Marlene Brown (left), is a Harrietsfield resident with a contaminated well. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Nova Scotia needs nothing short of an Environmental Bill of Rights if it wants to ensure its citizens can drink clean water, breathe clean air, and hold their governments accountable to make polluters pay.

That’s the position of a coalition of Nova Scotia environmental groups which celebrated Earth Day by unveiling an Environmental Bill of Rights designed to protect future generations from a repeat of the environmental problems which have afflicted Shelburne, Indian Brook, Lincolnville, and Pictou Landing.

Read the proposed Environmental Bill of Rights here.

Add Harrietsfield to that list of communities. “No one should have to beg for safe drinking water in Nova Scotia,” said Marlene Brown, a long-time resident of the Halifax neighbourhood. She’s been filling water bottles at an outdoor tap for more than four years.

Brown’s well is one of 40 where provincial testing — dating back to 2003 — shows the presence of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium well above Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines.

The wells are within 500 meters of the former RDM construction and debris salvage yard, where testing detected a plume of contaminated groundwater leaching toward homes. The junkyard’s two former operators have so far refused to “mitigate” the damage, and went to court to challenge three separate orders from the Nova Scotia Department of Environment. The companies lost their final appeal last month. But eight homes where the province has promised to install water purification systems are still waiting.

“If we had a Bill of Rights we could stand up and say “Stop: you are violating our rights,” continued Brown. “If we had an advocate, maybe we wouldn’t be ignored by all three levels of government.”

Nova Scotia’s proposed Environmental Bill of Rights includes the appointment of an Environmental Commissioner (similar to an ombudsperson) to work with citizen concerns and report annually to the legislative assembly. It also calls for the set-up of an Environmental Rights Registry to improve trust and transparency. The Registry would make publicly accessible all proposals or project applications that could impact human health and the environment, as well all government data involving soil, water, and air quality tests. That type of scientific information is usually not readily available without a specific application under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Last, but definitely not least, the Bill of Rights proposes the establishment of an Environmental Review Tribunal that would hear all legal claims brought forward under the Environment Act, potentially short-circuiting court challenges that can delay remedial action and postpone cleanups for  years.

“The Environment Act is a good act, but many times it is not enforced,” notes Lisa Mitchell, a lawyer and executive-director of East Coast Environmental Law (ECELaw), one of several environmental groups that teamed up four years ago to draft the Bill with guidance from Ingrid Waldron, a heath researcher associated with Dalhousie University’s medical and nursing schools. “This non-partisan Bill of Environmental Rights also sets out procedural rights that will help people go to court, if necessary, to hold governments accountable for their suffering,” continued Mitchell.

Quebec, Ontario, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territory passed similar legislation years ago.

To mark the launch of a Bill for Nova Scotia, representatives from five communities with long-standing environmental and health issues spoke to a crowd of about 75 people gathered at The Wooden Monkey restaurant in Halifax.

Jonathan Beadle of the Pictou Landing First Nation noted the poor health on his reserve, where wastewater effluent from the Abercrombie pulp mill has been deposited for half a century. The McNeil government has promised to close the Boat Harbour lagoon by 2020.

Dorene Bernard. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Sipekne-katik (Indian Brook) First Nation was represented by Dorene Bernard. “To me, people have to wake up,” said Bernard. “We have to protect the water. Alton Gas says they will carve out only two caverns (to store natural gas), but I’ve seen plans that show 18.” Her First Nation continues to oppose plans by Alton Gas to release tonnes of salt brine into the Shubenacadie River at high tide for fear it will impact fish and water quality, despite assurances from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans that its research shows the river should be able to handle the discharge.

Raymond Sheppard spoke on behalf of African-Canadian residents of Lincolnville, Guysborough County, a small black community where for decades a dump and now a second-generation landfill operation have been active. Sheppard spoke of high rates of cancer and of arsenic in the water of people who live near the site. “The government picks on communities that can’t put up much resistance,” Sheppard said, “and there’s both a mental and physical aspect to environmental racism.”

The proposed Bill of Rights contains a provision which says “future decisions that affect the health or integrity of the environment must consider the disproportionate burden facing historically marginalized, vulnerable, or economically disadvantaged individuals, groups or communities, particularly Indigenous Peoples and African Nova Scotians.” That’s a direct attempt to prevent or avoid environmental racism in the future.  The Bill does not propose compensating people for decisions made in the past.

Louise Delisle says an Environmental Bill of Rights might have helped answer this question: “Why has the black community in the north end of Shelburne become a community of widows?” Delisle says today there are only two men over the age of 55 remaining, and cancer was the cause of a high proportion of deaths in that part of Shelburne. She suspects the cause may trace back to the dump located at the top of the hill in the black neighbourhood. Delisle remembers it burning brightly most nights during the 1950s and beyond, off-gassing everything from the shipyard’s industrial waste to medical waste from the local hospital. A subsequent landfill operation at the same location was closed just last year by the Department of Environment after the municipality violated rules about what could be buried there.

In 2015, NDP MLA Lenore Zann introduced a private member’s bill aimed at combatting environmental racism; that bill was defeated. The new proposed Environmental Bill of Rights will also require a sponsor in the Legislature. With a provincial election drawing near, ECELaw and other environmental groups are hoping citizens will make a point of asking candidates from all political parties if they support it, and, whether their party will commit to introducing an Environmental Bill of Rights for Nova Scotians if it forms the next government.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. Siting a landfill is now, and has been for over 20 years, a long and science based process.
    The Sackville dump was located less than 2,000 feet from white people. Perhaps a review of the health of people living within 1 mile of the dump would be a useful scientific endeavour.
    Since closure of the dump new homes within 1.7 miles have been built.