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Questions remain one year after Sunrise Propane blast

TORONTO - It's an image seared on the brains of thousands of residents who fled their beds in the dead of night, many without shoes and clad only in boxers or flimsy pyjamas: Gigantic balls of fire exploding like sunbursts high above their homes.

TORONTO - It's an image seared on the brains of thousands of residents who fled their beds in the dead of night, many without shoes and clad only in boxers or flimsy pyjamas: Gigantic balls of fire exploding like sunbursts high above their homes.

Hundreds of windows shattering. Toxic asbestos coating lawns and choking smoke filling the air. Buildings rocked from their foundations.

And with the tremendous boom, roused residents scattered in terror out of their northwest Toronto community like ants from a smoked-out colony.

One full year later, emotions are still sparked by the explosion at the Sunrise Propane facility on Aug. 10, 2008. Some lessons have been learned since then, and life has resumed to normal for most, but several key questions remain and lives of some are still in disarray.

"Psychologically, (residents) want to know how it happened and they want the people who are accountable to be brought to justice," says Harvin Pitch, lead counsel in a pending class action suit representing the 10,000 or so residents who make up the neighbourhood at ground zero.

"A good majority now have settled down, houses have been fixed. ... A smaller group are still out of their homes, or, if they're back in, they're suffering trauma."

The Ontario Fire Marshal's office is still investigating and has yet to issue a report.

While Sunrise Propane had its licenses revoked early on, it was only last week the Ontario Ministry of Labour laid two charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. If convicted, fines could reach upwards of $500,000 per count.

Cleanup efforts extended to 580 properties and cost the city $1.8 million, $900,000 which was chipped in by the province.

The devastating blast propelled a bevy of concerns to the fore, chief among them the conflict between industry and citizens. As residents flooded from their homes towards temporary shelters on that rainy early morning, they charged no one had listened to their long-standing fears that an accident was waiting to happen.

The Technical Standards and Safety Authority, the non-profit agency responsible for regulating transportation, storage, handling and use of fuel, came under fire right away.

Political response was swift and two audits were conducted of both large and small propane facilities. Several violations were uncovered at large facilities that posed an immediate hazard, and were quickly rectified.

In the second audit, 35 of 1,500 smaller facilities were found to pose an immediate hazard and more than 800 were not complying with all safety regulations.

In November, the province was handed 40 recommendations on enhancing safety from independent experts on volatile fuels. Implementation continues.

Ted McMeekin, minister of government and consumer services, says he feels the government has taken many positive steps since the incident.

"We have the power to go in and do a random inspection of any propane facility in the province, and so we'll be doing more than that," he said. "The (Authority's) database will be better, the complaint review process will be better, the chief safety and risk officer working independently and publishing an annual report which anyone can read is a step forward."

But city councillor Maria Augimeri, who represents the area, says she feels more must still be done. She's already gathered the support of 600 residents for a petition calling on the province to bring the Authority in-house.

"When you parcel out public safety, public security, it doesn't work," she said. "People should not be there to make money off of public safety. That's what happens with water and that's what's happening with propane. It just doesn't work."

Augimeri was, however, positive about proposals for a new harmonized zoning bylaw that will require new facilities with potentially harmful substances to have setbacks from residential buildings.

Two people died at the scene - a firefighter battling the resulting blaze and a Sunrise employee - but it's been acknowledged it could have been far more deadly. The community's saving grace was that the incident happened while most were inside, fast asleep.

Residents say the shared emotional experience has changed how neighbours interact. Some are more likely to greet each other on the street and there's been more frequent town meetings.

JP Pampena, an area resident, vividly recalls what he describes as an "inferno."

"It was like being down with the devil, according to all the fictions that you hear. Even though I can't see, I felt the warmth right over me," he said.

Having eventually learned that the propane depot would not re-open was a big step towards relieving stress on the community, he said.

"People are feeling much more settled, more secure," he said. "It has changed me and my family. I count my blessings more now. For me it was a wake-up call."

But people are also somewhat more critical and have been keeping watchful in ways they hadn't before, he said.

"For the residents, you know when you say when you go to sleep, 'Have a peaceful sleep?' Well, I don't think we can ever be at peace. Because you never know what's lingering out there."

 
 
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