Documents outline talks between Organigram, province during legionnaires' outbreak

Newly released documents offer a behind-the-scenes look at discussions between New Brunswick's health department and Organigram as the province investigated a legionnaires' disease outbreak in Moncton that sickened 16 people last year.

More than 230 pages of documents, with the location and name of the company blacked out, were released to CBC News by the department in response to a right-to-information request.

The correspondence ranges from lab testing results, discussion of various testing methods, notice of what would be said at upcoming news conferences, to outlining how the company could be consulted on what to release in response to right to information requests.

Details in the documents along with previously reported information show the outbreak was pinpointed to cooling towers on the roof of a section of Organigram's cannabis production facility under construction in the Moncton industrial park.

The documents also show multiple calls with the company through the outbreak, that coincided with regular retesting of the cooling towers after they had been cleaned. 

They don't include notes about what was said during those calls, but many parts of the emails are blacked out. 

The province has refused to say where the outbreak began. Organigram has neither confirmed nor denied it was the source. 

Company won't comment

Ray Gracewood, Organigram's senior vice-president of marketing and communications, declined to comment and referred an interview request to the health department.

Dr. Yves Léger, regional medical officer of health, told reporters last summer he decided not to release the location because the cooling towers were identified and cleaned, resolving the issue. 

Bruce Macfarlane, a spokesperson for the health department, said in a statement that Léger made the decision on what to disclose and then informed the company of the decision.

An outbreak was declared Aug. 1 and health officials declared it over in mid-September. All 16 people infected survived exposure to the disease.

Shane Magee/CBC

The bacteria that causes the illness can be dispersed into the air from cooling towers, components of a large building cooling system, and then carried by the wind for kilometres.

Several people who contracted the severe form of pneumonia last year told CBC they lived near, worked in or travelled through the industrial park.

The emails show public health officials routinely updated the company, including about how much information it would share with the public regarding the source.

On Aug. 22, Léger informed Organigram that the public would not be told the source of the outbreak. 

In an email he wrote "Our position is still that we will not publicly provide the name of the company or its location," Léger wrote.

Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control/Associated Press

As the outbreak continued, Léger emailed the company about a right to information request the province had received. As is standard when such requests deal with third-party information, the third party is consulted on what can be released by the government. 

"So there is a possibility that your company could be solicited to provide comment/feedback on the info that is being considered for release under the RTI request. I'll keep you informed as I know more," Leger wrote Sept. 3. By that point, CBC had filed several such requests. 

CBC asked the health department if it's normal for a doctor to offer updates, versus department staff who normally handle right to information requests.

Macfarlane, the spokesperson, told CBC that the email was in response to the company asking Léger about the right to information process. 

The health department documents include email exchanges from when lab results confirmed the strain of bacteria that infected the people was the strain in the cooling towers at one location.

Previously released records show that by Aug. 11, testing had already been done at various sites in the city - except for one location where samples were collected on Aug. 12.

That morning, Léger wrote that health officials collected the last set of samples from five cooling towers at one site. 

Léger wrote the bacteria levels found exceeded guidelines from various agencies and required immediate shutdown and disinfection of the towers.

Léger wrote in later emails that he called someone with the company about the sample results and an order requiring immediate shutdown and cleaning of the towers. 

"They were very cooperative on the call," Léger wrote. 

Shane Magee/CBC

The next day, Organigram's director of human resources sent an email to its employees. CBC News obtained an unredacted copy of that email last year. It describes "elevated bacteria counts" discovered Aug. 12 in its cooling towers on Phase 4A, which is an expansion of its facility. 

"Please note this system is external and does not impact air quality within the facility, or the health of our products," the Organigram email states. 

As a result of the reported bacteria, the email says the company took immediate steps to clean the system.

The Organigram email notes the discovery would result in "regular site visits by the health department and other consultants," and other internal testing. 

Shane Magee/CBC

On Aug. 14, the health department asked the company to forward whatever it had told the company's employees about the issue. A person with the company responded, writing "as per request, this went out to our employees Tuesday evening on behalf of myself."

The text of the message is blacked out in the version released by the province, however the timeline, number of paragraphs and length of those paragraphs match the email sent to Organigram employees separately obtained by CBC. 

The records also include the discovery of a Sept. 3 Facebook post by a person who said Organigram was the source of the outbreak based on "inside sources."

"I got a call from my contact at [redacted] around 7h45 last night, [redacted]," Léger wrote to other public health officials the following morning. "They have prepared messaging in case they need to respond, but don't plan to do so proactively. They will share with me today and I'll keep you in the loop."

Macfarlane wrote to health officials Sept. 4 he had received calls from the media asking to confirm the location of the outbreak. Part of that email, which has the subject line "Twist to the plot," is blacked out.

Company considered 'proactive' disclosure

The series of emails includes a copy of the Facebook post. Macfarlane recommended a conference call that day. 

Later that day, Leger wrote to the same group that he had a 1:30 p.m. call with the company. "[I] think they are changing approaches and are planning a proactive media release."

It's not clear what was discussed on that call with the company. The records released end Sept. 4, the day before the CBC right to information request that resulted in their disclosure was filed.

There was never a voluntary disclosure about the source of the outbreak.