government, but no agreement on a cheap, quick way to dispose of the waste. So it continued to sit at McGill, the poisonous remnant of decades of military and scientific contracts that had made Montreal a bio-medical Mecca.

On my last day, I gathered up about 100 pages of memos and other documents, and photocopies. When I left I had a dossier heavy enough to “sink McGill” – or so I was told by the Gazette’s top investigative journalist, who agreed to meet me for lunch the following week.

He read the first couple of pages, said “Wow!” and shook his head. “I’ll do what I can,” he promised, but no article ever appeared.

I had made duplicates of some of the most damning stuff, and I took these to a young woman who worked for the McGill Daily. She wrote a full-page article, which appeared a few weeks later. That was in early spring.

Walking across McGill campus that summer, I heard someone call my name. I turned and came face to face with my old boss from the Department of Physical Plant. He was sitting in his car and at that distance it was impossible to read the expression on his face: friendly? Or accusing? Had he traced the article in the Daily to me? I greeted him with a fake smile. He nodded and drove on.
A year or two later, I heard that my old, temporary boss had been escorted off campus by guards, and no longer was employed by the university. I don’t know if this had anything to do with my leaking the story about toxic waste and mismanagement at Physical Plant. Maybe he was just the scapegoat for a new phase of the cover up.

I stopped working for the temporary agency. Actually, they never called me again. I suppose I broke some agreement when I stole confidential documents from my workplace and handed them over to people in the press. Possibly someone, somewhere – likely my boss – figured this out.
A wise old woman once told me, “It’s not what you do in life that you end up regretting, but what you don’t do.”

I doubt that McGill has changed very much in the last 15 years. More likely the files I photocopied have re-labeled and put in storage. As far as I know, the dossier I put together on McGill has simply disappeared. The pile of toxic waste has probably grown larger, not smaller. Military-medical research generates a lot of lethal material that can lie around poisoning us for generations – we’re taught to accept this. It’s part of the price we pay for our “health” and “security.”

Not long ago, I met someone who had applied for a job overseeing worker safety at McGill. During the interview, he was asked if there was anything he would refuse to do in the course of his work. He said he would never lie to cover up a dangerous situation. The two interviewers paused, exchanged glances, and thanked him for his time. He never heard from them again.

The investigative journalist to whom I gave my files no longer works for the Gazette, and has never answered my e-mails and phone calls. He, too, has moved on. That’s what we all keep doing. Moving on.

The Great Death Machine also rolls on. I doubt that any of us can stop it from eating up the world. But we can control our own destinies through the choices we make.

Ann Diamond is a Montreal-based writer whose most recent book is MY COLD WAR, about growing up in the shadow of secret government experiments conducted on children.