Sewage is leaking into the ground beneath Heather McCabe’s home in rural Penobsquis. McCabe has made several costly repairs to her septic lines to no avail. She sprays Javex underneath her home to avoid getting sick from the bacteria in the sewage and sleeps in her dining room because her bedroom walls are bowing. She worries that her home is not safe for her 79-year-old mother, who lives with her. McCabe blames PotashCorp, a Saskatchewan-based multinational mining company, for her house of nightmares.
“My mom and I purchased this home together. It was to be our haven, a place for her to enjoy her senior years, and a place for us to continue to operate and perhaps expand our Sanctuary for Special Needs Pets. Now it has become our nightmare. My mom spent her 79th birthday helping me spray Javex under the house. What child wants to watch their parent live like this? We have nowhere to go. Everything we had went into purchasing this property,” says McCabe. About a year after buying the home in 2003, McCabe began noticing the skirting boards of the house were sinking into the ground. Then in 2007 she lost her well water and in 2010 her roof began buckling. McCabe blames land subsidence caused by the mining operations for the damage to her home.
McCabe is not alone in her problems. Sixty homes in Penobsquis, situated directly above the potash mine workings, have lost their well water since 2004. Many of the wells failed immediately following seismic blasting at the mining operations, which extracts an average of 11 million litres of groundwater from the Penobsquis aquifer each day.
McCabe is also not alone in placing the blame for her damaged home on PotashCorps’s mining operation. In 2004, a group of Penobsquis residents having problems with the mining operation formed Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis. The group was advised by lawyers to try a rarely used mechanism, taking its grievances with PotashCorp’s operations to the province’s Mining Commissioner instead of taking the company to court. The New Brunswick Mining Act directs those experiencing damages related to mining to file their complaints with the Mining Commissioner.
Last week, on September 10th, 21 of the 24 Penobsquis residents who had filed complaints with the Mining Commissioner withdrew their complaints and cases for financial compensation. Beth Nixon, a spokesperson for the Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis, says, “None of us, including those who withdrew our case, feel that our quest for justice is over.” Heather McCabe, her mother, and former Penobsquis resident Beth Norrad did not withdraw their complaints. McCabe and Norrad are scheduled to testify when closing arguments are heard on October 1st. “Please do not think this is done,” McCabe says. “Those of us still fighting are very much in need of your support. What is happening to us could be happening to anyone in this province and our fight continues so that no one else ever has to go through what we are.”
The Mining Commissioner Hearings have dragged on for over two-and-a-half years. The residents have largely been representing themselves. Because the burden of proof rests upon them to prove their grievances are linked to the mine, residents have faced the challenge of finding experts who do not have a conflict of interest or some connection to PotashCorp. In such a small province, this has proven difficult. The Mining Commissioner has turned down the group’s repeated requests for him to fund independent third party advice.
“No group of regular New Brunswickers should be forced to face damage at the hands of a large corporation, with no way to source the required legal counsel, expert witnesses, or even a copy of the transcript of the proceedings,” says Nixon.
The Concerned Citizens of Penobsquis are calling on the Alward government to release the hearings’ transcripts to the public. The cost of the transcripts, which is about $10,000, has made it impossible for the group to obtain a copy for its own use.
McCabe believes she has no other choice but to stick with the hearings even though she acknowledges the hearing process is deeply flawed. “It’s the only process in place. We know the facts are on our side. During the hearings, the mine experts admitted under cross examination that none of the studies they used to determine potential damage to buildings were on structures without full foundations. Basically, they have no idea how much movement a home on sonotubes like mine can withstand,” says McCabe.
Most of the Penobsquis claimants settled with PotashCorp over grievances related to lost well water in June. The focus of the hearings this past summer then turned to land subsidence. PotashCorp agreed to compensate residents for their previous and future water costs, which amount to $360 in annual fees. However, new homeowners or those inheriting homes in Penobsquis will have to pay for their water as the compensation in the agreement extends only to those with current title to properties. Since losing their water, Penobsquis residents were paying for water from a system installed with mostly public funds. PotashCorp only paid approximately 10% of the more than $10 million cost of installation. About 50% of the water from the new largely publicly-financed system is used by commercial clients, mostly PotashCorp, while the other half of the water supply goes to residences.
The eight years of struggle for justice in Penobsquis have taken their toll on the people. McCabe says, “We live in a constant state of stress which wears the body and mind down to the breaking point. You lose faith in humanity and you lose hope as you watch your dreams shrivel and die.”
McCabe, Nixon and others in Penobsquis take comfort in the hope that their struggle will mean other communities will not have to endure the same fate. Exploration permits for minerals and shale gas are found across the province of New Brunswick. Many people from across the province who first became active against shale gas in their backyards have gathered at the hearings to show their support for McCabe and the people of Penobsquis. Shale gas protesters refer to Penobsquis in their responses countering government’s assurances that they can regulate the mining and gas industry.
“My mother and I are only asking to have our home moved to safe land away from this area. We are not asking for the moon, just a safe place to live. Is that really so unreasonable? Is there anyone in this province who wouldn’t want to see their mom live out her years with dignity? My heart breaks every day to see what this is doing to her,” says McCabe.
Tracy Glynn is a writer and editor with the NB Media Co-op.