HANTSPORT, N.S. – The province is hopeful that the owner of the Windsor and Hantsport Railway will honour his word and rebuild the aboiteau structure that collapsed last winter.
But if he doesn’t, the province says they’ll consider other options.
During a public meeting on Sept. 10 at the Hantsport School, several provincial government officials and staff updated approximately 200 community-members on how the dispute with the railway on the aboiteau issue is proceeding.
Royden Trainor, executive director of transportation and infrastructure renewal, said he’s cautiously optimistic that Bob Schmidt, who owns the railway, will do as he says in a letter to the editor submitted to the Valley Journal-Advertiser prior to the meeting.
“We have every intention of holding Mr. Schmidt to his word to rebuild that aboiteau tout suite,” Trainor said. “We wish he had done it in October when we asked.”
Schmidt has said that the province was obstructive when it came to getting any maintenance done to the structure, before and after its collapse.
The province issued an emergency directive to Schmidt, with the threat of financial fines and potential jail time if the structure remained neglected. That matter went to court and the judge granted a stay on the matter until January 2019.
However, Schmidt’s lawyers said they have every intention to fix the aboiteau themselves.
Trainor said that various provincial departments are working to get the approval necessary for Schmidt to fix the structure.
Too late to save well water
Even if the aboiteau at the Halfway River in Hantsport is fixed, for some it will be too little, too late.
Evan Merks and his partner Courtney Shay live on Schurman Road, located just outside Hantsport, which has been severely impacted by the collapse.
“In December, right before Christmas, my well went from fresh water to salt water,” Merks said.
“We couldn’t use our washing machine, dishwasher; can’t drink it,” Shay said. “I had to shower at my parents most of the time.”
Approximately a month later, Merks purchased a reverse-osmosis machine, which converts salt water into fresh. It’s a very expensive piece of machinery and they said was not especially efficient. Before long, their well was dry.
He eventually purchased totes to hold fresh water, filling them up at his father’s farm, which he does twice a week.
Merks also owns the adjacent property, which he was hoping to rent out to supplement his mortgage. But, without fresh water, that’s almost impossible.
Selling it won’t be easy either.
So what’s next?
“I have no idea” Merks said.
“Who wants to buy a house that’s contaminated with salt water?”
Merks said he’s open to looking at a land purchase from the province, if that’s possible, but said he’s not aware if that’ll be happening.
Even if the aboiteau is rebuilt, Merks said it’s likely too late to fix their property.
“The land, the well is contaminated. The bank is going to start eroding, the trees are dead,” he said. “Our next option is probably just to abandon ship and get out. We can’t build a life there.”
Other areas of concern for residents are the grounds of the Hantsport Memorial Community Centre, which has fields that abut on the Halfway River, which is starting to erode.
The Riverbank Cemetery is also a major concern for residents, as further erosion could lead to many burial sites being destroyed.
Carole MacDonald also lives on Schurman Road with her husband Bob. Their property, which sits atop a steep hill and abuts the Halfway River, could be at risk as trees die from the incoming salt water.
She’s worried that as more trees on the hill die, erosion will accelerate, and threaten her property.
“At this point, it’s really too late, the trees are already dead,” MacDonald said outside her home, where she’s lived for over 50 years. “Our home is very close to the top of the bank, erosion will gradually work its way up the bank.”
She’s concerned that her well could also become contaminated, like her neighbours, although it hasn’t yet.
MacDonald said the aboiteau needs to be fixed, the sooner the better.
“The smell was awful, especially through the summer. This is our backyard,” she said. “We don’t need this worry at this stage in our lives.”
Hants West MLA Chuck Porter said he’s glad there appears to be some momentum on getting the issue fixed.
However, any work will still need approval from a variety of provincial and federal agencies before it can move ahead.
“We’ve moved the environmental assessment ahead on this. Sometimes they can take up to six months, so we know the importance of this to this community,” he said. “DFO (the federal department of fisheries and oceans) has been involved, and they’ve given it their blessing.”
The MLA said the consultation with First Nations will conclude in a couple of weeks.
Following that, he said an approval will be sent to Schmidt to build the replacement aboiteau.
“We’re very hopeful that he will do that,” he added. “If that doesn’t happen, we have a Plan B and (Plan) C, raising the roads if need be, but more importantly, we’ve done some preliminary work on building an aboiteau of our own, away from his property, to the tune of around $8 million.”
He also said that the province has a variety of other “tools in the toolbox” they could use in its dispute with the Windsor and Hantsport Railway, but added that they’re keeping those options close to the vest while they continue through the court.
“I think we’ve made quite a bit of progress since Aug. 8,” he said.
Fish passage requested
Darren Porter, a local fisherman and proponent of leaving the Halfway River open, said he doesn’t believe the aboiteau situation will be ‘fixed’ as quickly as the government says, adding that he plans to bring forward a request to have an environmental assessment done.
“TIR (the provincial department of transportation and infrastructure renewal) is stating that DFO has already given them the go-ahead, when they haven’t even finished consultations with First Nations,” Darren Porter said. “It just doesn’t make sense; it’s 2018 and Justin Trudeau is our Prime Minister, that’s not how (this) is supposed to happen.”
Consultations with First Nations is expected to continue until the end of September.
Darren Porter also said he takes issue with government officials describing the aboiteau plan as a small repair. He describes it as a full-blown replacement – cutting off a newly flowing tidal river and salt-marsh.
“They think they’ve found a loophole where they can call it a repair to an existing structure, but there’s nothing left,” he said.
“Those trees (along the connector road) are not coming back, they’re dead. If you block off that river again, there’ll be nothing left,” he said. “That salt marsh that’s now there is coming alive. Within two years it’ll be lush and green.”
He said he anticipates “multiple groups,” including himself, to formally request an environmental assessment before anything can proceed.
West Hants councillor Paul Morton said no future public meetings will be called until something gets announced.