Dorene Bernard. Photo: Moira Donovan
Dorene Bernard. Photo: Moira Donovan

Indian Brook used to have the best water for miles around, said Dorene Bernard. But no one likes to drink it now.

The change came in 2012, when the community’s water table was contaminated by digging at the nearby Nova Scotia Sand and Gravel pit.

The community was issued a do-not-drink advisory, and the Department of Indian Affairs began shipping water into the community. But the root cause of the problem – the pit located in the community’s backyard – was never addressed.

“What they needed to do was stop mining,” said Bernard. “What they did was negotiate a deeper well.”

Environmental racism

Indian Brook’s water isn’t the only environmental issue to affect First Nations people in Nova Scotia, Bernard told the crowd filling the auditorium at the Central Library on Tuesday night. There’s a long list of such issues, from the effluent lagoon at Boat Harbour, located on the doorstep of Pictou Landing First Nation, to the placement of industrial sites and landfills near Membertou First Nation

But while the pollution is scattered around the province, the sites all have at least one thing in common: All are instances of environmental racism, said Bernard.

At the opening of Tuesday’s event, Ingrid Waldron, director of the ENRICH project, one of the organizations hosting the event, said that in Nova Scotia environmental racism means the disproportionate location of polluting and environmentally harmful sites near communities of colour and low-income communities.

Mary Desmond experienced this directly.

In 1974, a first-generation landfill was opened only a kilometer away from the African Nova Scotian community of Lincolnville, where Desmond lives. A second-generation dump was opened nearby in 2006, and receives waste from municipalities around the province. Residents have been noticing high rates of deaths from cancer in the community for years, including that of Desmond’s own husband.

But the location of these landfills isn’t for lack of space, said Desmond.

“[Guysborough county] is over 1 million acres of land. Now tell me why, with all that land, they would have to put a landfill one kilometre away from an African Nova Scotian community?”

It’s an uphill battle for Lincolnville’s shrinking pool of residents to get any traction in their fight against the landfill. The last new home was built 50 years ago, said Desmond, and of those remaining in the community, most are seniors.

“There are not that many people in Lincolnville anymore, we have no political power,” she said. “We are defeated. We are downtrodden and we do need help.”

Politically excluded

Both the Otter Lake Landfill and the Ragged Lake Business Park were sited close to the historically Black community of Beechville.
Both the Otter Lake Landfill and the Ragged Lake Business Park were sited close to the historically Black community of Beechville.

This lack of power people and communities have in the decision-making process regarding environmentally harmful sites is itself a manifestation of environmental racism, said speakers Tuesday.

In Nova Scotia, the nature of the planning process exacerbates environmental racism, said Carolann Wright-Parks. Wright-Parks is Director of Community Economic Development and Strategic Engagement with the Halifax Partnership, but she said she was also speaking at the event as a member of the African Nova Scotian community of Beechville.

The Otter Lake Landfill is just kilometers away from Beechville, she said, and the Lakeside Industrial Park was built without consultation, “in the centre of the community,” in 1994. These decisions not only affect the physical health of residents, said Wright-Parks; they also threaten the well-being of the community by accelerating out-migration.

There are better models for making planning decisions, she said. One such mechanism, called Community Benefit Agreements, have been used in other municipalities — such as Vancouver, when it was making decisions about its Olympic Infrastructure, and Toronto in the planning for its light rail system — and provide communities with a legally binding way to hold governments and developers to account.

But the process used in Nova Scotia merely pays lip-service to consultation and doesn’t provide these guarantees, said Wright-Parks; therefore communities such as Beechville suffer.

“Engagement for the sake of engagement is really not worth anything. There has to be more tools up our sleeve to be able to get this done.”

This past year has seen cause for cautious optimism on environmental racism. In the spring, NDP MLA Lenore Zann introduced a private members bill called An Act to Address Environmental Racism.

Although that Act — which had been a collaboration between Zann and the ENRICH project — didn’t make it past first reading before the legislature closed, Zann said to those attending the event Tuesday evening that she would be reintroducing the act when the House opens in the Fall.

The act stipulates that the province create a panel to examine the issue of environmental racism through public consultations and develop recommendations to address it. It is the first of its kind in Canada.

In April, the government also announced that it would set aside $50 million for the cleanup of Boat Harbour, with the closure of the treatment facility set for 2020.

But Zann emphasized that without sustained pressure from the public, even these gains could be lost, as she notes is already happening with some of the promises the government has made about Boat Harbour.

In the 1990s, plans to build a landfill in East Lake were cancelled after residents of Preston, supported by several community and environmental groups, successfully mobilized against it, alleging that environmental discrimination had informed the placement of the site.

As Tuesday’s event drew to a close, attendees were encouraged to build on that network of solidarity by talking to one another about solutions in the face of a legacy of environmental racism.

“We have to start somewhere,” said Bernard. “We cannot stand back.”

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  1. There is no doubt that environmental racism is a longstanding blight on our history, example abound.
    Last night I learned a little that was new and my comment will relate primarily to the decisions regarding the siting of the new landfill in metro Halifax.with an emphasis on what was known in 1991 as ‘Site H’ near East Lake on the Eastern Shore.
    Site H was referenced last night as being in Preston.
    There are 2 lakes called East Lake and east of Dartmouth. The East Lake closest to the site is located close to Lake Williams and the nearest residents were the Bruhm family at the northern end of the Myra Road, Porters Lake. The Bruhm family and others nearby were all white.

    At the time,1991, Site H was chosen after a rigorous scientific, geological, environmental and economic analysis of 18 possible sites in what was then Halifax County.
    Several African-Nova Scotians of the Prestons believed Site H was located at the East Lake located NW of North Preston and close to Lake Major.
    Site H is more than 4 miles from the nearest home in North Preston. It is much closer to the white community on the Myra Road in the upper part of Porters Lake. If the landfill had been sited there the garbage would have been transported from metro via Highway 102 to Goffs Road at the airport and then to the landfill along a new road constructed by the Metropolitan Authority.
    The original waste strategy was devised by a committee of citizens from the 4 municipalities chaired by former Halifax mayor Alan O’Brien and meeting in conjunction with planning and engineering consultants. The members, I was one of 3 from Dartmouth, spent many hours at weekly meetings preparing a plan designed to reduce the volume of material going to a landfill, increasing the amount of waste being recycled and composted and also included a modern incinerator similar to those then in use in Europe and N America. Almost all of the participants in the exercise are still alive and would no doubt be willing to talk to any journalist who wishes to obtain the science and the facts.
    The Site H issue took on a life of its own and we all know that the press love disputes, cheap filler for print, radio and TV. When it comes to waste management it is fair to say that science and truth goes out the door and is replaced by emotion and political agendas. The press hate complexity and detailed explanations, much easier to do a ‘He said, they said’ and help keep the story in the news. We all know the old joke ” Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”. Add in a racial element and you know the press will portray the issue in a certain way.
    I subsequently became a Dartmouth councillor and then a member of Metropolitan Authority and dealt with a c ontract to construct an incinerator and sell the power to what was then Nova Scotia Power. The Liberal government of John Savage killed the incinerator agreements on spurious grounds, primarily citing cost but not allowing any new negotiations.
    One of the slides last night listed several examples of environmental racism and included East Lake landfill and a wastewater treatment plant. Both are unfounded and misleading,and their inclusion detracts from the actual and more serious examples such as Africville, Crichton Avenue, Boat Harbour and Lincolnville. The treatment plant at the bottom of Cunard Street is one of the many plants around Halifax Harbour and all are close to residential properties.
    You have a link to a thesis. The author describes Sackville residents near the old landfill as ‘low income’, a view that was never expressed by those homeowners who just wanted the dump closed. The thesis has the fatal flaw of referencing newspaper articles rather than the studies that are available in HRM archives and the new library. Ms Waldron is apparently going down the same dead end of emotion rather than exercising the intellectual rigour we expect of an academic speaking on an important issue.
    Otter Lake cannot be included in any article referencing environmental racism. The nearest homes have outdoor pools in Indian Grove, an expensive development complete with a golf course and SE of the landfill. To the NW there is a trailer park and a new subdivision and another golf course.

    Links to relevant documents in 1991/2 :