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The War on Water in Harrietsfield, Nova Scotia - Part Two

A heartbreaking fight for a basic right

by Rebecca Hussman

Marlene Brown, who has taken up a lead role in fighting for safe water in the community within the last 6 years, says that the nearby lakes are no longer safe to swim in due to the high levels of aluminum. [Photo: Rebecca Hussman]
Marlene Brown, who has taken up a lead role in fighting for safe water in the community within the last 6 years, says that the nearby lakes are no longer safe to swim in due to the high levels of aluminum. [Photo: Rebecca Hussman]
High levels of metals have corroded pipes and faucets in the Harrietsfield - Williamswood area. [Photo: Rebecca Hussman]
High levels of metals have corroded pipes and faucets in the Harrietsfield - Williamswood area. [Photo: Rebecca Hussman]

HARRIETSFIELD, NOVA SCOTIA -- The people of Harrietsfield and Williamswood have a whole range of problems stemming from their close proximity to a poorly managed construction and demolition recycling facility at 1275 Old Sambro Road.

When the Minister of Environment issued an Order in November 2010 to the companies who owned the site over the years, one of the companies listed, 3076525 NS Ltd., filed an appeal. The owners of the company, Kurt Jacobs and Brian Dubblestyne, are also the co-owners of Mirror NS, the company which runs the Otter Lake Landfill. Jacobs is the president of Dexter Construction.

One of the key reasons behind Jacobs and Dubblestyne’s appeal rests on the argument that the majority of the damage done to the site was by the previous owners. During the hearing of the appeal, Dubblestyne submitted an affidavit that mentioned, among other things, how the company continued to pay for water tests in the region, despite no longer being legally obliged to. They also argued that their company ran a far more efficient operation than the previous owners, according to the May 6 document from the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Both residents and court documents indicate that the Nova Scotia Department of Environment has been aware that the operations occurring on the site was “having a detrimental environmental impact” since the early 2000s.

“RDM had stockpiles of C&D (construction and demolition) waste that, by mid-2003, had been sitting on the site uncovered and exposed to the elements for several years,” the document states.

“NSDE was of the opinion in July 2003 that leachate emanating from stockpiled material on the Property was moving off-site and that monitoring results from Shea Lake ‘might well be the result of influences from stockpile leachate.’”

Furthermore, Dubblestyne and Jacobs did not follow protocol when it came to getting the proper disposal license from Nova Scotia Environment:

“In 2003, in anticipation of approval from NSDE to dispose of C&D waste on the Property, RDM had already disposed of some C&D waste. NSDE investigated this unauthorized disposal and determined that it was having a detrimental environmental impact.”

The company owners also failed to submit a report to NSDE written by a geotechnical engineer, as requested, to analyze the water test data.

“The record on this appeal tends to suggest that the containment cell, housing 120,000 tons of unrecyclable material, was supposed to be inspected and certified by a geotechnical engineer. That never occurred,” the document states.

Dubblestyne also tried to say they were not responsible for the clean-up because the majority of the damage caused by the previous owners (RDM), leaving them responsible for financing the clean up of approximately 6,000 tonnes of non-recyclable debris. Adding to this, he noted that the company continued to spend upwards of $30,000 annually on the water tests included as part of the Ministerial Order.

“To remediate this failure of the containment cell to contain the leachate from approximately 120,000 tonnes of unrecyclable material would require significant effort and is beyond the financial capacity of 307 NSL,” Dubblestyne’s affidavit states.

Despite the validity of these points, the company is still guilty of contravening the Nova Scotia Environment Act, and is being held responsible for the cleanup. The cost of the cleanup is estimated to be around $10.6 million.

“While the appellant may have taken giant steps to run a more responsible business than the previous owners when it took over operations in 2005, that does not preclude the possibility that it also continued to cause contamination to the Property and the environment. Reducing the risk of environmental harm and eliminating the risk are two very different results,” writes Justice Joshua Arnold from the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.


Experts weigh in, worry for residents’ health


Marlene Brown, who has taken up a lead role in fighting for safe water in the community within the last 6 years, says that the nearby lakes are no longer safe to swim in due to the high levels of aluminum.

“Health Canada recommends that water is unsafe for swimming when the reading is over 200 (milligrams) per 100mL (of water),” she explains. In the lake directly behind the site, Shea Lake, water tests indicate that the level of aluminum is 600 milligrams per 100mL.

“High aluminum is toxic to many species of aquatic organisms,” Brown explains.

She goes on to say that the pH reading of Shea Lake was also dangerously low, which explains the disappearances of certain aquatic organisms in the region, such as mayflies, leeches and green-drakes.

“Once pH of a lake drops down to around 4.5, most species are eradicated due to reproductive failure or lack of available food source,” Brown says.

Moreover, when pH levels drop below 6.5, the pipes which the water travels through become corroded by the heavy metals present in the water, eventually rusting off.

The hydrogeologist with the Department of Environment, Melanie Haggart, conducted water tests in the Harrietsfield area. She writes:

“The site hosts both a capped disposal cell containing construction and demolition (C and D) debris, and a current C and D materials recycling operation, where water which has contacted C and D materials can infiltrate into the ground; both of these could be the source of the groundwater plume.”

Haggart then states that calcium sulphate, boron, hardness, alkalinity, chloride and pH changes evident in the water are all indicators “which are consistent with a direct C and D material source.”

“I have concluded that uranium is elevated in the groundwater plume in bedrock, and lead is elevated in some well water, most likely due to localized chemical reactions between contaminated groundwater and aquifer solids, or contaminated groundwater and some domestic plumbing, respectively.”

Compared to Haggart’s report, which “noted a pattern of substantial adverse increases over the time period of the monitoring,” RDM’s hired hydrogeologist “did not provide a plausible alternative explanation for the observations of the progressive, downgradient only changes in the groundwater.”

“The observations of the appellant’s report focused more on average concentrations and did not focus enough on the trends over time (the cumulative issues),” it says in the document.

Further, in May 2010, Nova Scotia Environment contacted Linda Passerini, an environmental health consultant, to do a study of the water in the Harrietsfield region. Passerini indicated that “that she was concerned about residents’ health.”

Passerini gave the following explanation:

“Arsenic is identified as a human carcinogen—study results suggest that consuming drinking water with very high levels of arsenic over a lifetime can increase the risk of cancer in internal organs such as the bladder, liver and lungs. Arsenic is a known carcinogen (meaning that exposure to any level in drinking water may increase the risk of cancer) and must therefore be removed by treatment where present at levels over this concentration. The levels shown of 1294 and 1300 Old Sambro Rd are significantly higher than the Drinking Water Guidelines. [...] Lead has a MAC of 0.01 mg/L in drinking water—lead ingestion should be avoided particularly by pregnant women and young children, who are most susceptible as it is a cumulative general poison. The health effects of lead are most severe for infants, children under six years of age, pregnant women and nursing mothers. For infants and children, exposure to high levels of lead in drinking water can result in delays in physical or mental development. For adults, it can result in kidney problems or high blood pressure.”


Harrietsfield residents’ health neglected, voices ignored


Though no health impact study has been done in the Harrietsfield-Williamswood region, it is clear that the consumption of and exposure to the contaminated water seriously impacts residents’ health.

“What we’re seeing in our area: tumours, prostate cancers, bladder, kidney, reproductive, breast, liver and kidney disease, throat, pancreas...We’re a small community,” Brown says in a sombre tone at the community meeting last week.

There are less than 1000 people who live in the area.

Brown also notes that between 1985 and 1989, “we saw 5 adults die of cancer in their 50s, within 500 metres of the site.”

She then recalls that in 1991, a 61-year-old male died from prostate cancer, in 1999 a 54-year-old woman died from a tumour, and in 2008, another man in his early 50s died from a tumor.

“That’s only what we know. And I’ve heard tonight, there’s more,” Brown tells those present at the meeting.

It is worth noting, too, that the contaminants are not only present in the water, but in the air as well.

“Every now and again after it rained for a bit, there was a terrible odour which we complained about. We were given a number we could call if we had issues, but every time we called the number, there was nobody there,” Harrietsfield resident Nancy Nicholson says.

Nicholson and a small group of other concerned residents fought for safe water in the area as far back as in 2001, but after continually hitting brick walls and achieving no progress, many group members gave up the fight and sold their homes.

“Nobody paid us any mind,” she says. “We had concerns that nobody seemed to want to address—even media.”

“After a while, you phone and nothing’s done anyway, and you say, ‘What’s the sense?’ Nobody seems to care one way or another.”

During a meeting for the municipal plans for the region before the site was used as a recycling facility, Nicholson says that she and other members of the community’s votes were completely ignored.

“When they asked who was in agreement, there was only half a dozen hands. When they asked who would be opposed, there was about 120 of us at the meeting and most of us raised our hands. And it wasn’t even acknowledged. Nor was that vote included in the minutes—there was no record of the vote.”

Nicholson says that she and the others who were outspoken about the cause were threatened and intimidated into staying quiet and complacent.

“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 says. “And then when this site became valuable to the city for recycling, it was like ‘Oh, wow. I guess there’s nothing that we can do now.’”

“Now that it’s come back to bite them in the foot, I’m very angry. At least I’m glad that a lot of what we surmised was actually true; we weren’t on a fool’s errand after all.”

Part One of Rebecca Hussman's work can be found here.

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