People living along the Hammond River near Saint John are worried about how a proposed gypsum quarry will affect their wells, wetlands and quality of life. The project contravenes regulations designed to protect the environment and local residents from this kind of disruption.
Hammond River Holdings, a J.D. Irving company, plans to extract an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of gypsum, metres away from the Hammond River in the rural community of Upham, over a 10-year period, beginning this spring. The gypsum will be transported to the nearby Atlantic Wallboard plant, also owned by J.D. Irving, for processing. Atlantic Wallboard manufactures drywall used by the construction industry.
According to the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which has yet to be approved by the province of New Brunswick, the proposed quarry will destroy 13 wetlands and three fish-bearing tributaries of the Hammond River. The Hammond River is home to Atlantic salmon, brook trout, smallmouth bass, rainbow smelt, striped bass and shortnose sturgeon.
Cheryl Johnson is one of many Upham residents concerned about how the quarry will affect her country lifestyle. “I love life in the backwoods. We have a large garden where we grow much of our produce. We hunt and fish from the land,” says Johnson, a music teacher and member of Friends of Hammond River.
“J.D. Irving has bought several chunks of land downriver from us and has proposed a large industrial gypsum mine. There would be 25 explosions per year to loosen the rock, 35-40 trucks traveling the roads per day, and 6-10 jobs created on site that would be hired from within the company,” according to Johnson.
Sarah Blenis, another Upham resident, found out about the project when she witnessed core drilling operations in her area in the spring of 2018. She created the Facebook group, Protect Upham Mountain, to share information about the project.
Residents such as Blenis are concerned by how the province is flip-flopping on the definition of the proposed project: is it a quarry or a mine? The EIA designates the project as a quarry but the province says it’s a mine. The lack of clarification seems designed deliberately to avoid the province’s local development regulations.
“The community has been told that the project will be a quarry, not a mine. As a quarry, the project must follow the Quarry Siting Standards, prohibiting operations within 600 metres of residential wells. There are multiple homes within 600 metres, some as close as 250 metres to the proposed quarry,” argues Blenis.
Jenn Sherwood’s father’s home is about 500 metres from the proposed blasting zone for the quarry. “Everyday my father is out on this land, taking care of his animals and garden, and hunting. We live off the land here,” says Sherwood.
“I have planned my whole life around building my forever home in Upham. I have been saving to start to build my home this spring and now I have had to stop because of how close it will be. I will now have to look to buy elsewhere because it will disrupt my water and foundation. This is something I can’t risk. I have planned my whole life to raise my children where my ancestors have all lived and now cannot. I am very angry with Irving,” says Sherwood who was planning to build a home that is about 150 metres from the proposed quarry site.
Blenis notes that the province’s quarry standards also prohibit operations within 60 metres of watercourses and regulated wetlands. “These setback limits are also being ignored,” says Blenis.
“When the community questioned these violations of Quarry Standards, residents were told by the government that the project will be subjected to the Mining Act, not the Quarry Standards, because of how the gypsum will be used off-site,” explains Blenis, “When we asked about the regulations under the Mining Act, like royalties, we were informed by the Minister of Natural Resources and Energy, Mike Holland, that gypsum is a low-value mineral, and that royalties are not imposed on quarry operations.”
Upham residents like Blenis are questioning whether the province’s lack of clarity on whether the project is a quarry or mine has to do with the province’s reneging of a contract to supply Atlantic Wallboard with gypsum.
The J.D. Irving company was supposed to receive synthetic gypsum from NB Power’s Coleson Cove Generating Station in Saint John until 2020. Last year, the province announced that the power plant would not be able to fulfill the contract and supply the plant with gypsum. With the province now owing millions of dollars to Atlantic Wallboard in shortfall penalties, Blenis suspects that the province will give the Upham quarry the green light and not charge royalties. CBC reported in 2015 that in the previous six years NB Power had paid Atlantic Wallboard more than $12.3 million in penalties and contract renegotiation fees.
Similar concerns regarding the environmental harm and lack of economic benefit of quarry operations have been raised throughout the province by residents in Fredericton, Norton, Bayside, Memramcook, Estey’s Bridge, and British Settlement.
“The Upham quarry project is not adhering to any setback limits to protect the environment or local community. It will not bring in royalties; it is not planning to do any revenue sharing with First Nations. What is the benefit to the environment, First Nations, the local community, or the province? This proposed project, if approved, will only benefit J.D. Irving,” states Blenis who believes that recycling of construction waste offers a more responsible source for gypsum.
J.D. Irving is the province’s largest forestry player and has significant holdings in numerous sectors including agriculture, food, construction, consumer products such as toilet and tissue paper, retail, shipbuilding and transportation.
Besides receiving provincial government support, J.D. Irving has also benefited from the Canadian government’s lax taxation schemes and funding programs.
In 2018, the Canadian Press revealed that the federal government agency, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) quietly gave Atlantic Wallboard more than $40 million in funds that were ‘conditionally repayable’ or what critics call subsidies or handouts. From documents obtained through an access-to-information request by the Canadian Press, the company has repaid only 1.3 per cent of the loan, about half a million dollars.
The power and influence of the Irving group of companies often leaves opponents to their projects feeling disempowered. For Johnson, the J.D. Irving open house about the gypsum quarry was unnerving. “A J.D. Irving employee videotaped me with his phone three times without asking. Twice I asked him to stop because he was making me feel uncomfortable, and he refused. I felt bullied, belittled, and intimidated in my own community by this outside company. I was given the impression that this project was a done deal and there was nothing that could be done to change that,” recounts Johnson.
“I am not opposed to industrial development and economic growth. I am opposed to large companies coming in, literally proposing to bulldoze our neighborhood, and doing it with disrespect and an arrogant smirk,” says Johnson.
The Upham quarry project is not the first controversial J.D. Irving quarry or mine in the province. A quarry owned by J.D. Irving that operates in Memramcook was the subject of opposition by local residents in 2006.
The province’s lack of clarity on the Upham project as well as its apparent willingness to bend the rules for the company contrasts with the government in the neighbouring U.S. state of Maine, where J.D. Irving also has significant business operations. Despite J.D. Irving’s efforts to weaken Maine’s mining rules to allow it to blast an open-pit mine on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County, state senators approved the banning of open-pit mining and wastewater impoundments in the state in 2017, effectively stopping the project.
Both Hammond River Holdings and Environment Minister Jeff Carr did not respond to a request to comment on this story within the three-day deadline given by NB Media Co-op.
Update: The NB Media Co-op received a response from an unnamed person at Hammond Rivers Holdings following the publication of this story. The company confirmed that the project is subject to the Mining Act and the Environmental Impact Assessment process and if approved, the company plans to “mitigate potential impacts to residential wells to which we will be held accountable.”
With files from Sarah Blenis.
Tracy Glynn writes for the NB Media Co-op and is a doctoral researcher with RAVEN – Rural Action and Voices for the Environment.