For almost 30 years, residents in the small and picturesque farming community of Penobsquis, just outside of Sussex, have been struggling to peacefully coexist with large industrial neighbours. Along with a population of about 1,500 people, Penobsquis is home to Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (PotashCorp) and Corridor Resources, a junior oil and gas company. The community’s struggle intensified into a battle seven years ago when some residents in the area started noticing that their private wells and springs were drying up. Shortly after water began flooding the potash mine and PotashCorp and Corridor Resources completed rounds of seismic testing, about 60 homes in the area lost their drinking water supply. For five years, from 2004 to 2009, about 200 people were supplied bottled water by PotashCorp, and 150 people were supplied with tanks and trucked water by the provincial government, with taxpayers’ money, while they fought and waited for a new community water system.
Affected members of the community believe that it is ultimately the inflow of 1,300 gallons of water per minute, and its subsequent removal by pipeline and trucking, that has resulted in the loss of their well water; the subsidence (the sinking of land and buildings) that is now affecting their homes; and the stress and grief they endure everyday.
After years of failed communications with government and PotashCorp, the residents of Penobsquis are now taking on the industry in a legal battle resembling the one portrayed in the movie Erin Brockovich. In the coming weeks, 26 complainants, forming the group Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis, will appear in front of the Mining Commissionner, a quasi-judicial avenue for resolving issues arising from mining activities in New Brunswick.
The hearing will be the largest in the history of the province; the appointed Mining Commissioner, Roger Duguay, stated at the November pre-hearing that he has never before seen a case of this magnitude.
In true David versus Goliath fashion, the citizens will attempt to prove PotashCorp’s responsibility and seek damages for water loss, property subsidence, suffering as a result of dust, noise and light pollution, lost property values, and stress.
The injustice of it all is that the burden of proof and the costs associated with it, rests with the people who are just trying to live their lives. While the residents feel that the provincial government and PotashCorp have all the information needed to prove their suffering, the lawyer for the PotashCorp has challenged them to “prove it”. At the pre-hearing, he leaned toward the complainants’ lawyer from the New Brunswick Environmental Law Society, and reminded him that PotashCorp only needs to provide evidence to refute the case. “Our response is that there is no causal evidence”, he continued, and that PotashCorp “is under no legal obligation to prove anything”.
Though the Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis are fighting for their community, there is also an altruistic motive to their legal action. As New Brunswick faces more mining, oil and gas exploration, the group doesn’t want to see what happened to their homes, happen elsewhere. Beth Nixon, spokesperson for the group, and a resident of Penobsquis, feels strongly that “mining interests or big corporations should not be allowed to come to a community, create irreversible damage, and have residents bear the cost of that damage.” She feels that the outcome of this hearing will set a precedent for the future standards for industrial responsibility in other rural communities.
This case is especially timely as 1.5 million hectares of land throughout the province is now allocated for shale gas exploration, an industry plagued with accusations of water, land and air contamination throughout North America.
Nixon says “it doesn’t matter if it’s potash or it’s natural gas — it’s big industry — and they can’t be allowed to move in and ruin our lives. If they aren’t held accountable here in Penobsquis, they won’t be held accountable anywhere else, and we want other New Brunswickers to know that, and be prepared.”
The hearing with the Mining Commissioner will be held in Sussex, at the Four Seasons Inn, during the weeks of March 14 and March 28th, beginning at 9am daily. The hearing is open to the public and attendance in support of the residents of Penobsquis will be needed.
A new website has been created in order to garner support for the Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis leading up to the hearing. Visit www.penobsquis.ca to learn more about their struggles and how you can support their efforts.