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

Over decades, multiple levels of government have passed on monitoring, addressing, toxic water

by Rebecca Hussman

Harrietsfield community member Marlene Brown holds up a faucet rusted away by her toxic water. Concerned residents have been shuffled around various levels of governance. [Photo: R. Hussman]
Harrietsfield community member Marlene Brown holds up a faucet rusted away by her toxic water. Concerned residents have been shuffled around various levels of governance. [Photo: R. Hussman]

HARRIETSFIELD, NOVA SCOTIA -- Members of the Harrietsfield-Williamswood community, in Nova Scotia, have lacked access to safe water for decades.

Water tests conducted in the area show incredibly high levels of various heavy metals that are toxic to ingest, such as arsenic, uranium and aluminum. Residents believe - and studies show - that the pollution and water quality has been worsening over the years, due to poor management of a construction and demolition disposal facility on Old Sambro Road.

Roy Brown and Michael Lawrence purchased the property in question in Harrietsfield to start RDM Recycling Ltd., a construction and demolition recycling plant, in 1997. Prior to this, the site was an auto salvage yard.

HRM council minutes from October of 2002 state that Steven Adams, city councillor of the Harrietsfield district, fought alongside Lawrence in court to get a license for the facility.

Adams said that RDM “runs a clean and efficient operation” and that “the material disposed of at the facility will be inert and non-toxic.”

Councillors against the issue cited the following concerns: “The location of the facility is too close to a watershed,” “the Community Monitoring Committee endorsed the strategy and not the site locations,” and “this is a residential zone.”

However, the motion was passed to amend the appropriate by-laws in order grant RDM a license to operate their facility at that particular location.

Nova Scotia Environment takes the issue to court

In November of 2010, the Minister of Environment issued an Order to the companies who owned the site over the years.

Among other things, the Order told the parties to clean up the site, monitor certain wells and to conduct regular water tests in the region.

In December, 3076525 Nova Scotia Ltd., one of the companies listed in the Order, filed an appeal, hoping to get themselves removed.

When the appeal went to trial in 2014, three Harrietsfield residents who had been granted intervenor status presented water sampling data collected by residents, proving the rising levels of toxic heavy metals in the wells and lakes in the region.

The residents also provided letters and testimonies given by those who had become seriously ill from the contaminated water and polluted air, and from those who had watched loved ones die from cancer after drinking or washing with the toxic water for so many years.

One of the intervenors, Melissa King, said that since the Order was issued, the company has only been partially compliant.

On May 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia made a decision with regards to the appeal.

“All companies are being held responsible for everything in that order except for clause 7, which is the cleanup of the containment cell,” King explains, adding that the lawyers from Ecojustice who helped them with this case called the decision a “92% win.”

The parameters of clause 7 are currently being discussed by the Minister and the lawyer representing RDM Recycling, according to the area’s provincial MLA Brendan Maguire.

However, residents expressed doubts and are concerned that a clean-up will not actually happen any time soon, or maybe even at all.

“It’s great that we won in court, but there’s still a long way to go before anything can actually happen,” says King.

“The water monitoring program, testing our wells—they did pay for that for all those years, and they still are. So that they did do. As far as cleaning up the site—well, obviously they haven’t done that,” King says to an assembled crowd at a Harrietsfield-Williamswood community meeting on Friday, May 22, 2015.

“Compliance does require sometimes a little enforcement or encouragement which doesn’t seem to (have) really happened.”

The link between the site and community health problems

Many of those living in the area strongly believe that their close proximity to the contaminated site is linked to the high incidences of cancer and other types serious health concerns in the region.

Residents see how the toxic water destroys the pipes and taps it runs through, and wonder about the extent of harm that the water been having on their health.

Despite all the publicly available documents dating back to the early 1980s which indicate high levels of uranium in the area, no health impact studies have ever been done within the Harrietsfield-Williamswood region.

Marlene Brown, a Harrietsfield resident of 35 years, has watched a large number of people in a very small community battle a whole host of fatal diseases.

Brown, like many others in the community, is convinced that the contaminated water and the pollution from the site has had a serious, negative impact on community members’ health.

As a result, Brown has been fighting for the community’s right to safe water since 2009.

“There’s a lot of residents still drinking the water, which is the most upsetting part of all,” Brown says during Friday’s meeting.

“We asked the provincial and municipal (government) to come and tell you guys what was going on with the water. That wasn’t happening, so we took it upon ourselves to put this together for you,” Brown says, gesturing towards the dozens of pamphlets and handouts about water quality and testing strategies she has printed up for members of the community.

High levels of uranium present in the water is one of the top issues for the region.

According to Brown, uranium was first discovered in Harrietsfield in the late 1970s early 1980s.

“It was discovered in the Birchlea trailer park,” she says.

Uranium is a toxic heavy metal that has no taste, no smell or colour. It can only be detected through specialized water testing, which Brown has been doing for well water in the Harrietsfield area since 2009.

“In 2004, out of 18 schools, Harrietsfield had the highest uranium amount in their water,” Brown says. “We’re the community that was hit by uranium, and we weren’t told about the radiation.”

When uranium breaks down, it forms a radioactive gas called radon, which poses a health risk when it enters an enclosed area, such as a basement or home.

“In 2009, the provincial government passed the Uranium Exploration and Mining Act to prohibit exploration for or mining of uranium in order to protect the health of safety of Nova Scotia and the quality of the environment,” Brown says. “When that was all happening, they trucked water out here for residents. After 10 years, Nova Scotia Environment raised uranium levels permitted in drinking water, so they cut out the water delivery. Residents were told they’d have to find another alternative for their drinking water.”

Brown goes on to say that in 1987, the municipal government launched a study on pollution in the region.

“The goal of the pollution control study was to develop options to resolve water quality problems related to the uranium and malfunctioning septics (in the Williamswood area). When the Nova Scotia Environment raised the level, they cut off the studies to Harrietsfield and they focused on Williamswood and their septic tank problems,” she explains.


Failed initiatives, incomplete projects and broken promises


In 1995, the municipal government’s planning strategy addressed the issues affecting the Harrietsfield-Williamswood community.

The plan included having Halifax “begin immediately to address the problems with a community process, which will incorporate a public information program and a high degree of public consultation and input through the established community association.”

Brown and those present at the meeting all agreed that this never happened.

The plan also said the city was committed to “determine ways of establishing a radon testing program, to recommend an appropriate testing program, and to monitor future research development in that area,” recognizing the “considerable public concern with the issue of uranium in drinking water supplies and the public health hazards associated with radon and radium.”

Everyone in the room agreed that this did not happen either.

In 2003, the Nova Scotia department of Environment launched a remediation plan and told the owners of the site at the time, RDM Recycling Ltd., to conduct quarterly water sampling tests for wells on the site, domestic wells and at the nearby Sheas Lake.

“They (Nova Scotia Environment) recognized there was a contamination, and they told them how to clean it up,” Brown explains.

That same year, 24 wells in the area were recorded to have levels of uranium greatly exceeding the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines. However, only 18 of those wells were put on a water monitoring program in what the residents assume was the result of an arbitrary selection process.

One of the 18 monitored wells belonged to Brown.

“When we got our water tested, we were all given generic letters telling us that this was due to road salt, wall construction—everything except for where it was truly coming from,” she says.

“We were tested for 54 parameters. But then we were given page after page of information we don’t know how to read. We don’t know this! Unless you actually go online or something and research all those heavy metals, you don’t have any idea what’s in your water.”

To make matters worse, a few years later it was discovered that these wells that were a part of this program were actually not being monitored after all.

“We found out in ‘09, when one of the residents who recognized a fluctuation in the water sample contacted the water company,” Brown says. The resident first tried asking the water-testing company, who said they sent them to the site. Next, they tried contacting RDM Recycling, who referred them to a representative of the site.

“And that person didn’t know we were having our water monitored,” Brown says.

“So that’s when we got the Nova Scotia Environment involved.”

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