Union Angered By Plutonium Shipment

Workers at a ministry aviation center say the Ontario government violated health and safety laws when it allowed a secret shipment of weapons-grade plutonium into their workplace.

The Ontario government violated health and safety laws when it allowed a secret shipment of dangerous U.S. plutonium into a ministry aviation center, the union that represents ministry staff said Tuesday.

In charges filed this week in Ontario court, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) said the province's Natural Resources Ministry endangered its workers when it failed to tell them about the Jan. 14 shipment, or how to protect themselves from the hazardous material.

"What they have done is absolutely negligent and a blatant disregard for the rights of their own employees," said Bob DeMatteo, OPSEU's senior health and safety officer.

Approximately 35 to 40 flight engineers, mechanics, flood crews, clerical workers and others work at the ministry's aviation, flood and fire control center in the northern Ontario community of Sault Ste. Marie.

Ministry workers at the hanger also were not told that 100 police officers and sharpshooters, some in camouflage, would be on hand.

"Our members came to work early that morning only to discover thatthe hanger was an armed camp. They had no idea what was going on," said DeMatteo.

The shipment of mixed oxide fuel from New Mexico was brought to Sault Ste. Marie before being flown by helicopter for processing at Atomic Energy of Canada labs in Chalk River, northwest of Ottawa.

The intention was to thwart environmentalists and First Nations' groups who had threatened to prevent trucking of the nuclear material.

But DeMatteo said security concerns should not have taken precedence over the ministry's legal obligation to warn employees about the transfer.

"What you don't do is have weapons-grade plutonium in somebody's workplace and have them arrive in the presence of these armed men," said DeMatteo.

Ontario New Democrats called Tuesday for an independent inquiry into the matter and are urging the province's environmental commissioner to investigate.

Natural Resource's Minister John Snobelen was not available, but a spokesman said the ministry would "vigorously" defend itself against the charges.

The union said it will take court action to ensure its members are not kept in the dark.

"A conviction is a declaration by a court that something wrong happened here," said DeMatteo.

The penalty for conviction under the Canadian Occupational Health and Safety Act is a fine of up to $25,000 and possibly a year in jail.

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