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The provincial Environment Department has told Penobsquis residents that it will turn off the tap on the free water it has delivered since 2004. The province has installed a new water system in the area and wants residents to sign up and pay an annual fee. ((CBC))

Some Penobsquis residents say they are being bullied by the New Brunswick government to sign up to a new water system five years after their tap water mysteriously disappeared.

For the first time since about 60 local wells went dry in 2004, an endless supply of clean water is available to homes in the southern New Brunswick village.

But several Penobsquis families are refusing to hook up to the recently installed water system as they remain embroiled in a fight over who should pay the bills for it.

In 2004, the Department of Environment started delivering free water to the homes where the wells had run dry. This year, the provincial government finished installing the new water system that is being run by the village of Sussex Corner. So far, at least 16 homes haven't signed the contract to tap into the water system.

With the water dispute continuing, the Environment Department informed Penobsquis residents this week that it will stop delivering free water to their houses Sept. 22. The department also said the hook-up fee will be waived for people signing up to the new system before Oct. 16.

Resident Wayne Bell said he should not be forced to pay a $400 annual fee for water that he once got free from his well.

"It should have been replaced at no cost to us because it wasn't anything that we did to lose it. We didn't sell our water. I don't think we should pay to get it back," Bell said.

Bell said he believes his well was drained by the potash mine beneath his home. The provincial government or the mine should pick up the tab, he said.

Bell's wife, Chris Bell, said she and her neighbours are worried about the extra costs associated with the new water system: the annual fee as well as outlays for any repairs on water lines on their property.

"I have two seniors living beside me. They're on a strict fixed budget. They can't afford $400," Bell said.

Refusing to meet with lawyer

In May, many Penobsquis residents retained Michel DesNeiges, an environmental lawyer, to represent them in the water fight.

However, Sussex Corner's village council is refusing to meet with the lawyer hired by Bell and his neighbours. There is nothing to discuss, Mayor Eric Cunningham said.

"The stance of the village has been that it would be an added expense and our stance is it is unnecessary. So we haven't met with the lawyer," he said.

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Progressive Conservative MLA Bruce Northrup says the provincial government is forcing residents to sign a contract to have their water delivered. ((CBC))

Progressive Conservative MLA Bruce Northrup said the government appears to be forcing residents to sign up to the new system by taking away their water deliveries.

"They could kind of see light at the end of the tunnel where negotiations were going on between concerned citizens of Penobsquis and the village of Sussex Corner," Northrup said. "But now this registered letter that comes in, it's just a strong-arm from local government."