Residents fear effects of increasing quarry activity on Elmvale groundwater, believed to be cleanest in world

Residents of Ontario community say wells located downhill from a local quarry are experiencing silting and water-level issues.

Residents of Ontario community say some local wells have silt and water-level issues

Ontario community fights to protect what’s believed to be the world’s cleanest water

9 months ago
Duration 9:08
The groundwater in Elmvale, Ont., is believed to be the cleanest in the world, but some residents and scientists are worried about the impact of nearby quarries. They are fighting for answers and accountability.

Bonnie Pauzé carefully lines up small mason jars full of water on the porch at her farm near Elmvale, Ont. She's collected dozens of them at regular intervals for more than a decade. The water in some is clear, less so in others. Pauzé lifts a jar and points to dirty black sediment, another contains a layer of silt that has settled on the bottom. She shakes it and the water becomes cloudy.

"This is kind of my own little clinical study that reminds me when I lose courage and I lose hope," she said. "I look at the work that's been done and I look at the water and I think, 'Oh, you know what? You've got to keep going.'"

Pauzé says she started noticing changes in her well water when a nearby quarry, now operated by the Dufferin Aggregates division of CRH Canada, started drawing millions of litres of groundwater most days to wash gravel in 2009.

The quarry is located on the northern edge of French's Hill, a groundwater recharge area where rainfall enters the ground and replenishes the regional water flow system.

Owners of at least a dozen wells situated downgradient of the Teedon Pit and its aggregate washing operations have complained of changes in their water, and they suspect wash water is leaking into the underlying groundwater flow system.

Pauzé and her family have lived on their farm below the hill for nearly 30 years. She says until aggregate washing operations ramped up, her well water had always flowed crystal clear. Now it's unpredictable.

Pauzé has collected jars of water from her wells regularly for several years to show how silt levels vary. (Brenda Witmer/CBC)

Pauzé is on her ninth washing machine since 2010. Even though she has a filtration system, the silt seeps in and any appliance with a pump becomes so clogged it stops working.

During some periods the water has been so cloudy, she bought bottled water to drink. Eventually she had to get rid of her cattle because they often refused to drink the water.

Over the years, Pauzé complained several times to Ontario's environment ministry. It investigated in 2015 and found no evidence quarry operations were having an impact on local water quality, an assertion it stands by today.

The ministry concludes the issues are caused by faulty well construction or poor well maintenance. Dufferin cites the ministry's findings in its reports that conclude its aggregate activities are not affecting residents' well water.

Pauzé shows the silt that has accumulated at the bottom of a water trough for her animals, which is supplied by one of her wells. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The faulty well explanation has been challenged by an expert Bonnie hired in 2015. In his reports, independent environmental consultant Wilf Ruland wrote, "If there were a problem with  the wells' construction, then it would be an ongoing problem. It would not be something  that was episodic."

The report added, "The timing of the problems developing (both wells delivering excellent water until 2009, and then both wells having  episodic silt issues since then) is also highly unlikely to have occurred by chance."

Pauzé is convinced the groundwater is at risk.

"We need to protect it. It is the canary in the coal mine."

Purest water in Canada

Elmvale is an area of artesian wells, where water frequently rises out of the ground under its own pressure.

And it's a source of pride.

A water kiosk sheltering an artesian well near the town centre draws people every day who come to fill containers with water so clean there's even an annual water festival to celebrate it. And while there is no indication the water is unsafe to drink, the fear is that its source is under threat.

Mike Powell, adjunct professor at the University of Alberta's Department of Renewable Resources, is among a group of scientists who have studied the water in Elmvale for decades. Powell says an extraordinary aquifer, a water-laden underground rock formation, produces what scientists consider to be the purest water in the world.

"This water has been determined to be the cleanest water yet described on the surface of the Earth," Powell said. "The only water in which we can find no fingerprint of human beings. No organic pollutants, no chlorides, no phosphates, no pesticides and herbicides."

Powell is now preparing a new study to determine what makes the water in Elmvale so clean. Based in London, Ont., he was recently in Elmvale taking water samples from nearly 30 locations, including Pauzé's farm. He and his team also dug trenches to examine the layers of rock and sediment that act as a natural filtration system. 

"In order to understand this natural algorithm of why this water that hits the surface of the ground bubbles through the soils, travels along the glacial sediments, and then comes out in the valley as this pristine water, it's going to take a lot of a lot of science. A lot of different kinds of science," Powell said.

Mike Powell is among a group of scientists who have studied the water in Elmvale for decades and have identified it as the cleanest water known on Earth. (Brenda Witmer/CBC)

Powell's study is expected to take five years and could reveal if quarry operations are having an impact on the groundwater.

At least a dozen local wells have experienced issues — some owners say they have noticed changes to their water levels as well as silting issues — and the concern is more wells could be affected. The province recently renewed the quarry's 10-year water taking permit to continue aggregate washing, allowing it to take a million more litres of water on the 210 days it operates each year.

It's why a residents' association, the Federation of Tiny Township Shoreline Associations (FoTTSA) and the township are appealing the province's decision to renew the permit. The appeal is before the Ontario Land Tribunal, an independent adjudicative tribunal conducting hearings on land use and environmental matters in the province.

The farm owned by Anne Nahuis is another location where Powell's team collected water and soil samples. Nahuis has been a record keeper and advocate for protecting the groundwater for years. She rifles through one of several boxes full of documents and reports that chronicle a long and complex search for answers and accountability.

Nahuis says for many, this is a battle for livelihood and legacy.

"We're in the farming community and I want my kids to build a farm in the area," Nahuis said. "This is a breadbasket. Clean water is so important. Is this going to affect the groundwater levels as well? We know it is. It already has."

Anne Nahuis owns a farm in the Elmvale area and is a vocal advocate for protecting the groundwater. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Those concerns are mounting as quarry operations are set to expand.

The Sargeant Company is not operating its new quarry in the area yet, but has clear-cut land in preparation.

In a statement to CBC news, the company says that in an effort to allay the concerns of local residents, "rather than proposing a drilled well into the pristine aquifer, we've proposed digging a surface pond to collect rainwater and shallow groundwater, identical to ponds used for agriculture all over the region."

When reached for comment, Dufferin Aggregates also replied in a statement saying it takes pride in being a responsible custodian of the natural environment in the communities it operates in across Ontario, "including minimizing water use through reduction, reuse, and recycling measures wherever possible." The company added its operations are in line with all legal and environmental requirements. 

Those requirements, the province says, reflect strengthened legislation to protect natural water resources. Ontario's Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry says that includes a more robust application process for requests from existing sites to extract aggregates below the water table. 

But Powell says until more is known about Elmvale's extraordinary groundwater system, the risk remains unknown.

"There's an assertion that these operations will not alter the quality or quantity of water. We will be doing the first study of its type to show whether that's true or not."

There's an assertion that these operations will not alter the quality or quantity of water. We will be doing the first study of its type to show whether that's true or not.- Mike Powell

Powell says he understands the demand for aggregate is huge to build critical infrastructure like roads and highways. Ideally he says he would like to join forces with the aggregate industry and the province to protect the water ecosystem and to learn from it.

"We're not against aggregate taking and we're not against infrastructure development," Powell said. "We're saying that this is a place that is unique on the surface of the Earth as far as we know. And once it's gone, it's gone. It should be held up as a model of what real water quality can be, and not destroyed. That just makes no sense, not for a few trucks of gravel."

Farmers, scientists and indigenous advocates have built a coalition of water defenders that include Beth Brass Elson, a member of the Beausoleil First Nation. Elson camped out in protest against a proposed landfill project in the community in 2009 and says she's prepared to fight for the water again.

"I see myself as a native woman who was put here on this Earth at this time to do this kind of work," Elson said.

Elson adds that the fight then and now is about putting a natural source of clean water before industry.

"They're washing gravel with the purest water. And yet they [the government] can't even look after our First Nations in the North that don't have good drinking water," Elson said, shaking her head. "Nothing makes sense anymore. We need to push back big time."

Beth Brass Elson, a member of the Beausoleil First Nation, says the Elmvale groundwater issue is about putting a natural source of clean water before industry. (Brenda Witmer/CBC)

Back at Pauzé's farm, the fight over the years has taken its toll on her finances and health. Holding back tears, she says many days feel like a test of faith.

"We've been blessed with wonderful water to drink. And if we lose the quality of our water for industry, I'm very disappointed in mankind. The facts are there. You know, we need to slow down, and we need to protect this water for the next generations. We should be celebrating that, not fighting to protect it."

Sighing deeply she adds, "I just keep collecting my water and keep hoping."

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