Cranbrook teachers who claimed mercury poisoning get new hearing

Judge says 2010 decision in Mount Baker Secondary School mercury case was 'manifestly unfair.'

A group of six Cranbrook teachers who claim they were poisoned by mercury during their time at Mount Baker Secondary School were vindicated Tuesday as a Supreme Court Justice granted them a new court-ordered compensation board hearing.

In a tersely worded decision from a Vancouver Supreme Court room, Justice A. Saunders said the decision handed down by the Worker’s Compensation Appeal Tribunal in September, 2010 was unfair.

“It was manifestly unfair to the petitioners. The panel’s conclusion was patently unreasonable,” Saunders wrote in his ruling.

B.C. Teacher’s Federation president Susan Lambert is lauding the move that she says has taken too long.

“It’s a long time coming,” Lambert told the Townsman. “It’s a good ruling. It’s a strong ruling. That’s very strong language from a Justice.”

Saunders ordered the case be sent back to the WCAT for another hearing, where the teachers will go through the process all over again. The teachers spurred the Supreme Court case after filing a judicial review in June of this year.

The WCAT found in 2010 that the teachers did not suffer mercury poisoning at Mount Baker.

“The panel found that the evidence was insufficient to establish that the workers suffered from mercury poisoning,” the ruling said. “The workers did not have an occupational disease due to the nature of their employment.”

Lambert said the six teachers began noticing symptoms of mercury poisoning in 2004 and 2005, and have been fighting to be covered by the Worker’s Compensation Board ever since.

“You’re doing it in failing health and initially their concerns were dismissed,” Lambert said. “The impact was serious on their health and has robbed them of the ability to enjoy life.”

The symptoms of mercury poisoning include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, respiratory problems, tremors, weight loss, memory loss, insomnia, and irritability.

Lambert said the BCTF did an enormous amount of work to investigate the claims made by the teachers. Cranbrook and District Teachers Association president Wendy Turner said in 2010 that the teachers did not enter into these allegations lightly.

“It wasn’t a run of the mill case,” Lambert said. “It was a very unique situation – I mean I hope it’s a unique situation in the province.”

Lambert worries about the students who were potentially exposed to mercury as well, but said teachers spent a much larger percentage of their time in the classrooms.

“The teachers had to live in these classrooms, and had to live in them year after year,” she said.

Following the BCTF’s claims, School District 5 underwent a $200,000 investigation into the mercury situation at Mount Baker, and conducted some upgrades. Bill Gook, superintendent at the time of the allegations, said in 2010 that he hoped the WCAT ruling would prove that Mount Baker is safe for students and staff.

Lambert said the BCTF is “absolutely not” happy with SD5’s response, and said the federation should not have had to take their claims as far as they have.

“The fact that we had to go to this length – to the Supreme Court of B.C.,” she said.

Lambert said the teachers’ concerns were initially dismissed by SD5, and it was a struggle to get to this point. She wonders if the six teachers have any fight left in them after years of health issues and legal wrangling.

“I’m not sure how much energy they have left to work on this file,” she said.

If the WCAT hearing goes ahead without an appeal from SD5, the teachers will have to repeat a process they completed in 2010.