One Greater Victoria woman is calling for better precautions around demolitions after residents suffered adverse side effects thanks to dust and debris following the demolition of a nearby building.
Maria Hendrikx and her husband Jeremy began experiencing what they thought was a “summer cold” shortly after the demolition of a building in their neighbourhood, located in the West Bay section of Esquimalt.
Not knowing the symptoms of exposure to large amounts of wood dust, they went about their days normally. As the dust began to settle, their symptoms got worse, and they weren’t the only ones. Other neighbours began expressing they too were experiencing irritated eyes, runny noses and respiratory problems.
“The scary thing was we didn’t know the symptoms, but then we all got sick at the same time,” Maria said.
They said while they knew the demolition would be taking place, they were not provided an exact day or time and many in the neighbourhood had their windows open to let in the June breeze. Instead, they let in dust which smelled like mildew and coated surfaces in their homes.
Maria and others reached out to the company that was developing the new building and they provided them with air filters, but the damage was done.
Maria said her husband had extreme eye irritation and she had her first asthma attack in 10 years, requiring a trip to the emergency room.
Emmy Lebonte, a senior who lives in the neighbourhood, said she was sick as well and it turned into double pneumonia, from which she has only just recovered. Children in the neighbourhood experienced mucous in their eyes and noses, they said.
However, she was turned around by each source she went to for help, each of them saying dust mitigation would be a bylaw issue.
So, after contacting Island Health, her MLA’s office and the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, going to council was her last resort.
“It was a bit like an assault for our neighbourhood so I’ve gone through the stages, so now I’m just at trying to prevent this from happening again,” said Maria, adding that with many developments planned for the area, she said she’s scared.
“They consider it in the bylaw to be a nuisance issue and they are not addressing the health issue,” Maria said. “I think it is just not a comprehension of how dangerous it is or of how widespread it became during that time, so this is where they need to learn containment. Every level of government and agency that I went to said it was a bylaw issue no matter what. There seems like an inability to want to acknowledge that there is an issue.”
Unsatisfied with the results from her local government, she reached out to the company again to ask about dust mitigation.
“I felt very neglected by my local government,” she said. “I notified them when I got sick and contacted bylaw, we told the development that we needed mitigation and they gave us air purifiers and put two sprinklers on. It wasn’t adequate.”
While she knows her experience can’t be changed at this point, and she’s been told she can’t really prove the demolition was the reason for the illnesses, she went to Esquimalt council on Feb. 13 to ask for preventative measures.
She asked the council to strengthen the existing bylaw regulating maintence of property to include prior review of the site before demolition, including the climate and weather on the days demolition is scheduled. She also asked for appropriate safety measures, including water on site and misting to reduce the amount of dust emitted, as well as adequate notification regarding the time of the demolition, to ensure people in the surrounding area can take measures to reduce harm, such as closing windows.
The current bylaw states, “No Owner or Occupier shall emit, make or cause or permit to be emitted … any odour, vibration, illumination, dust or other matter which disturbs or is liable to disturb the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort or convenience of any person or persons in the neighbourhood or vicinity.”
The bylaw is compaint-driven and the Township of Esquimalt said the first step is to seek compliance, such as instituting sprinklers in the case of dust pollution. If the situation is not remedied, bylaw officers will issue a fine of $150-250 per day. Rather than a complaint-driven response, Maria asked council for preventative measures.
“I would like them to investigate ways to assess a site and let them know what they should be doing during demolition to keep this from happening in the first place,” Maria said. “We sat in the dust for two weeks. I really don’t want to see this happen again to anyone else in the township.”
In response to her presentation on Monday, Mayor Barb Desjardins said there will be a restructuring of a Good Neighbour Policy that was developed 2005-2009, which Desjardins said sets out expectations for developers.
“I do believe that developers only go by law, I think the only way to prevent other people from getting sick is through protocols in a bylaw,” Maria said. “It really is all on council’s shoulders. Everyone said it was all up to them and to prevent people from getting sick again, they need to create a better bylaw.”