Time for Polluters to Pay for Harrietsfield Water Crisis

Photo: Rebecca Hussman

The wheels of justice turn slowly and the wheels of government even slower. The community of Harrietsfield is still waiting for the polluter to pay and for our government to stand by the law and ensure they receive clean and safe water.

The 7 year legal battle hit a major milestone this month with the release of the Decision of NS Supreme Court Justice Gabriel dismissing an appeal of a Ministerial Order by the former operator of the construction and demolition recycling company (RDM) site. This is the third time the matter has been in the courts. The former construction and demolition recycling site is contaminated after years of stockpiling unrecyclable material such as carpet, gyproc and asphalt, open to the weather creating toxic runoff into local watercourses. Additionally, 120 000 tons of waste were buried on the property and the leachate from this waste has been making its way into the groundwater, leaving local residents with well water that is neither pleasant or safe.

The Minister of Environment first ordered the property owners and the site operator at 1275 Old Sambro Road to address the contaminated site and its impacts on local residents in 2010.

Key elements of the Order included:

  • Quarterly sampling of 8 residential wells.
  • Mitigate impacts of uranium, lead and other substances in groundwater that may impact domestic wells in the area.
  • Monitor the groundwater on the site.
  • Surface water monitoring of Shea’s Lake.
  • Undertake a site assessment.
  • Submit a remedial action plan to NSE.

There has been very spotty compliance with the Ministerial Order over the past 7 years and the site operators, 3076525 Nova Scotia Ltd. (307), have been to court twice seeking to be removed from the 2010 Order and a second Order issued in 2016. The site owners also went to court seeking to be removed from the 2016 Order.

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The site is contaminated. The contamination is the result of practices on the site for which the owners and operators are responsible. The contamination from the site has impacted the groundwater and left local residents with water that is unsafe to drink. The owners, the operators, and the provincial government have been fully aware of the impact of the contamination on local residents since 2010 (and quite possibly much earlier). The responsible parties have spent substantial money and time fighting their responsibility in the court system and have taken virtually no steps to clean up the site or assist the residents of Harrietsfield.

Not only is this a complete abdication of responsibility, but we have law in Nova Scotia (Environment Act) that exists to prevent just such a scenario. The Minister of Environment has clear authority under the Act to take enforcement action when a responsible party fails to comply with a Ministerial Order. The fact that the Order is under appeal does not affect this authority. Despite repeated attempts by members of the community to meet with the Minister to discuss enforcement, there is no indication that NSE took steps to enforce the Ministerial Orders between 2010 and 2017.

The Environment Act is built on a set of key principles meant to guide the application and interpretation of the Act, these principles include the principle of polluter pays, the precautionary principle and the principle of shared responsibility. It is Nova Scotia Environment’s responsibility to ensure the Act is enforced in order to protect the environment and health of Nova Scotians.

All too often those who suffer the affects of pollution (both humans and other species) are left to fight unnecessary battles (Boat Harbour, Lincolnville, etc) while the principles of the Environment Act are ignored. It is heartening to see Justice Gabriel in his decision specifically refer to the purposes of the Act and its key principles, including the precautionary principle, the principle of shared responsibility and the polluter pay principle. Justice Gabriel returns to these principles in his conclusions. In particular, he reiterates the polluter-pay principle confirming the responsibility of anyone who creates an adverse effect on the environment that is not de minimis to take remedial action and pay for the costs of that action; and the precautionary principle.

IMG 6407These principles are the tenets of environmental law in Nova Scotia. They have been in place for more than 20 years. It is high time that industry and government pay attention.

ECELAW and Ecojustice have been supporting our clients from Harrietsfield since 2013, but the battle isn’t over. The residents of Harrietsfield still need your support. Donate today to help ensure that ECELAW can continue to fight for environmental justice in Atlantic Canada.

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Photos by Rebecca Hussman