Nova Scotia

Harrietsfield homeowner wants clean drinking water

A woman in Harrietsfield says she's lost all interest in her dream home because her well water is contaminated by a nearby waste disposal site.

Homeowner feels trapped in house she no longer wants because water is contaminated by dump site

Angela Zwicker said she wishes she could run her toothbrush under her tap water, but she can't because it's not safe to consume. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Angela Zwicker used to love her house on the Old Sambro Road in Harrietsfield but shortly after she moved there in 2011, her neighbour warned her not to drink her tap water, telling her it was contaminated by the property next door.

Waste had been stored there for years, and was leaching contaminants into the groundwater.

Since then Nova Scotia Environment has advised Zwicker not to drink, brush her teeth or cook with her well water.

"I'm no longer interested in fixing it up, or taking care of it, mowing the lawn," said Zwicker. "It has me so down about the whole place, I'm just not as excited as I was."

Zwicker still has a mortgage on the house, so she's working everyday to pay it off, even though she doesn't want to live in it any more.

She has to drink bottled water and so do her dogs and cat. She fills up her bottles at friends' houses or at work. Sometimes she buys it, but that gets pricey.

Zwicker had the water tested in the house, before the sale went through. The test showed a couple of chemicals were over the limit, not including uranium. And so as condition of the sale, the seller paid for a water treatment system for the house. 

History of RDM site

Nova Scotia's minister of the environment issued two new orders directing that environmental damage caused by this former recycling plant be assessed and repaired. (CBC)

The property next to Zwicker is 1275 Sambro Road, Harrietsfield. It was first operated as Nicholson's Auto Salvage Yard, beginning in the 1960s. Then from 1998 to 2005, RDM — as it was called at the time — operated a construction and demolition facility on the property.

The Nova Scotia Department of Environment first discovered the water problems 13 years ago, in 2003. Soon after discovering the contaminated groundwater, the province ordered the company to build a containment cell to store waste.

In 2005, another numbered company, 3076525 NS Limited, took over operation of the site and bought the assets, but not the property itself.

Angela Zwicker says she finds herself refilling bottles of water at work or at friends' houses because she can't drink from her tap. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

In 2010, the province served the operators of the site with a ministerial order to clean it up. That was appealed by the company, but most of the order was upheld by a judge in 2015.

Neighbours fight back

In 2016, Environment Minister Margaret Miller revoked the 2010 order and issued two new ministerial orders to each company to clean up the containment cell. Both of those orders have been appealed.

Earlier this month, a judge granted Zwicker and two of her neighbours, Marlene Brown and Melissa King, permission to intervene in both appeals, which are expected to be heard in the fall of 2016.

The site ceased operation and closed in December 2012.

Contaminants in the water

In a 2010 memorandum between Nova Scotia Environment staff obtained by CBC, it states, "there are significant impacts to groundwater quality in monitoring wells on the site".

The document describes "a growing plume" leaving the RDM site that is "carrying boron at concentrations which in some wells exceed drinking water health guidelines and/or aquatic life guidelines."

It also points to uranium and cadmium in the groundwater. 

'I'm kind of stuck'

Zwicker is frustrated that this case keeps dragging through the courts and the dump site isn't getting cleaned up.

​"I feel like it's never going to change and I'm kind of stuck because I can't move to a better place because who's going to buy my house, right? Knowing there are water problems. I feel like very, very trapped."

In an emailed statement the Department of Environment said, "We take matters of non-compliance very seriously. Our inspectors are continuing to gather information in order to determine the next steps."

'Everybody has a right to safe drinking water'

"I'd love to be able to rinse my toothbrush under the tap like a normal person," Zwicker said. 

Zwicker says the water situation is stressful. She doesn't think it's fair the companies keep appealing the orders.

"They have a responsibility to clean up the mess that they made," she said, "I think everybody has a right to safe drinking water and we don't, so something needs to be done."

Both companies contacted by CBC have not returned calls.

About the Author

Phlis McGregor

Journalist

Phlis McGregor is an award-winning journalist with CBC's Information Morning Nova Scotia where she digs into stories ranging from systemic racism to forestry issues. Phlis has a B.Sc. in environmental toxicology and a master's degree in environmental studies. Story idea? phlis.mcgregor@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @phliscbc