FREDERICTON, NB - People angry with Ottawa's compensation package for Agent Orange exposure at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown are turning to a class-action lawsuit for satisfaction, says the lawyer handling the case.
Tony Merchant of the Merchant Law Group said Thursday his law offices across the country have been flooded with calls from people furious at the federal government's offer of a one-time, $20,000 payment for those who meet strict eligibility requirements.
"It is ridiculously inadequate," Merchant said in an interview from his Regina law office.
"It's enough money to buy a used truck in exchange for what for many is daily pain and suffering. It's not solving the problem for the government. It's really drawing attention to the problem and making things worse."
Merchant said hundreds of people have added their names to the class-action lawsuit, swelling its ranks to about 3,000 veterans and civilians. The law firm is seeking court approval for the case to go ahead in Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson said earlier this week the compensation will apply only to those who worked on or lived near the huge New Brunswick training base in 1966 and 1967 - the two years the U.S. military tested Agent Orange and several other combat defoliants for use in the Vietnam War.
Qualifying applicants also must have one of 12 disorders associated with Agent Orange exposure, including prostate cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Thompson said the payments are "ex gratia" meaning the government is not admitting liability. He said people can accept the $20,000 and still join a lawsuit.
Merchant said the government's actions are helping the court case.
"It amounts to an admission of wrongdoing," Merchant said of the compensation package. "They say there is no legal admission, and we understand that, but in effect it is an admission of wrongdoing. So it is helpful."
The lawsuit encompasses a much broader period of time at CFB Gagetown. It is seeking compensation for people who claim they were harmed by spray programs beginning in the 1950s, when the base opened, and continuing until recent years.
Merchant said the formulations of herbicides used during annual spray programs at the base were the same as those brought to the base by the U.S. military in 1966 and 1967 for testing.
Defoliants used around the world in the 1950s, '60s and '70s contained a highly toxic byproduct called dioxin, which has been linked to human health problems.
Merchant said that although the herbicides were used across Canada and around the world by utility companies, railways and forestry operations, the lawsuit is restricted to Gagetown because the chemicals were used improperly on the base.
"At Gagetown they caused problems because they were used in such huge concentrations," he said.
"They also caused problems because of the way in which they then used the land. People were out in the fields, they were in the training areas, in the hunting areas. They even had people burning the brush. It's the use at Gagetown that was serious."
Nevertheless, proving cause and effect in court is not going to be easy.
Several studies of health impacts from Gagetown spraying were unable to conclusively establish a link between the sprays and health problems, although there were elevated risks for those involved directly in the spray programs.
Dr. Joel Michalek, who is with the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Texas, said hard evidence of exposure at Gagetown is gone because dioxin leaves the body after a few years.
"The idea is to measure the contaminant in a person's body and then ask whether those contaminant levels correlate with disease," said Michalek, who helped peer review studies at Gagetown.
"That would be the traditional approach. However, a person's body burden of dioxin is eliminated over time. It's very unlikely anyone would find elevated levels in those people."
Michalek said that despite the fact court cases are difficult, many are currently underway around the world. He said they often involve complaints about dioxin-laced herbicides.
"These are issues faced by all industrialized countries as they deal with the fallout from exposure to persistent pollutants."