In Halifax schools, children learn that the city has the second largest natural harbour in the world.
It’s one of those motherhood statements that people repeat as a mantra when visitors come calling or businesses look at setting up shop here.
So why are we filling it in?
Since 2011, the Halifax Port Authority has created four hectares of new land in Fairview Cove by allowing companies to dump stone — mostly acid-bearing pyritic slate — excavated from construction sites around the city into the waters of Bedford Basin northeast of the existing container terminal.
That’s roughly the equivalent of four football fields that weren’t there four years ago.
“The developers need a place to put this stuff and we provide that option,” said Lane Farguson, who speaks for the port authority.
“The contractors who are hired by the developers to move this material, they don’t want to be hauling it any further than they have to. So a location on the peninsula is also good for them and it’s good for their fuel cost.”
The project is also “allowing the Halifax Port Authority to increase land mass by developing port land for future use,” Farguson said in a follow-up email.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada initially approved the dumping of 350,000 cubic metres of fill into Fairview Cove. The plan outlined in the environmental screening report for the project says the work would create 48,000 square metres of land “in preparation for a potential future extension of the pier” at the container terminal that was, and still is, operating at one-third of its capacity.
“The way we would rather frame that, of course, is we can triple our capacity with no changes to infrastructure,” said Farguson, noting the expansion, including new crib structure, was completed in 2014.
The port authority, which refuses to say how much money it is taking in with the project, currently charges contractors $15 a metric tonne to dump the fill. At that tipping fee, accepting the first 350,000 cubic metres of fill could have generated more than $13 million in revenue for the Crown corporation.
That number could be high, however, as the port authority changed the fee in 2015 when it switched from charging by the truckload to using an onsite scale.
“We don’t provide specific financial details on any of our lines of business,” Farguson said.
The dumping sanctioned by the port authority didn’t end after the first 350,000 cubic metres of rock sank under the sea.
“Early last year they submitted a request to extend the infill and proceed further, and I think the dimensions are at least double what was initially authorized,” said Tony Henderson, a fisheries protection biologist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography.
While no end use was given for the expansion, in September of 2015 the port authority obtained Fisheries Act authorization to dump another 550,000 cubic metres of slate into Fairview Cove. That could to bring in another $20 million in revenue for the organization tasked with managing federally owned marine industrial sites around Halifax Harbour.
“The construction material is being handled in a responsible, environmentally acceptable manner,” Farguson said. “Each prospective excavation contractor must retain an independent professional consultant to carry out environmental testing and provide those testing results to (the port authority) to ensure that the pyritic slate is free of petroleum hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”
While the fill might be clean, it can’t help but take up space.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada basically gave the port authority permission to destroy fish habitat in exchange for actions aimed at offsetting the harm done.
“If they infill one square metre of fish habitat, they have to replace or restore or create at least one more square metre of fish habitat somewhere,” Henderson said.
“In this case, the offsetting that’s proposed for this infill – it hasn’t quite been finalized – but it’s linked to gaining fish passage up through the Shubie Canal and into Lake Banook and into the watershed there.”
The idea is that the port authority would provide two fish ways through the Lake Banook Lock and the culvert that crosses from Sullivans Pond up into the lock, he said.
“It will likely be a fish ladder or it could be simply a baffled culvert,” Henderson said.
Either way, the proposed offsetting measures have not been built because the city and Halifax Water still haven’t ironed out plans downstream to daylight the Sawmill River, which runs from Sullivans Pond to Halifax Harbour, he said.
The port authority is “on the hook and waiting” to do the work to get fish from Sullivans Pond into Lake Banook, Henderson said, noting the project is estimated to cost a few hundred thousand dollars.
“Planning is underway to determine an appropriate location for habitat compensation as well as timing,” Farguson said.
Creatures that might take advantage of the proposed fish ladders include Gaspereau and eels, Henderson said. “There’s high hopes that getting Gaspereau moving back up there to spawn … could really add a lot of productivity to the system.”
A survey of Fairview Cove before the dumping began included a list of 45 types of fish most likely to use the area ranging from American eel to Yellowtail flounder.
“Infilling will directly impact the marine benthos and potentially affect local marine water quality,” says the environmental screening report. “These activities will potentially result in a harmful alteration, disruption and destruction of fish habitat.”
But that’s likely to be localized and “no marine species are expected to be affected at the population-level in Halifax Harbour,” the report says. “The infill area does not provide critical habitat and is not known to support any rare or endangered fish populations.”
The same report notes 184 different bird species have been seen in the area.
“Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) have also been known to frequent Bedford Basin,” it says. “In addition, Atlantic white-sided dolphins have been sighted at locations in the basin, including the (barge used by defence scientists) and the Narrows, on several occasions. Larger whales have been observed on occasion as well; however, most sightings have occurred at the approaches and marine inlet to the harbour.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada “has expressed concern in the past regarding shoreline infilling projects within Halifax Harbour and the cumulative loss of intertidal zone habitat, says the environmental screening report completed for Fairview Cove. “However, the proposed project site has no natural intertidal zone, as the existing shoreline is littered with concrete and metal debris from the former municipal dump that was present at that location.”
No public consultation
The screening report rules out any need to ask the public whether filling in Fairview Cove is the right thing to do.
“Public consultation was not deemed necessary given the spatially limited area of project activities, the relatively low severity of potential adverse environmental effects, the consistency of the project with local land use, and the potential indirect economic and land use benefits of the project,” it says.
Instead, the screening report says, consultation with Fisheries and Oceans, the city, and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Chiefs, also known as Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn, “is believed to be sufficient to identify and address any potential stakeholder concerns that could be raised by fishers or users of Seaview Memorial Park. Ongoing communication with HRM and local representatives will continue throughout the process.”
Much of the fill being dumped in Fairview Cove is acid-generating pyritic slate.
“Slates, when they’re exposed to the air, and to fresh water or precipitation, there can be an acid-generating process. The runoff would become acidic and that’s not a good thing in a fresh water system,” Henderson said.
“However in salt water it’s buffered largely by the ocean.”
The slates need to be placed at least half a metre below the lowest low tide mark to render them inert, he said.
The process was tested with an earlier infill project run by the Waterfront Development Corporation on the western shore of Bedford, south of Sobeys.
“That area operated similarly up until maybe four or five years ago. They took that type of slate rock and it was disposed of the same way and monitored for a number of years,” Henderson said.
“It’s recognized as an acceptable manner of disposing of slates like this.”
The Bedford infill operation stopped accepting new material around the same time Fairview Cove started allowing the dumping.
“My understanding is that with all the development going on in Halifax, especially downtown, that there was a need to find a place to dispose of these slates,” Henderson said. “And this is certainly a viable way of doing it.”
The demand for a place to ditch the slate drove the expansion of the Fairview Cove infill site, he said.
“With all the developments downtown, they had to dig down so far to put in parking garages and that sort of thing,” Henderson said, noting the abundance of cranes dotting the Halifax skyline in recent years.
Filling in Halifax Harbour is nothing new.
“The whole rail line around the Bedford Basin – a good chunk of that was historical infill. You go down into the Bedford Basin and where DeWolf Park is – that’s all infill going back to the 1980s. The whole waterfront of Halifax, even downtown, like all of Historic Properties and everything, that’s all historic infill with wharfs going back to the 1750s.”
Developer Frances Fares employed the same technique at King’s Wharf, the former site of Irving’s Dartmouth Shipyard, Henderson said. “A good chunk of that land is infill as well.”
Fairview Cove is the only site in Halifax Harbour now accepting pyritic slate, Henderson said.
“It’s really bad stuff to be left exposed to the air and left on land because then you have to manage the runoff from it,” he said. “So every time it rains, and it’s exposed to oxygen, you’re generating acidic waters. And if that gets into a freshwater system, it’s going to kill salmon (or trout) or prevent them from spawning.”
Pyritic slate has even been trucked from as far away as New Brunswick and dumped in Halifax Harbour.
“It was seen as being cheaper than trying to put it into a landfill or create a treatment system on land that you’d have to manage all the time,” Henderson said.
Once pyritic slate is exposed to rain and oxygen, the acidic runoff is a difficult problem to contain.
“You’re chasing water,” Henderson said. “And it’s going to flow downhill into all our streams and rivers. That’s why (dumping it into the ocean) is seen as a viable option in the marine environment.”
“Everything else has been destroyed”
Walter Regan, who heads the Sackville Rivers Association, knows all too well how deadly the runoff can be for fish.
On July 12, 2002, acidity in the Sackville and Little Sackville rivers suddenly shot up to 1,000 times higher than normal after a water-main break at a nearby demolition site. Sobeys-owned Atlantic Shopping Centres Ltd. took responsibility for the event that killed more than 4,000 fish, saying a water-main break during the demolition of the Kmart building on its Downsview Mall site had washed over pyritic slate unearthed by work crews.
“In fresh water it lowers the pH, but in saltwater it has no effect,” Regan said.
While he realizes disposing of pyritic slate in the ocean is easier than trying to deal with it on land, he’d like to see the idea of doing it in the harbour aired publicly.
“We’re destroying the inter-tidal areas of Halifax Harbour,” Regan said.
Those are the shallow spots where fish spawn and live and seaweed grows, he said.
“For every square metre of habitat that’s destroyed, $26 should be given for habitat work elsewhere,” Regan said.
“My opinion is for every square metre you destroy, you should have to make another three square metres someplace else.”
Do the math and you’ll realize Regan is calling for just over $1 million worth of habitat work to offset the damage done by filling in Fairview Cove.
“That’s how much money should be going back to the community to do restoration in our rivers and brooks,” he said.
Meanwhile, the health of the Sackville River system, the major source of freshwater input to the harbour, is “going downhill,” Regan said.
“Acid rain is wiping out the river,” he said.
“We only had 11 fish through our counter this year.”
That handful of wild Atlantic salmon is a far cry from the numbers that used to return to the river to spawn, Regan said.
“We believe that, before the Europeans [settled here] the river supported 1,200 to 3,600 fish,” he said.
There are only a few remaining places around the harbour left in their natural state, Regan said.
“McNabs Island, Admirals Cove, Wrights Cove in Dartmouth – everything else has been destroyed,” he said. “And as we destroy the inter-tidal areas, we’re losing the ability to support small fish and spawning in the harbour.”
Regan believes the port authority is simply creating new land in Fairview Cove with the plan to sell it off at a later date. “But are they doing it for good and sufficient reasons, public-wise?”
According to the port authority, “there are no immediate plans” for the land.
“As part of a long-term planning strategy, the Halifax Port Authority is creating land for potential future use should the need and the business case line up,” Farguson said.
But the authority is now eyeing the idea of moving its container terminal operations to Dartmouth as it goes through a planning exercise aimed at ensuring it can accommodate ultra large container ships that don’t currently call on Halifax.
While its stated goal of reducing truck traffic in downtown Halifax could tend to make the casual observer think Halterm in the city’s south end might be the likely sacrificial lamb, the height of the two bridges spanning the harbour could be the limiting factor for Ceres in Fairview Cove.
Once the re-decking project for the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge is completed, it will be a little higher than the A. Murray MacKay Bridge “which will become the new constraint,” Farguson said.
Post-Panamax vessels can now dock at Fairview Cove. But their larger cousins that can move freight around the world more cheaply won’t be able to tie up there.
“As ships continue to get larger, we believe the bridges will eventually become a limiting factor in terms of container business,” Farguson said. “However, the port is diverse with many types of cargo. The ultimate use of the land being created at Fairview Cove is not known at this time and will be considered in the development of our master plan.”
The ever-shrinking harbour
Long before the infilling moved to Fairview Cove four years ago, Mark Currie was checking out a tidal reef and a small island on the Bedford waterfront with his young son when the boy questioned the future of the area.
That simple question from a nine-year-old prompted Currie to get involved in a community effort that eventually saw the Bedford infill suspend operations in 2013.
“It was the regional disposal site for pyritic slate,” said Currie, who heads the Save the Bedford Waterfront Society.
The group took the tack of amplifying the Waterfront Development Corp.’s message about changes it had in store for the Bedford waterfront. Volunteers staged rallies and canvassed residents to make sure locals were aware of plans to build high-density housing for thousands of people on the land created by in-filling with pyritic slate.
“They were horrified by the scale of the city they were going to build on the waterfront,” Currie said.
Public pressure mounted to close the dumpsite, he said.
“There was a lot of unhappy residents in the area with the continued parade of dump trucks going down to the Bedford Waterfront with this slate.”
There were plans in the works to create about 16 hectares of new land by in-filling the Mill Cove area of Bedford Basin. But the work stopped before half that was done, Currie said, noting the Save the Bedford Waterfront Society is now lobbying to have the spot turned into a public park.
The idea of filling in nearby Fairview Cove strikes Currie as alarming. He’s equally upset about talks going on between Millbrook First Nation and the port authority about infilling Tufts Cove on the other side of the harbour in Shannon Park.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really want to see this stuff dumped in the ocean anywhere,” Currie said. “That’s the bottom line.”
The infilling at Fairview Cove is going on under the watchful eyes of former Africville residents, who grew up in the area skirting the cove and the Narrows, not far from where pyritic slate is now being dumped in the harbour.
“We have to keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t interfere with our site there,” said Irvine Carvery, past president of the Africville Genealogical Association.
“There’s no contentious issues at this time with what the port is doing. It’s just that, like you, we’re trying to find out what’s the long-range plan here? You don’t just do this for nothing. There must be some kind of a plan. But they keep telling us at this time there’s no plan for the development of those lands. They’re just using it as an opportunity because there’s so much construction going on in Halifax to fill-in and get some more land.”
Residents of the historic black community were relocated by the city in the 1960s to make way for the construction of the A. Murray MacKay Bridge.
Carvery was 13 years old when his family left.
“I have living memory of Africville,” he said.
Former residents and their descendants – who return every third weekend in July for a reunion — don’t want the infilling to get in the way of the view from the replica of Seaview African United Baptist Church, a museum built in 2011 by the city to make amends for bulldozing the community.
“We’re keeping an eye to it to make sure it doesn’t interfere with the aesthetics of our site and our view lines from our land out over the Bedford Basin.”
The view is beautiful from the spot declared a national historic site in 2002, he said.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” Carvery said. “You get the full sunset when you’re out there. There is nothing more peaceful than sitting out there on the water’s edge, especially in the summertime.”
The shoulder seasons are equally pleasant, he said. “Even in the wintertime, if it’s not too, too cold it’s nice. I go out there year-round to enjoy the tranquility of the site.”
Despite the serene picture, Carvery said he is bothered by all of the infilling he’s seen around Halifax Harbour.
“How much of our harbour and basin is going to be left?” he said.