Penobsquis/Fredericton – Beth Norrad is from Sussex and she knows it. She knows what it is like to live in Sussex, the dairy capital of New Brunswick, and how different it is from living in Sussex’s neighbouring community of Penobsquis. The quiet valley east of Sussex used to blend in with Sussex but today that is no longer the case. Gas well pads that have been fracked, pipelines, towers of PotashCorp’s mining operations, bright orange subsidence monuments and multiple warning signs of what is below the ground dot the farmers’ fields of Penobsquis.
Norrad’s first word was pony. “When I was a baby, Dad would stop by the side of the road any time we were going to Moncton so that I could see, touch and smell the McLeod’s horses. Penobsquis was my wonderland as a child,” recalls Norrad.
Today, another memory of Penobsquis haunts Norrad. The sights, sounds and smells of mining, gas flaring, grouting stations and truck traffic weigh heavily on her. Once it was gentle horses that brought Norrad and the McLeod family together, now it is a harsh battle for justice for a long list of impacts they say are caused by potash mining, including the loss of 60 water wells, plunging property values, the sinking of land that is damaging their homes, dust, noise and light pollution, and stress.
After spending most of her life with horses and teaching children how to ride them in Toronto, Norrad returned to New Brunswick in 2003 to take care of her ailing mother and to heal from a painful back injury. She didn’t know that her plan for healing would turn into what she calls a living hell.
Norrad and her sister bought a bungalow in Penobsquis in 2007 when her mother died. The house had been without water for three years but Norrad was reassured multiple times by a government official that the water would be flowing again through the taps of the house in no more than six weeks. Six weeks came and went and there was still no running water. There was no running water in the house for the next two and a half years.
“My sister and I took every cent we had and paid cash for the house, trusting we would be getting all but the usual down payment back when the mortgage was in place six weeks later. But no bank will give a mortgage on a house with no water,” says Norrad. The sisters soon discovered that the government had been promising the return of running water to several Penobsquis homes for years. “Just ask the other residents how many times they heard, ‘you’ll have water by the spring, you’ll have water this summer, you’ll have water by the fall,’ and of course they believed their government, the first several times. Then it became a joke, ‘yeah, what year will we have water again? We were devastated when we realized that we had been deceived by our own government,'” remarks Norrad.
The company that stands accused of drying up Norrad and her neighbour’s well water is PotashCorp, a Saskatchewan-based multinational corporation that made a record $3.5 billion cash from its operations last year. PotashCorp calls itself an integrated fertilizer company that is “Helping Nature Provide.” The company claims that it is part of the global food solution.
PotashCorp has launched a massive PR campaign that is hard to miss if one reads the newspapers or watches television or Youtube. The campaign includes a $1 million donation to a new swimming pool complex in Sussex that was formerly called Fundy Civic Centre but will now be called PotashCorp Civic Centre. Penobsquis residents feel like they are getting the shaft while Sussex benefits from these corporate donations that some call “shut-up money.” PotashCorp’s operations are not only controversial in New Brunswick. In 2011, the Government Pension Fund of Norway delisted PotashCorp for unethical operations in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.
Rural New Brunswick is not immune to the perverse logic of capitalism, the profit-driven private ownership of the means of production. PotashCorp and Corridor Resources were able to mine, drill and pipe over farmers’ lands in Penobsquis without a contingency plan or requirements for compensation in case things went wrong. Instead, PotashCorp has spent money on a lavish PR campaign that boasts the company’s practice of feeding the world’s growing population. PotashCorp is able to minimize consequences and risks for itself while offloading the environmental and social costs of their business onto society.
Penobsquis residents now have to pay for water from a system installed with mostly public funds. PotashCorp only paid approximately 10% of the more than $10 million cost of installation. The residents had suggested that the 60 homes that had lost their water be put on cisterns, which would have cost about $10,000 a home; a total of $600,000 for all 60 homes as opposed to the $10 million system. However, the largely public-funded multi-million dollar system also feeds water to PotashCorp’s operations. About 50% of the water from the new system is used by commercial clients, mostly PotashCorp, while the other half of the water supply goes to residences.
Penobsquis residents blame the government of New Brunswick as much as they blame the companies, if not more, because they feel that the government was supposed to protect them from corporate interests. At an open house on shale gas in 2011, then Environment Minister, Margaret-Ann Blaney said, “you people in Penobsquis are just so angry,” to Penobsquis resident Chris Bell who lost her well water in 2006. Bell says she and the residents of Penobsquis have a right to be angry. Penobsquis residents blame the loss of water, sinkholes and land subsidence (shifting of the land) on potash mining that is extracting an average of 11 million litres of groundwater from the aquifer every day. The McLeod sisters, whose family have grown crops and raised livestock for seven generations in Penbosquis, are too scared to drive a tractor in their fields after finding a sinkhole the size of a small car in one of their hayfields. There will not be a eighth generation of McLeod’s farming in Penobsquis.
The corporate media and state-owned CBC went into frenzy over talk of a corporate takeover of PotashCorp, a Canadian corporation, by a foreign corporation in 2010. Meanwhile, accusations of PotashCorp’s harms to the people of Penobsquis garnered far less media attention. Although CBC New Brunswick’s Susan King has covered the hearings, it has mostly fallen to independent media sources like the NB Media Co-op and the Purple Violet Press to inform New Brunswickers of the situation in Penobsquis. In 2010, a student reporter at St. Thomas University, Jamie Ross, won a student journalism award for his investigative piece on Penobsquis. Rob Turgeon, a local filmmaker, made a short documentary about Penobsquis called Be…Without Water in 2011; the title of the film pokes fun at the message found on New Brunswick’s license plates, Be…In This Place. Alec Bruce in Atlantic Business Magazine reported on October 31, 2011, that, “Testimony before the province’s Public Accounts committee last week suggested that the total cost to develop the slogan (which the Tory government unceremoniously dumped earlier this year) may have exceeded $1 million, roughly four times the original $230,000 budget.”
The hearings before the Mining Commissioner, which started in the spring of 2011, are ongoing in Sussex. In what has been called the theatre of the absurd, the hearings are a place where one witnesses farmers and workers being forced to spend countless hours of their time and tens of thousands of dollars in an attempt to obtain some compensation and justice for the wrongs committed against them. They hope that their struggle will lead to other communities not having to endure the same fate. Exploration permits for shale gas and minerals are found across the province of New Brunswick.
Norrad says the good days are finally catching up with the bad. Quispamsis (a 15-minute drive from Hampton, where Norrad is currently staying until she figures out where life will take her next), passed a moratorium against shale gas on June 20th. Norrad describes the drive into Hampton in contrast to Penobsquis: “I pass about 20 No Shale Gas signs. I need to watch for joggers and dog walkers instead of water trucks and heavy equipment. I can hear birds from my open windows instead of the grouting station, and the air in Hampton smells like spring, not burning plastic.”