Ecojustice Blog – Healthy communities Posted on March 22, 2016 (updated: March 29, 2017)

World Water Day: When will help come for Harrietsfield?

Marlene Brown stands with water signMarlene BrownClient
Marlene Brown fills a water jug at her local church.
Marlene Brown fills a water jug at her local church. Photo by Rebecca Hussman.

A version of this piece appeared in the Chronicle Herald on March 22, 2016.

My name is Marlene Brown. I am a life-long resident of Harrietsfield, a small community located a 20-minute car ride from downtown Halifax. I am a mother, a library assistant, and — it’s funny where life takes you — an activist.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve enjoyed a glass of water from the tap in my home. Unsafe amounts of uranium, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxic contaminants have been detected in the water in my community, and I’m afraid drinking it could put my health at risk. Plus, the water often looks, tastes, and smells bad. It’s corroded the plumbing and fixtures in my house, and I can’t even bathe in my tub because it’s in such bad shape.

We’ve been aware since 2003 that storage and handling of materials at a construction and demolition recycling facility across the road from my home had impacted surface water and groundwater in Harrietsfield. And although Nova Scotia Environment required the site operators to start testing our water in 2003, we learned more than six years later that no one was reviewing or analyzing the data about the quality of our well water.

It’s hard to put into words what living with this kind of anxiety and stress is like. I can’t remember the last time I felt like I could go home and just relax.

My neighbours Melissa and Jonathan have a young son and were scared to bathe him in their own home. Instead, they travelled with a bathtub in the trunk of their car and made arrangements to bathe him in the homes of family. With no immediate solution on the horizon, the stress of not having reliable access to safe water eventually became too much to bear. They made the difficult decision to abandon their home last year.

This shouldn’t happen to anyone, anywhere. But when our governments don’t enforce environmental laws or recognize our rights — such as the human right to a healthy environment (including clean water) and the right to participate in environmental decision-making — communities like Harrietsfield can fall through the cracks.

A few weeks ago, Nova Scotia Environment issued two new orders requiring monitoring and plans to clean-up the site that’s causing the contamination. These orders, however, don’t differ much from a previous order from 2010 that was not fully enforced.

Even more frustrating has been provincial government’s lack of transparency in this matter. Even those of us whose properties are listed on the orders have been unable to get answers from the Minister of Environment. Most of my information about the site and the contamination impacting my well has come from court documents and freedom of information requests. At the end of February the Minister told a reporter that our water is “safe” — but that very same week her department sent letters to residents telling them (yet again) that their wells have unsafe levels of substances like uranium, arsenic, lead, and cadmium.

The reality is that even if Nova Scotia enforces its clean-up orders properly, it will still take years to clean up the contamination of our water. That’s why I’m calling on my elected representatives to come together and act now to ensure that the residents of Harrietsfield are provided with clean, safe water of acceptable quality.

I raised two boys in my home. We all drank the water. And every day I’m scared I’m going to get a call telling me that one my boys has become sick.

This World Water Day, I hope that all three levels of government will come together and commit to working together to fix things in Harrietsfield. I’m not ready to give up this fight, but we can’t do it alone. We need help.

Marlene Brown is a library assistant, mother of two, and resident of Harrietsfield, N.S.

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