Nova Scotia investigates rural water contamination fears after site owners ignore orders

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While residential complaints linger over potential contaminants still leaching into the groundwater from a recycling plant in Harrietsfield, Nova Scotia, the provincial government has committed $250,000 to determine the extent of the water contamination through a site assessment.

Harrietsfield — a tiny rural community of less than 1,000 people — has struggled with the fallout from uranium exploration in the early 1980s, and in the post-2000 era had new troubles after bylaws and policies were changed to allow a recycling processing facility to operate in a local residential area. By 2003, about 50 wells within 500 metres of the facility had levels of heavy metals above Canadian guidelines for safe drinking water, including boron, arsenic, cadmium and uranium. Lastly, in 2004 the recycling facility was permitted to bury 120,000 tons of non-recyclable construction and demolition debris in a capped cell on the site.

The facility was shut down in 2013 when the Halifax Regional Municipality revoked its licence.

“This site has been a problem for the community for far too long. We’re taking an important and necessary action to address it,” said Environment Minister Iain Rankin in a recent statement to media.

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The companies that operated the recycling facility have not complied with two ministerial orders issued in 2016 from the Nova Scotia Environment minister to assess the site contamination. Minister Rankin told media that he intends to pursue the two previous site operators to reimburse the pending $250,000 site assessment ordered by Nova Scotia Lands Inc. Additionally, Ecojustice and the East Coast Environmental Law Association (ECELAW) have been working with Harrietsfield residents to uphold the ministerial orders.

“This has been a long journey and we are pleased to hear Minister Rankin’s commitment,” said ECELAW Executive Director Lisa Mitchell in a statement. “We look forward to an open dialogue with government as work gets underway to address the site. We were encouraged by Minister Rankin’s participation at the Harrietsfield community meeting, and it is clear that he has taken the concerns of the residents into regard,” added Mitchell.

Previous estimates around the remediation have approached $10 million.

According to a summer 2017 environmental impact report presented to the Environment & Sustainability Standing Committee for the Halifax Regional Council, 50 homes have been affected by the recycling operation, but the province only placed a water-monitoring program on 18 of them. The report warns of a “growing and moving plume of contaminated water” leaching from the former recycling site into several wells. The plume, the report adds, may be mobilizing the uranium in the granite and contaminating more wells. Some eight homes in the area have had water systems installed due to this growing plume, and others have abandoned their homes.

One member of the Harrietsfield community, Marlene Brown, has taken the water contamination case to provincial court, where it has undergone 12 adjournments over the last year.

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