New Brunswick

The secret history of Parlee Beach water testing

The New Brunswick government was worried about protecting the reputation of Parlee Beach and the Shediac economy when it developed a unique water-testing system for the beach in 2000.

Keeping popular beach open and its image clean was goal guiding decisions about water, documents show

Documents show that officials fretted about avoiding "the shock of a beach closure." (Paul Hantiuk/CBC)

The New Brunswick government was worried about protecting the reputation of Parlee Beach and the Shediac economy when it developed a unique water-testing system for the beach in 2000.

Documents show that officials fretted about avoiding "the shock of a beach closure" after meeting with the department in charge of luring tourists to Parlee.

In one case, a bureaucrat advocated short-term "Band-Aid" solutions to keep the facility open.

"The result of a spontaneous water quality advisory would be detrimental to the community and the Province in terms of recreational, social and economic impacts," says one briefing note.

Advisories made to sound 'positive'

Documents suggest that between 1998 and 2002, the goal of keeping the beach open was just as important as public health and environmental concerns. (CBC)

Advisories of poor water quality should be framed in a "positive" light, it says, "to protect the reputation of Parlee Beach" and avoid hurting Shediac's tourism-based economy.

I need to remind you that our interest grew from a proactive, preventative approach being taken to keep Parlee Beach open. We do not want to see that goal compromised.- Bill Leonard, Department of Health, 1999

The documents suggest that between 1998 and 2002, the goal of keeping the beach open was just as important as public health and environmental concerns.

"We appreciate your goal is to move more to a watershed management/classification approach to projects such as this," Bill Leonard of the Health Department wrote in a July 20, 1999 email to Bill Ayer in the Environment Department.

"However, I need to remind you that our interest grew from a proactive, preventative approach being taken to keep Parlee Beach open. We do not want to see that goal compromised."

1994: Contamination counts start

Documents obtained under a Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act request by local residents provide new insights into how plans for a province-wide water-testing system evolved into a protocol for Parlee Beach and Murray Beach. (Paul Hantiuk/CBC)

Hundreds of pages of documents were obtained under a Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act request by local residents, who provided them to CBC News.

They provide new insights into how plans for a provincewide water-testing system, sparked by high contamination counts starting in 1994, evolved into a protocol for Parlee Beach and Murray Beach, with "professional marketing and promotion to ensure that a consistent message is delivered to the public, which is positive in nature."

That protocol, managed by Tourism Department employees working at Parlee Beach, yielded flawed results last year that underestimated fecal contamination levels.

Provincial officials announced last month they were replacing the regime with a new water-testing protocol that follows national guidelines. Large signs will be posted at entrances to the beach to tell visitors whether there is a no-swimming advisory.

Officials have been at a loss to explain why Parlee and nearby Murray Beach had their own unique testing system, run by provincial park employees of the Tourism Department instead of by Public Health staff.

"I certainly wouldn't know the specifics of why that is," Health Minister Victor Boudreau said last fall.

"I don't have all the background knowledge on that," Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health, said at the same time.

Worried about beach's reputation

The old signs at Parlee Beach had been criticized for being unclear and minimizing the health risks of poor water quality. (CBC)

The documents from 1998 to 2002 appear to identify one factor: officials worried that notifications of poor water quality would damage Parlee's image, drive away visitors and hurt the local economy.

Of the many civil servants identified in the documents, only one seems to be still working for the province. Perry Haines, a member of a water-quality committee set up in 1998, is now the assistant deputy minister in the Department of Environment and Local Government.

A spokesperson for the department said he was not available to discuss the events of 1998 to 2002.

"It would be difficult to comment on conversations that occurred more than 15 years ago and government is currently focused on moving forward in this file to ensure the health and safety of residents and visitors at Parlee Beach," the department said in an emailed statement.

1998: Cuts made testing "more difficult"

Environment Canada official Bernard Richard said in his department, "budgets have been cut and it is getting to be more difficult to do all the tests he would like to perform." (Paul Hantiuk/CBC)

An ad hoc committee on the water quality in Shediac Bay began meeting in April 1998 in the wake of contamination counts in 1997 that exceeded the Canadian Guidelines for Recreational Water Quality. The committee included provincial and local officials.

According to minutes of the May 1998 meeting, Environment Canada official Bernard Richard said that in his department, "budgets have been cut and it is getting to be more difficult to do all the tests he would like to perform."

Patricia Hawkes of the provincial Health Department had the same problem.

"Her department does not have the funds for sampling this year," the minutes say.

But Rheal Savoie of the Department of Economic Development and Tourism — which promoted New Brunswick as a vacation destination — noted Parlee Beach was of "great importance … to the tourist industry in the whole area as well as the Province of NB."

No regular water-monitoring system was in place at the time, and a July 14, 1998, memo said "recreational waters are not considered a priority in the absence of disease."

The committee applied for $225,000 under the province's Environmental Trust Fund to set up what it called the "Shediac Sustainable Development Project."

It would, a proposal document says, study how to "to reduce and mitigate the impact of watershed effluent" and report on on "all apparent pollutant contributors in the watershed."

'Do all we can to keep the beach open'

Bill Leonard from the Health Department told Environment's Bill Ayer that Parlee had to be the focus, not a wider watershed management study. (CBC)

At the same time, the Environmental Department was considering a second Environmental Trust Fund application to study water issues in Shediac Bay.

Researchers at Mount Allison University wanted to look at broader land-use issues, including residential development "having a negative impact on natural resources in the coastal areas of the watersheds."

We need to do all we can to keep the beach open and some of that may mean shorter, Band-Aid types of approaches.- Bill Leonard, Department of Health

The two projects were merged, but it was at that point that Bill Leonard from the Health Department told Environment's Bill Ayer that Parlee had to be the focus, not a wider watershed management study.

"The long and mid-range strategies are important BUT the short term problems and possible interventions need adequate resourcing," he wrote.

"We need to do all we can to keep the beach open and some of that may mean shorter, Band-Aid types of approaches. The sanitary survey/water quality work needs to have an immediate to mid-term focus."

The goal of the beach staying open would emerge over and over during the next three years.

Summer 1999: Beach 'should have been closed"

Parlee is the province's most popular beach, with hundreds of thousands visiting every summer. (Radio-Canada)

While the committee's study unfolded, the province brought in weekly water testing for the summer of 1999.

"Some of the results that came from DOE appeared a bit high," the Health Department's David Ross emailed Perry Haines from Environment on July 29, 1999. "Is there anything we can do to help? Are the situations being addressed?

"Our biggest concern is that if a beach advisory is issued will significant sources of pollution be on the path of remediation?"

At the department's head office, Ross added, "there have been a few eyebrows raised."

The geometric mean of samples from Aug. 9 was a fecal contamination count of 106, three times the acceptable limit of 35.

 "When were these results received and what action was taken?" asked another Health official, Mark Allen.

Allen wrote that weekly sampling wasn't adequate and said the Aug. 9 tests "indicate the beach should have been closed until further sampling demonstrated acceptable water quality."

But Leonard pushed back at Allen's alarm: "Any closeur [closure] must be discussed, I know all are aware."

Report looks at contamination sources

New water-quality signage at Parlee Beach will let people know if the water is suitable for swimming. (CBC)

A consultant's study presented to the local committee in September 1999 suggested several possible sources for the contamination, including lobster processing plants, sewage from homes not on the municipal water system, agricultural run-off, and owners of pleasure boats emptying their toilet tanks in the bay.

"Beach closure is at the discretion of the Public Health Officer … preventive versus reactive action," according to emailed notes of a meeting where the consultant presented his findings.  

But the notes add: "It is not clear right now what to do."

This approach does not rely so heavily on analytical data.- Briefing on proposal for Parlee Beach testing

The notes also mention: "Eventually going to go to cabinet with this," a reference to elected ministers in the government of then-PC Premier Bernard Lord.

On Nov. 18, 1999, the committee discussed a draft letter to Lord's environment minister, Kim Jardine.

A document labelled "Recreational Waters-Parlee Beach," part of the same package, contains an intriguing hand-written change.

"As a result of the variety of water uses, as well as a result of the constant pressure of people on swimming areas, these areas have increasingly become contaminated," the original says.

But the word "have" was scratched out and replaced with "may."

2000: Avoiding 'shock' of closure

(CBC)

In early 2000, the committee wrote to Jardine to thank her for taking "some direct action" to reduce discharges from one lobster processing plant in the area.

At the same time, government officials were finally developing a new water-testing protocol.

An early draft of a briefing note for the government said it was expected there would be days at Parlee Beach in the coming summer "where water quality will be considered unacceptable for recreational use."

The note says Moncton's Public Health Office was proposing a system for Parlee that would be community-based, relying on local residents to "become responsible for the program." One advantage, it said, was that "this approach does not rely so heavily on analytical data."

Another advantage was it would ensure the public was notified of poor water quality but would also "minimize the impact of negative publicity on the Beach and surrounding area."

"The advisory would be on-going and the public can get the information when they want it," the note says.  A subsequent draft added: "and the shock of a beach 'closure' would be reduced."

Other beaches become 'pilots' 

Parlee Beach ended up with its own unique system--a system that did not adhere to Canadian standards after all, and that failed spectacularly in 2016. (Paul Hantiuk/CBC)

It's not clear which minister the briefing note was for, but the document reveals the involvement of the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Culture, whose interest was promoting the beach.

After meeting with the Shediac Bay committee and talking to "local EDTC representative," the Moncton Public Health Office had "a willingness" to implement the program "at the local level," meaning Parlee Beach alone.

This appears to be a significant shift.

In subsequent months, other documents would refer to a testing program for recreational waters "throughout New Brunswick."

System failed in the end

An email from Paul LeBreton, the deputy minister of health, on Oct. 20, 2000, said that if a testing protocol and standard for advisors "could be developed … it would follow that all recreational areas should use the same system."

In another document, Parlee Beach and Mactaquac Park near Fredericton were identified as "pilots" for a provincewide sampling regime.

And minutes from an Oct. 26, 2000 meeting of a "recreational water executive committee" say that "it is anticipated that the [testing] program will be delivered in a consistent approach throughout the province."

But that never happened. Parlee Beach ended up with its own unique system — a system that did not adhere to Canadian standards after all, and that failed spectacularly in 2016.

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