Nova Scotia

Harrietsfield woman launches private prosecution in contaminated water case

A rural Halifax-area community dealing with contaminated water was promised help from the province Wednesday as one resident launched a so-called private prosecution against those accused of violating the Environment Act.

Marlene Brown's prosecution comes as the province's environment minister says help is on the way

Marlene Brown says she hopes this action will pressure the government to make the companies responsible for the contamination at the former auto salvage yard near her home finally clean it up. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

A rural Halifax-area community dealing with contaminated water was told help is coming from the province Wednesday as one resident launched a so-called private prosecution against those allegedly responsible for the pollution.

Environment Minister Margaret Miller told reporters gathered at Province House the government hopes to prosecute in the near future. She also said residents of Harrietsfield impacted by leachate from a former auto salvage yard are getting new water treatment systems.

"They have either been in touch with the [water treatment] company or will in the next few days and systems will be going in," said Miller.

Miller's comments came after Marlene Brown, whose tap water has been contaminated for more than a decade, brought charges against two numbered Nova Scotia companies and an individual.

Begging for clean water

The charges relate to releasing substances causing an adverse effect and for failing to abide by the terms and conditions of ministerial orders under the provincial Environmental Act, according to a news release from East Coast Environmental Law, which is assisting Brown in her case.

"Many of us have had uranium, lead and arsenic in the water coming from our taps, for years now, and all we seem to get are hollow promises," Brown, who lives near the salvage yard, said in the release. 

"No one should have to beg for clean drinking water in Nova Scotia."

How private prosecution works

The Criminal Code allows individuals to prosecute someone who has allegedly committed an offence, though a judge has the power to decide the merits of the case and whether the accused should be compelled to answer to the charge in court.

It's the first time a private prosecution has been used in Nova Scotia for an environmental issue, said environmental lawyer Jamie Simpson, who is also working with Brown.

"What we really want here is to put pressure on government and [raise] the public profile of this issue so that many Nova Scotians know this site is still contaminated all these years later," Simpson said in an interview.

Simpson said the charges are against Roy Brown and his numbered company, 3012334 Nova Scotia Ltd., which owns the former salvage site at 1275 Old Sambro Road.

Brown's company sold its assets in 2005 and leased the land to another numbered company, 3076525 Nova Scotia Ltd., which is the second firm charged in the matter. 

A lawyer for Brown declined to comment Wednesday night. 

Nothing being enforced

The site of the former salvage yard has not been monitored in two years, Simpson said.

"[The province] issued these ministerial orders against the companies, but then because the companies have been appealing the orders, the government has basically decided to do nothing," he said.

The province is "fully entitled" to enforce its ministerial orders against the companies, Simpson said, but it has chosen to let the appeals "run their course." 

"The site just sits there contaminated and the groundwater continues to be influenced," he said.

Environment minister reacts

Miller said Wednesday the companies involved in the cleanup dispute recently lost their appeal.

"It made sense to wait and see what the ruling would be," she said.

"I don't think there's any need for an apology. We're still in the process. We still plan on moving forward with this. Absolutely the ministerial statements are still in order."

How the province could respond

Simpson said the province could react to Marlene Brown's private prosecution in one of three ways.

It could step in and stay the prosecution, nullifying it. It could stay the prosecution and take over the case. Or it could allow Brown to proceed with the charges.

"Hopefully the government will feel compelled to say, 'Let's actually deal with this,'" he said.

With files from Jerri Southcott and Jean Laroche