It is a rough start to the morning, when you wake up and look out your window, and see traffic already at a stand still in front of your house. But what can easily make it just that much worse, is when you are a resident in Harrietsfield or Williamswood, and the traffic is in park mode because a new bike lane installation is in the works right through there. Yes. That’s right. A bike lane is a sore spot that festers in the hearts of many of Harrietsfield’ s residents. But why? Because it is a capital investment, undertaken by the Province, and smacked down on the same road that would, and should, accommodate a water service to the community impacted by contaminated wells for decades. The bike lane runs from the 500 Block of the Old Sambro Road (Hwy 306) right out to Sambro. The project cost the province $2.5 Million and was posted on the NSTIR website on June 19, 2018.
But Harrietsfield and Williamswood have been fighting for water service to their communities for much longer than June 2018. In 1981, it was found wells had been contaminated during uranium exploration. Then in 2006, it was revealed through ongoing water testing, that several wells near RDM Recycling had been contaminated by heavy metals leaching from the C & D facility. In 2017 , during court proceedings, NS Environment presented a study that showed the leaching at the site had mobilized the uranium in the ground, and the impacted plume, was growing.
With the first finding, residents were told to stop drinking their water. Then the acceptable levels of uranium in drinking water were raised. When water tests disclosed new contamination in the wells, residents were shocked. The water tests had been mailed out to them, by NS Environment, without advice for the residents about the increases, or any warnings. They just mailed the results out as they always had. One resident sat down and started comparing the results, and then she started asking questions. If that one resident had not taken note, how long would the residents have been left to drink and cook with the water, without any explanation as to what was happening to its quality.
Before I go further, I want to remind everyone that in the early 2000s, this site and community were a priority for our governments. Back in the day, it was a very important spot on the map of the municipality… It was then that the municipality permitted the site amendment, since they were looking for somewhere to allow dumping, because they would save money on disposal. The Province approved a one time burial of Construction and Demolition debris, on the site. The site is in the middle of a residential area, with homes relying on wells for their potable water. And so, at least 120,000 tons of unrecyclable C & D waste, including an old hospital, are buried on the site, along with an unknown amount of unknown waste, the knowledge of which was lost when 9 years of records simply disappeared. This burial ground exists because two levels of government decided it should in spite of opposition from the local residents. And in years since this priority decision was made the municipality and the province appear to have had a shift in priorities. Not to the extent that would push the health and safety of people higher up the list, but rather further down.
In 2017 and 2018, federal infrastructure money became available for water and sewer systems in communities that needed them. But no application for funding was ever put forward for this community that had a proven need for many years. In the summer of 2018, the local councillor from the area made a motion in council, urging council to agree to write a letter to the Minister of Environment and the local Provincial MLA, to ask that the Province seek relief for the residents in the cost of water service extension to their area. Up until now, no effort or plan has ever been put in place by HRM, but now the HRM would like the provincial and federal governments to pay for water service to the homes. During Council discussions on August 14, Mr. Adams’ motion to write a letter was met with opposition, as it would place funding for other projects at risk. It was not part of the plan. There was a motion to defer even writing a letter in favour of a staff report.
I am going to interject my own opinion here – When council does not want to pay for something, that the people really want or need, they get out of voting the easiest way they know; they ask staff for a report. When they really want to do something that the people do not want or need, they ask staff for a report. It takes a year to get that report and is often presented in a varied context. So, what appears clear to me, is when Council wants to act or avoid action that does not align with the people’s wants or needs, they let staff recommend for or against it so they can be blamed if it goes against what can be forgiven at the polls. Problem is, it happens too much and too often. Over stupid crap. Like trying to slough a simple letter of inquiry off to a staff report? Really? For god’s sake.
But the dialogue was not only about shirking responsibilities. It was awe inspiring to hear two councillors opposed to writing a letter, because they feared doing so would upset the order of what was already approved for submitting. There was also the excuse that if they put in water, it might encourage development, but they did not want development. What? This part had me intrigued. Since when is development not welcome in HRM…….? Downtown Halifax has been under construction, since…. hmm, since as long as I can remember. How many apartment buildings and homes and new streets were built in Halifax West, Larry Uteck, Bedford, and on and on…? And commercial development in Bayers Lake, and Burnside, Dartmouth Crossing, and on and on?
The requests for federal funds are related to infrastructure and are grouped by transportation, recreation and water and sewer. All kinds of bus related projects, which is another real kick in the teeth for the area residents as well, considering their bus has been cancelled only months ago. Bike lanes and sidewalks. And funds for water and sewer for lots of areas around HRM, including Fall River, in an area where most of those being forced to pay a still undetermined price for the water main, are not interested, nor in need. But no water for Harriettsfield and Williamswood.
Since the Municipal Planning Strategy (MPS) for the area had been drafted, there was a call for central water in the area of Harrietsfield and Williamswood to ensure safe drinking water in light of the uranium concerns, as well as failed septic systems. The MPS was written in 1995. It’s 2018 now. Even after amendments as late as 2016, these characterizations still exist. And in fact, with exacerbating conditions at play, have become more serious. But council, staff and management at the city do not act on any of the longstanding concerns or recommendations. Instead they take on other big money projects, like argyle streets, rebranding, stadiums and tall buildings.
HRM is not alone in their inability to do right by the people. Local resident and active protagonist for safe clean water, Marlene Brown filed the first ever Private Prosecution against the various owners of the site, to force them to clean it up after trying to prompt the Province to do that. Not only does the site continue to leach heavy metals and contaminate wells, but there are air emission concerns as well. Charcoal filters are insufficient for dealing with the putrid gases released from the site, and experienced by the neighbors. And ever since the public prosecutor took over this private file?… it has been adjourned 14 times. Affected homes were 83, then 43, but were whittled down to 8, by a Department of Environment bound and determined to act like there is nothing wrong with the water, while presenting a case in court that says there is very much wrong with the water. And the promise of a major clean up of the site, appears to be scheduled for sometime when the snow flies…. Maybe. Maybe not.
I would like to suggest, before we paint another funky design, or rebrand our city signs again or put money into a football stadium, or another sports pad, or bike lane, we should make sure the people who live in this city have water to drink and clean and cook with. Let’s have some common sense and a little human decency, shall we? We’ve taken the bus away from the folks in Harrietsfield and beyond, and now what? We want them to stay fit by riding their bikes to the local church to get their water?