Tensions ran high at a community meeting in Harrietsfield on Thursday night as many emotional residents expressed concern for their health and worries for their future.
The meeting, organized by longtime Harrietsfield resident Marlene Brown, was designed to help people living in the area understand exactly what is wrong with their water, how it got that way and what they can do about it.
“There’s been a shroud of mystery about the water out here for too long,” she says.
According to Brown, Nova Scotia Environment refused to send representatives to the meeting to help explain to people exactly what is going on, so she went to departmental offices, gathered as many pamphlets on water quality as she could and brought them to the meeting for residents to take home.
Brown has been involved in the fight to bring safe water to Harrietsfield since 2009 but the fight began long before that. Many people who attended Thursday night’s meeting remember attending a meeting more than a decade ago about a proposal to turn an auto salvage yard into a construction and demolition recycling site.
One resident in particular, Nancy Nicholson, remembers that she and her neighbours spoke out against the proposal and voted against it during the meeting, which was also attended by members of RDM Recycling.
“They promised that when this facility reached its cycle, it would become a beautiful golf course and it would turn into an asset to the community,” Nicholson remembers.
Nicholson was part of the original group of residents who tried to raise awareness about the worsening water quality in the area before Brown took the lead in 2009.
“We worked really hard to try and bring this to the foreground. It just seemed to be more of a downhill battle than an uphill battle,” she recalls. “It seems like wherever we went, we (found) obstacles.”
Nicholson said the issue was not only controversial among her neighbours.
“We had concerns that nobody seemed to want to address — even media,” says Nicholson. “It was frustrating, really frustrating.”
Since there were no licensed construction and demolition disposal facilities in Halifax Regional Municipality at that time, licensing the site on Old Sambro Road would save the city money as non-recyclable waste could be brought there, just 20 minutes outside the city, rather than being trucked to locations outside HRM.
“People said, ‘enough of this,’ and ‘we’ve been fighting this for so long and it’s not getting anywhere — they want this project to go forward, and when the city decides that this is what they want, there’s nothing we can do anymore,’ ” Nicholson says.
“I get angry when I think, ‘Why didn’t they listen?’ Is it because we’re not somewhere like Bedford? Hammonds Plains? Somewhere where they have loads of money and pull? We’re just Harrietsfield.”
When RDM Recycling began operations, residents remember being flooded with a whole host of new problems, such as breathing in a foul smell emanating from the site and being awakened after-hours by heavy machinery.
“Every now and again after it rained for a bit, there was a terrible odour which we complained about,” Nicholson says. “We were given a number we could call if we had issues, but every time we called the number there was nobody there.”
By the time HRM granted RDM Recycling its disposal licence in 2003, there was reportedly 120,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste piled up at the site. It was left uncovered for more than five years. Municipal waste regulations state that materials of this kind should not be left exposed for more than one year. Nevertheless, the chemicals and toxins within the giant pile of toxic waste ended up seeping into the ground and subsequently into the groundwater that supplies the neighbourhood’s private wells.
It is worth noting that in the staff report regarding the proposal for RDM Recycling to take over the site, specialists from the department who did an assessment of the property said that if the site were to be turned into a disposal facility, it “may pose a risk to some private wells on Old Sambro Road” and that the contaminated groundwater leaching from the site “could reach residential wells in as little as one year.”
In 2010, then environment minister Sterling Belliveau issued an order regarding the site, listing the companies who have owned and operated the site in Harrietsfield over the years who were responsible for cleaning it up. The order also stated the companies were guilty of violating Section 67 (2) the Nova Scotia Environment Act, which states, “No person shall release or permit the release into the environment of a substance … that causes or may cause an adverse effect.”
A month later, the companies appealed the order, which is when Brown and others who are a part of the monitoring program were contacted by the department lawyer, informing them what was happening with the appeal. Eventually, Brown was told she could act as an intervener in the court proceedings and speak about the impacts the contamination and operations at the site have had on members of the community on a psychological, emotional and physiological level.
Following this, Brown approached Lisa Mitchell from East Coast Environmental Law for help and guidance. She brought their case to Ecojustice, connecting them with representation through the environmental law charity.
Kaitlyn Mitchell was one of two lawyers from Ecojustice who went to court with Brown and her neighbours at the time, Melissa King and Jonathan Andrews. She says the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruling from May 2015 was “a 92 per cent win” for the residents, as all of the original clauses listed in the 2010 order were upheld except for one, which was sent back for review.
It therefore came as a great surprise to Brown and everyone involved in the previous court proceedings that Environment Minister Margaret Miller issued two new orders in February. The new orders include an increase in water monitoring and require a qualified professional to assess the site and submit a report by July 31.
“The problem is when they issued those two new orders, they opened up an opportunity for those orders to be appealed again,” Lisa Mitchell says. “In my opinion, if they had maintained the first order and just revisited that one section of the order, then there would not have been an appeal of that order because it has already been appealed and you can’t appeal it a second time. But they chose not to do that for whatever reason. They certainly didn’t consult with us.”
Brown says Mitchell from Ecojustice emailed her as soon as they heard the two new orders were both appealed, and almost immediately after hearing the news, she knew she wanted to work with East Coast Environmental Law and Ecojustice once again to act as an intervener in this case.
“We won in court against them in 2015, and now we have to do it again,” Brown says in an incredulous tone. “It was like, oh my God, didn’t anything matter back then?”
At the meeting, the hot topic was the issue of enforcement. Halifax Coun. Steve Adams and Halifax Atlantic MLA Brendan Maguire arrived late but gave updates and answered residents’ questions.
Adams and Maguire agreed that more needs to be done to enforce the terms of the order, regardless of whether or not the case is going back to court due to the appeal.
“Under the Nova Scotia Environment Act, the ministerial order that was issued in 2010 should have continued to have been enforced,” says Mitchell. “They have the authority to enforce the order, even if somebody disagrees with (it).”
Maguire said that in his opinion, a large part of the problem is a lack of deterrent for those who do not comply with orders, because they simply get away with it and are not reprimanded for being non-compliant.
“The most frustrating part of this whole thing for me is that it just feels like someone’s getting away with it,” he says.
The most recent example of non-compliance has to do with the water monitoring program, as no one showed up last month to get a sample of Brown’s water as both the new and old orders require.
“I called Nova Scotia Environment and they said they’re aware of it,” Brown says.
“When these direct orders from the minister tell them that you have to do this, this and that, and the company is not doing it, then they should enforce it,” she says. “Which means step in, get pushy — whatever the hell they do to make a company comply.”
Adams and Maguire say that since it is not feasible to expect an extension of city water services to the area due to the high costs involved, they were forced to come up with a creative, short-term solution. Last week, Adams put forth a motion to council to apply for provincial funding that would go toward helping those with affected wells pay for filtration systems to make their water potable again. The motion passed unanimously. Whether this application for funding will be granted remains to be seen.
In an email, Nova Scotia Environment spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn said that the department “is continuing to work with the companies responsible for the contamination,” and that “ongoing monitoring has shown that the contamination in the area has been limited to eight wells located downhill from the former RDM Recycling site.”
With regard to enforcement, Fairbairn said “the department, as regulator, will work to ensure the companies fulfil their commitments.”
Those with affected wells in the area being monitored were told by Nova Scotia Environment not to drink, wash dishes or brush their teeth with their tap water. Instead, they must fill up, lug around and live off jugs of water. Several community members rely on an outdoor tap at St. Paul’s United Church in Spryfield, thanks to an arrangement made by Brown roughly three years ago.
“When I see the suffering that’s going on in my community, and the fact that nobody is helping, that really makes me angry,” says Brown. “Enough is enough.”