The cryptic notice appeared on the bottom left corner of page A7 in Saturday’s Chronicle Herald.
It informed anyone who happened to be reading the newspaper in the middle of the first long weekend of summer that on June 16, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr had:
… approved amendments to the Regional Municipal Planning Strategy, the Dartmouth Land Use By-Law and the development agreement between Clayton Development [sic] and Halifax Regional Municipality to enable early tree removal and mass work to proceed within the Port Wallace Special Planning Area.
Port Wallace is one of nine “special planning areas” that Lohr designated in March this year for fast-tracked development, to produce 22,600 “new residential units.”
The weekend notice advised readers that they could get more information at: novascotia.ca/just/regulations/rxaa-l.htm#hhrm
Curious about how this decision had been reached, and what it entailed, I went to the recommended web page.
It offered no additional information at all on the by-law amendment order for Port Wallace, stating only that “text is being prepared.”
In other words, two weeks after the task force amended municipal regulations to green-light the forest clearing of the Port Wallace area for housing development, and even after the province decided to announce this in the newspaper, the text for those amendments was still not available.
This green-lighted development at Port Wallace raises some red flags about Premier Tim Houston’s government’s intrusion into municipal affairs with its 2021 Act to Establish the Executive Panel on Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality, and possibly also what looks like its intention to ignore serious environmental risks in the area.
That legislation gave John Lohr the power to appoint an executive panel consisting of a chair (whom he would appoint), two members to represent the province (whom he would appoint), and two members nominated by the Halifax Regional Municipality, but again, whom Lohr would appoint.
Related: PC government bill would allow minister to approve developments without consultation. Premier Tim Houston’s government formalized its plans to dip into municipal affairs introducing two bills on Thursday
Public in the dark
The actual members of the executive panel are:
- Geoff MacLellan, Chair (who was Minister of Business, Minister of Energy, Minister of Trade, and Minister of Service Nova Scotia in the Liberal government of Stephen McNeil)
- Kelly Denty, Executive Director of Planning and Development, HRM
- Peter Duncan, Director of Infrastructure Planning, HRM
- Stephen MacIsaac, CEO, Nova Scotia Lands
- Paul LaFleche, Deputy Minister, Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing
The most recent executive panel – or task force – meeting documents available to the public date back to March 31, 2022, many weeks before the June meeting during which amendments were made to HRM laws to fast-track the clearing and “mass work” of Port Wallace. Mind you, even if the minutes for the June executive panel meeting were available online, it’s unlikely they would shed much light on what happened at the meeting.
All the minutes of executive panel meetings that were posted in February and March 2022 show that meetings were held “in camera” – meaning the public is left completely in the dark. There is an agenda, but there are no minutes of what was said, who said it, and what happened.
In recent weeks, many people in Canada have been fretting over the decisions being made by the unelected and partisan members of the United States Supreme Court to curtail the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency to fight climate change by curbing emissions.
Yet here in Nova Scotia, the handing over of enormous amounts of power to a small group of people hand-picked and appointed by the provincial housing minister — a group of people whose meetings are all held behind closed doors — seems to have evaded serious scrutiny.
Any criticism leads to immediate arguments about the desperate need for housing, despite the evidence that the proposed development areas are more like urban suburbs and not being designed to provide what is really needed — long-term and genuinely affordable housing.
Were this in another part of the world, there might be a lot of hand-wringing about the odd coincidence that six of the nine “special planning areas” designated by the panel are “being developed either fully or partly” by Clayton Developments, as Zane Woodford reported in the Halifax Examiner in March.
Clayton Developments, which calls itself “Atlantic Canada’s Premier Community Builder,” is part of the Shaw Group.
Clayton is also the company where former HRM CAO Richard Butts went to work as president, no less, immediately after he resigned from the municipality in 2015, something Tim Bousquet reported on here.
Since then, Butts has reportedly left Clayton, although his LinkedIn page still does not reflect that.
Not only is Houston’s government giving a remarkable hands-up to an already extremely wealthy developer with these special development areas, in the case of the controversial and contested Southdale – Mount Hope project in the Eisner Cove Wetland in Dartmouth, the province is also giving Clayton Developments a hand-out in the form of a forgivable loan of $21.8 million for 373 housing units that have to remain “affordable” for only 20 years, as Zane Woodford reported here.
What toxic tailings?
But the overriding of municipal authority by a panel appointed by a government minister, a panel whose meetings are kept totally private, is only part of the problem.
There is also the enormous environmental risk posed by any development that could affect runoff into Barry’s Run, a picturesque body of water surrounded by wetland that is full of arsenic-laden tailings from the historic Montague Gold Mines just upstream.
Barry’s Run feeds directly into Lake Charles.
There is no lake in the entire Shubenacadie system more important than Lake Charles.
Based on the in-depth 2019 environmental assessment done by Dillon Consulting for HRM, Lake Charles is the “headwaters of the Shubenacadie River system and is a source of drinking water for East Hants and several small water treatment plants owned and/or operated by Halifax Water.”
It is the only lake in the system that drains both upriver into Lake William, and also downstream to Lakes Micmac and Banook.
Related: Port Wallace Gamble: the real estate boom meets Nova Scotia’s toxic mine legacy, Part 4. The provincial government has taken over control of the Port Wallace ‘special planning area’ to fast-track development, but what about toxic tailings in Barry’s Run and other risks to the area?
The Examiner has reported here, here, and here on the toxic historic tailings that contaminate the former Montague Gold Mines site, Mitchells Brook and Barry’s Run downstream from the mine, and also the sediment in Lake Charles.
The contamination is an enormous environmental headache for HRM, Nova Scotia Lands (which has been charged with dealing with the tailings at the mine site), and the provincial government, all of which have spent a great deal of money studying the issue and how to remedy it.
As the Halifax Examiner reported in April, before this most recent decision by the executive panel to allow fast-tracked land clearing in Port Wallace, spokesperson for Municipal Affairs and Housing Krista Higdon told the Examiner that the special planning area is still subject to provincial environmental approvals. Said Higdon:
Specifically, all Environment and Climate Change (ECC) processes must be followed, including wetland, watercourse, water/wastewater approvals and, if required, an Environmental Assessment. ECC always requires that the proponent do these assessments and this would be no different.
At the time, the Examiner also contacted NSECC, which is responsible for contaminated sites in the provice, to try to find out who would be responsible for what happens on Port Wallace Holdings lands owned by Clayton Developments, the Montague Gold Mines site that belongs to Natural Resources and Renewables (NRR), and Barry’s Run, which was purchased by HRM in 1976.
Spokesperson Tracy Barron offered some welcome clarity on all three, as reported in the April article on the Port Wallace special planning area:
- Montague Gold Mines Site: NRR have submitted the environmental site assessment report/phase two that was due by May 17, 2022. This report is currently under review. An environmental site assessment outlines the type and extent of contamination at a location.
- Barry’s Run: The environmental site assessment report/phase two is due from NRR on May 9, 2022.
- Port Wallace Development Site: The developer will conduct any required remediation. The developer requested an extension to the submission of the environmental site assessment report/phase two. That is currently under review. A remedial action plan, confirmation of remediation and record of site condition and any other required closure forms are currently due October 3, 2022. That could be impacted by an extension.
Barron added that an environmental assessment is “not required for housing developments unless it will cause an impact to two or more hectares of wetland.”
If it does, Barron said, the project “would need to be evaluated to see if an EA [environmental assessment] is required.” She points out that even if an EA is not required, “operational level approvals” could be mandatory for, among other things, watercourse or wetland alterations, water and wastewater extension approvals.
And crucially, Barron specified, “Special planning designations do not impact the need for the appropriate environmental approvals for a development. We encourage any developer to reach out to us well in advance of their planned work/start date to ensure they undergo all the required processes.”
Have environmental regulations been side-stepped?
The Examiner has written to NSECC for an update on the project, asking about the environmental assessment reports / Phase 2 for both Montague Gold Mines and Barry’s Run that were due in May, the environmental site assessment report for the Port Wallace development site, and whether a decision has been made about whether an environmental assessment is required for the Port Wallace site, or if Clayton can actually proceed with site clearance and preparation now.
When answers are received, we’ll update this article.
Meanwhile, at least from the notice in the weekend’s Chronicle Herald, it looks as if the executive panel has already given Clayton the go-ahead to clear the forest and do “mass work” at the site.
Which seems a little premature, at best, and suggests it’s all a fait accompli.
And that, according to one Waverley Road resident who contacted the Examiner, is very bad news.
Not only is she concerned about the health of the people who will live in the new subdivision, people with children and dogs who will be tempted to play in the contaminated waters of Barry’s Run, she’s also very concerned about the effect the runoff from the development will have on all the waterways in the area that are all downstream from the toxic tailings that have still not been dealt with at the Montague Gold mines site.
“It makes me cry,” she told the Examiner.
In her view, “Lake Charles is doomed.”
The Examiner received responses to our questions from NSECC spokesperson Tracy Barron:
All three sites (Montague Mines, Barry’s Run and Port Wallace) must be managed in accordance with the Contaminated Sites Regulations. This process has specific requirements that need to be followed when addressing contamination on a property, including associated timelines.
The parties responsible for each of these sites have requested extensions for submission of the Phase II Environmental Site Assessments. Housing developments do not require an Environmental Assessment unless it impacts two or more hectares of wetland. An EA is used to determine if there will be any adverse environmental impacts before a project begins, and an environmental site assessment determines whether a particular property may be contaminated because of previous land uses.
The Phase II ESA extension request from Clayton Developments for the Port Wallace site has been approved. Extension requests for the submission of Phase II ESA from Natural Resources and Renewables for the Montague Mines and Barry’s Run sites are currently under review.
The developer can proceed with site clearing and preparation in advance of submitting its Phase II ESA or Remedial Action Plan. They must ensure (through their contaminated site professional) that all contaminated soils at the site have been identified and are being managed appropriately during any site work.
Impacts on Barry’s Run from historic mining development are well documented. The Department’s priority is ensuring that Barry’s Run is not impacted by stormwater and run-off from the development site. The developer has provided the Department with their plan for managing stormwater and how they will prevent impact to Barry’s Run. The Department is currently reviewing it to ensure the proposed design will manage storm water in a manner that avoids any unintended impacts to Barry’s Run (and into Lake Charles).”