A Right to Freedom from Harm

When you watch the news and think about the images on the screen, that depict war torn villages, they are far away. You look at flooding, landslides and devastation from weather events, that are occurring elsewhere. Or you look at communities facing drought or wide spread disease, and are thankful we do not face these issues. You may tear up over pictures of people, especially children who are gasping for their last breaths after having poison sprayed over their town. By their very own leader.

But do you ever consider what our government is doing to us, here? Deforestation, dumping waste water into our rivers, spraying poison over our lands.

On April 21, Environmental Rights Working Group, a conglomerate of environmental advocates including ECELAW (http://www.ecelaw.ca/) and The ENRICH Project (http://www.enrichproject.org/) held a press conference in Downtown Halifax to announce the release of their newly written Environmental Bill of Rights. The Bill is for every person who lives in Nova Scotia, but several communities in the province would have benefited far more greatly if such rights had existed all along. We  have a problem in this province, and  it drives many motivations in our government. Environmental Racism, an extension of racism and elitism, is creating a cesspool in our province, most of the time, right next to First Nation and African Nova Scotia communities and communities who do not have the numbers and financial capabilities of fighting back. I am not an expert on racism, and don’t even know how to begin to express my thoughts on it, but what I think, in effect, boils down to two things. People do not deserve to live the way our government has forced some communities to live and it is our job to change this.

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From left to right: Dorene Bernard, Raymond Sheppard, Jonathan Beadle, Marlene Brown and Louise Delisle

Harrietsfield and Williamswood

Marlene Brown lives in Harrietsfield and has been fighting for clean water for Harrietsfield and Williamswood for several years. The community has had water trouble since the 1970s, due to contamination from uranium exploration. But in 2003, RDM Recycling Limited just uphill from Marlene, obtained a permit to bury non-recyclable Construction and Demolition waste on their property. At the time the community opposed and pleaded with government not to permit this operation. The HRM approved the rezoning that would allow them to do this, and then the province provided them with a permit.

The company was supposed to monitor ground water runoff and the local wells, and test results were provided to the residents. Test result reports that were highly technical and hard to understand, sent to residents without explanations or feedback. Six years later, as one resident started to carefully study her results, she questioned the high levels of boron, uranium, lead and arsenic found in her water. By now a plume had begun to form, heavy metals and contaminates were leaching into the ground water off the site. 83 homes were impacted. NS Environment issued a clean up order, but the owners and subsequent operators appealed that and for years the owners and NS Environment hashed out what was intended to be an agreement, until 3 years later, when talks broke down and the issue ended up in court. All this time, the public, the impacted members of the public, were on the sidelines, with no resolution to their water concerns to speak of.

The situation went to the court through appeals filed by the owners and operators of the property again a number of times, over the ministerial order and another one that was issued later.  In 2014, residents learned during one of these appeal court hearings, that 120,000 tons of C&D non-recyclable waste had been leaching into the groundwater. This had never been disclosed to them before. And the plume of contamination was continuing to grow. Water treatment systems are incredibly expensive to install, and maintain, and in order to get the right system, water tests must be done to find out what is in the water. Water tests are over $200. Most of the residents cannot afford these expenses. Their homes cannot be sold with all of these issues, so they cannot move. One resident lives in an apartment elsewhere, while her home sits empty, the bank refusing to foreclose, and the mortgage accruing interest.

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RDM Recycling Limited (Photo credit CBC)

I attended a pubic meeting in June 2016 in Harrietsfield, where Marlene gave area residents an overview of the water history and the current status of their predicament. The area MLA and Municipal Councillor showed up to this meeting together, one hour late. They soon after took the floor and proudly rambled with each other that they had started talking about this issue about six weeks prior. Six weeks? The MLA had been in office for 2.5 years by then, and the councillor had been in office longer than the issues at RDM, as he had lobbied for the zoning amendment as councillor. Six weeks. They then went on to disclose they were going to try to find money to get water treatment systems for each of the impacted homes. If they had been on time, they would have heard Marlene discuss the corrosive nature of the water and seen the parts that she had had to replace on her treatment system just that week after they had been eaten away in essence. By her water.

After the judge upheld the first appeal in 2014, the Minister of Environment refused to consider any resolutions for the residents with regard to their daily water needs. He said the water in their taps was safe to drink. Water that eats through metal is safe to drink…?

In August 2016, the following excerpt from a Federal Infrastructure Funding announcement was issued: “The Government of Canada is providing $86,000,336 and the Government of Nova Scotia is providing $43,000,168 to fund 73 projects that will rehabilitate and improve community water and wastewater systems across the province. Combined with municipal contributions, $180,735,189 will be used to provide Nova Scotians with clean, reliable water sources.” No one had thought to apply for federal funding for the Harrietsfield and Williamswood water issues.

In November 2016, the Minister of Environment and local MLA held a media event to announce that eight homes in Harrietsfield would receive water treatment systems to provide them with clean drinking water. Not all of the impacted homes, just eight of them. And no timeline was offered. And an agreement had yet to be reached as to whom would pay for the maintenance of these systems. Certainly, not the residents. And not the company.

On April 21, later the same day the Environmental Bill of Rights was introduced, Marlene received an mail from NS Environment saying they had found a supplier for the water treatment systems. The residents had seen no action for six months on these systems, and so to my mind, this was in direct response to Marlene’s involvement in calling the department and government out at the event that morning, for fourteen years of failing to protect her and her neighbors from harm.

Pictou Landing First Nation

For fifty years, industrial waste water has flowed through a four kilometre pipeline from the pulp mill in Pictou to an effluent treatment facility in A’se’k (Boat Harbour), treatment being a debatable concept at the very least. In the 1960s, Scot Paper was invited to build a pulp mill in Pictou, and the province would look after the effluent and provide them with all the water they needed to operate. The government created a water board headed by a pulp mill friend and employee, and then participated in helping convince the Mi’kmaq chiefs to allow the facility to be built in Boat Harbour, even going so far as to fool them on things like how clean the water would be when it was released.

The day the mill opened, people in the community of Pictou Landing First Nation remember the water changing colour, and becoming very warm, smelly, and incredibly scary. They saw fish die en masse, almost immediately.  And since that day, the community has looked out over those waters with nothing more than memories or elder’s stories of the fishing, clamming and swimming.   What is in the water is truly a mystery to the public, a trade secret, but testing has shown high levels of mercury, dioxins, furans, and cadmium. Illnesses in the community have caused more heartache and repeatedly broken promises from government have kept the community feeling betrayed and isolated and fighting a losing battle.

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Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility with Northern Pulp in the background (Photo credit The Chronicle Herald 2014)

Then, on a Monday evening in June 2014, the four kilometre pipe stopped pumping water into the facility. Jonathan Beadle, a Pictou Landing resident observed the pipe at the inland end at about 7 pm, and thought perhaps the mill had shut down operations as no water was flowing from the pipe compared to the normally gushing of thousands of litres per minute. The next day, the mill issued a media release stating the pipe had rupture earlier that morning, and the mill immediately had stopped the system. They claimed very little had spilled into Pictou Harbour and across a piece of land that included a sacred Mi’kmaw burial ground. The community was never notified directly, but there was video evidence to prove the pipe had ruptured the night before, not that morning. At the time,  the mill was consuming and releasing over 70 million litres of water per day and had most certainly been pumping effluent through that pipe all night and part of the morning. At the site, trees had been bent over and the ground trenched by the pressure and volume of water that came from the ruptured pipe. Mill representatives increased concerns about the spill with their remediation plan that included an excavator that showed up to dig up the pipe.

The community set up a blockade, and refused to allow anyone to set foot in the area until a proper plan and protections were set in place for the burial grounds. They also demanded a full study on the impacts to the fisheries and environment. It was also demanded that the facility finally be closed and re-mediated. Decades of essentially raw industrial waste and broken promises that led up to this disaster, had come to a head. An agreement was reached. Boat Harbour Effluent Treatment Facility is slated to close in 2020 and remediation will likely take upwards of ten years beyond that.

I visited the site with Jonathan and my friend Emma in June 2016. I cannot explain the complex aura of this disaster, except that it was like something from a science fiction movie. I kept saying, this is not real. This. Is. Not. Real. The smell was noxious. And you could not get away from it. The air was void of bird sounds and it felt like I had stepped into an alternate world. I tried hard to concentrate on absorbing everything I saw and the words Jonathan was sharing, but I was often distracted by the feeling of sadness and true shock that this existed and that our government was responsible.

After 50 years, Jonathan Beadle and many of his fellow community members are hopeful. They believe that finally, there will be a day that the waters in Boat Harbour and Caribou Harbour will be free of the toxic and terrifying waste. Someday, there is a hope that children will fish and swim in the waters below Jonathan’s house.

Lincolnville

In 2006, after three decades, the community of Lincolnville thought they were finally going to see the first generation dump near to their homes, closed for good. But instead, the Municipal government promptly opened a new dump. The original dump had been opened in the 1970s, without ever consulting with the residents of the community, and in spite of their opposition. A first generation dump is one that would be built without a liner and engineering meant to prevent leaching into the groundwater. And as anyone around in those days can imagine, everything went into that dump. There was no separation or sorting of garbage. The impacts felt by residents were degrading the community where they lived. The odor, bird waste, traffic, bears, raccoons, skunks, and insects.

Living next to the dump was detrimental to their way of life, pride in their homes and scared most of the young people away due to the concerns about toxins. Raymond Sheppard talked about the vulnerable position residents were in.  The situation left residents feeling isolated and targeted. Why was it okay for the municipality to force this imposition on them? And illnesses created increasing concern. Tuberculosis, various cancers, asthma. It is obvious there was an advantage held by the government over this community seen as the weakest link. Easy to ignore.

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Lincolnville Dump (Photo credit Vice.com)

When the second dump was opened in 2006, the government failed to inform residents of public consultation. They ignored the opposition and refused to attend meetings held by the residents in Lincolnville. The residents felt intimidated and were left with no recourse. Current Minister of Natural Resources and then Municipal Warden, Gary Hines stated the residents were “beyond cynical” when they accused the municipal government of racism. But there is little doubt in many people’s minds this is the real driving force behind putting the dumps here. Before the dump was opened in 1974, another African Nova Scotian community, Sunnyville, was home to the municipal dump. That one experienced a methane fire and had to be closed, and now two have been placed in Lincolnville. With all of the crown land in Guysborough County, it is impossible to believe there was no other option, no appropriately remote option, elsewhere, away from Lincolnville. And the province approved this facility in the end, while they could have interceded by refusing to approve it at this location.

Sipekne’katik First Nation

The First Nation community, also known as Indian Brook, is fighting to protect their sacred Shubenacadie River these days, from a project that will see thousands of litres of water pumped from the river, though a pipe 11 kms to Brentwood, where it will be used to carve underground caverns out of a salt dome, one kilometre below the surface. The brining process will include pumping that water back to the river where it will be released. Dorene Bernard spoke on Friday about the fact that her community had never been consulted on this plan, and found out seven years into the application and planning process, and after it was approved. They found out, when the pipe was being installed in 2014. Publicly the company and provincial officials have disclosed the intention to create 4 caverns, the size of a 40 storey office building each, 1,000 feet underground, but opponents to the project have found documents that reveal the true intention is for 18 caverns. These caverns are going to be used to store natural gas. When government speaks about the purpose of the project, they claim Nova Scotians will save $17 Million per year. While natural gas is used to generate electricity, the true savings will be for the corporations involved in the project. Alta Gas will be able to purchase the product in summer when it is easier and less expensive to extract due to lower demand, and then sell it profitably in winter when demand is higher. But the market is predominantly south of the border. Those impacted in Nova Scotia, will never see the benefits, while industry reaps the profits.

Concerns exist as to the impacts this will have on the river, fish and the future of the community who rely on the river. As well, concerns about the health and safety of residents and the groundwater near the cavern site weigh heavily on the aboriginal and non-aboriginal opposition to this project. A larger concern is this is has appearances of being the infrastructure for fracking in the province.

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The Shubenacadie River

The community has protested this project form the moment they became aware of it. A truck house was erected next to the river at the draw and release site, as a symbol of the Sipekne’katik First Nation exercising their Treaty rights to trade on the river’s shore. Dale Poulette has been inhabiting the Truck house since September 2016 to protect the river. Various peaceful public protests have occurred including highway lane closures, marches and a small blockade at the gates to the river location.  Part of the project saw a channel carved out of the river bank,  creating a man made island. Members of the community have claimed that island, naming it Treaty Island and erecting their flag and the skeleton of a teepee there last summer.

The science of the project has shown its flaws. And while the company maintains a going according to plan public image, nature appears to be going with a plan of its own. Two of the wells drilled to create the caverns have failed and are not viable. The company made excuses about one being too close to the property edge, and the other was not pure salt as was necessary. The Shubenacadie River has answered the people in their prayers, and appears to be healing itself. The channel carved out by the company to act as a “mixing channel” (it is a channel, but mixing is a questionable descriptor) has filled in with the red mud that makes up the area’s soils and river bed with every tide. The pipe and adjacent settling ponds have repeatedly filled and clogged with mud. And over the winter months the entire area has flooded several times, over and around the levee built by the company, and back through the pipes that are meant to drain the ponds.

The people of Sipekne’katik faced the government in court last fall, demanding the approval be reversed since they had never been consulted. During the hearing, the lawyer representing the Province, claimed the First Nations people were a “conquered people” and therefore had no right to consultation. This lawyer has a track record of racism toward the First Nations people. Public consultation is a part of the Environment Act, so no matter what, they had a right to consultation, but they are Treaty people, as are we all, not conquered people and they have through the Act, a right to consultation specific to their customs, their reliance on the resource and  specifically how and if an activity will impact Mi’kmaw rights. The community won their appeal of the approval, and the Premier apologized to other community chiefs for this lawyer’s poor judgement. He did not and has never faced the people in Sipekne’katik.

Dorene Bernard explained this is an extension of the community’s struggles with industry. The community itself has been victim to water contamination from an aggregate quarry next to the aquifers that supply water to the community. The community has experienced cancers and other illnesses due to the contamination. Many First Nations communities in Nova Scotia face an uphill battle with government here having little regard for their culturally and historically significant areas and their rights.

Shelburne

The South end of Shelburne is another African Nova Scotian community inflicted by health impacts and social repercussions of being forced to live next to a dump. The dump is just 250 to 500 feet away from many of the homes. It is also uphill from the homes and many water sources drain through the dump downhill to the coastline. Industrial, medical, and residential waste for Eastern Shelburne County  has been dumped there for 75 years. No one had ever asked the community if it was okay with them that this dumping was occurring there. It was impossible to speak out for fear of repercussion. Men were silenced by the threat of losing their jobs. The waste from the hospital, that had also been a tuberculosis ward, was dumped there. Residents recall seeing people from the nearby Naval base taking items to the dump, in hazmat suits. What was being dumped remained a secret no matter how many questions had been asked. The dump was closed in 1990, but was still receiving certain items, like appliances and oil tanks until 2016.

Community member Louise Delisle related memories of the dump being set on fire when it was piled so high. And the fire burned and smoldered for days, making people sick from the smell and their nostrils black from the soot and ash, along with toxins from the whatever was dumped there. And when these fires were set, the rats ran for cover and foraging in the community, in the homes. Living next to the dump created social inhibitors for the residents as well. Not only were they not accepted because they were black, but because  they lived next to the dump. No soil or water sample results from testing have ever been revealed to the residents.

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Shelburne Dump 2014 (Photo Credit SouthCoastToDay.ca)

Louise also spoke of the devastating health impacts in the community. She says the community is becoming a community of women, widows, as the men have died of cancers, at elevated rates and earlier ages and the young men are leaving.  And because of the loss of male figures in the community, the providers and supporters in families, the economic impacts have been immense.

The community wants to know what is in their water, in the ground, what was put into that dump. They want to know why the men in their community have died in such large numbers, at such young ages from cancer. They want to know what will be done to clean the site up. And they will be looking for compensation for the years of struggle and pain they have had to endure.

**Update – Threats of retribution and expressions of intolerance have been very publicly expressed by a Shelburne councillor since Mrs. Delisle spoke on April 21. This certainly supports her claims, and it makes this situation even more urgent.

 https://nsadvocate.org/2017/04/23/town-of-shelburne-councillor-throws-facebook-tantrum-after-black-residents-raise-pollution-fears/

What does this mean?

I live in Nova Scotia, and until I was impacted by a several years long struggle, that continues today, to prevent environmental harm to my community from industrialization, I was not aware of these other cases. I was not paying attention, but more importantly, I am not sure the word was out there on these issues for all of us to hear and see what was going on. Until the concept of ˈnim-bē was born,  I may have been aware of the odd news story, but a minute long news clip, does not provide a true picture of these stories.

We, yes we, can do better than this. We must demand better from our government. We cannot continue to set entire communities aside because of their predominant race or financial status. Raymond Sheppard said exactly what I have been thinking in my observation of all of these and the other examples of environmental disasters created by industry, aided by government. “What hurts us today, is going to hurt you tomorrow.”

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One Response to A Right to Freedom from Harm

  1. Pingback: The high price of living in an Idiocracy | One Not So Bored Housewife

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