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The right to clean water in Harrietsfield, Nova Scotia

by ECElaw

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]

This op-ed was originally posted by ECELAW, an organization that encourages the development and fair application of innovative and effective environmental laws in Atlantic Canada , 


The fact that rural residents in Nova Scotia have uranium in their well water may not be news.  In fact, 4% of all well water in Nova Scotia contains uranium above the levels considered safe to drink. 

But what if the uranium in your well water increases by 500%?

What if you find the water you are drinking not only contains uranium, but boron, lead, arsenic, cadmium and manganese, to name a few?   

And what if it turns out your neighbor is a C&D (construction & demolition) recycling site that collected and stockpiled waste material for years without cover or containment and what if contaminants from that waste were leaching into your well water?

This is the case for the community of Harrietsfield, Nova Scotia. 

In early 2000, Nova Scotia Environment (NSE) discovered stockpiles of waste material at the RDM C&D recycling site. NSE allowed RDM to construct a one-time disposal cell on their site.  It took 4 years to complete, while the stockpiles remained, and finally in 2004 RDM finished the cell and they buried over 120 000 tonnes of stockpiled waste.

NSE had good reason to believe that leachate from the site was entering groundwater, so RDM was required to sample the groundwater in several locations on the site (on-site monitoring) and at several residential wells (off-site monitoring).  Although water samples were being collected from several resident’s wells, no resident was informed of the extent of the problem and no actions were taken to address the contamination.

In 2009,  some community members started asking questions about the details of the test results of their wells. The residents discovered that although their water was tested each year since 2003, no one reviewed the results. The community members met with NSE staff who conducted an investigation and revealed to residents a year later that several wells were contaminated and three wells were a health risk.  It had been 9 years since RDM and NSE first became aware that the RDM activities were likely contaminating the groundwater.

The Environment Act, passed in 1995, gives the Minister of Environment the authority to stop contaminating activities and require clean-up measures to take place without delay. In November, 2010, the Minister ordered three companies and two individuals to identify, monitor and address the contamination. 

It appeared after 10 years of inaction the residents of Harrietsfield would finally get safe drinking water. Or would they?

Instead of carrying out the Order, one of the three companies appealed it to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.  For the next 3 years, NSE negotiated with the company.

The residents of Harrietsfield did not get safe drinking water and no one told them why.

Finally in October 2013, after negotiations between NSE and the company failed, a government lawyer contacted 20 residents, whose wells are named in the Ministerial Order.  The lawyer informed the residents that court proceedings would begin the next week.   Three of the community members attended the first hearing and after conversing with the Judge became interveners in the Appeal.   

It was at this point that the community members reached out to ECELAW for help.  Over the course of the next year, ECELAW assisted the interveners in getting access to information, and using that information to understand what was happening in their community.  Ultimately, ECELAW joined with the Dalhousie Legal Aid clinic and Ecojustice to ensure the intervenors would be represented at the hearing. 

The hearing happened in October 2014 and seven months later (May 2015), the Judge issued a decision.  The Ministerial Order was upheld, with the exception of one section.

Other than a review of their well data, the community members received no information from the Minister or his Department about the enforcement of the Ministerial Order, the contamination on the site or the continued threat to groundwater.

The community members asked to meet with the Minister on May 22, 2015, August 13, 2015, August 26, 2015 and October 12, 2015.  A meeting has never been granted.

It has been 15 years since the Minister of Environment became aware of the groundwater contamination in Harrietsfield. 

It has been 15 years of regulators, owners and operators arguing and passing the buck.

It has been 15 years of headache, heartache and leachate for the residents of Harrietsfield and yet the contaminated site remains, the secrecy continues and the water is not clean.

For a profile of the challenges faced by the residents of Harrietsfield, watch Defenders of the Dawn (CBC Absolutely Maritimes) at www.cbc.ca/absolutelycanadian/maritimes/


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Topics: Environment
746 words

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