Monday, 31 October 2011

Another Potash Mine


By Phyllis Hart

Premier Alward is eager to open another potash mine near Sussex.  According to the King’s County Record (week of Oct. 11) the mayor and at least two councillors are eager for the economic spin-offs the development would bring.  This is despite the unresolved problems that have occurred in relation to the three existing potash mines in the area – Cassidy Lake, Penobsquis, and Picadilly.  The mining engineers at the mine see the flooding of the mines as the problem.  The Potash Corp. has spent a lot of money and effort to remove the water from the mines by trucking it away and building a pipeline in order to continue mining.  They have also attempted to grout the leak areas to prevent the water from entering the mines – with little success.  Meanwhile the people of Penobsquis have lost their well water.  Others have had their drinking water roiled and made undrinkable.  Some houses and other structures have shifted on their foundations and sink holes have opened up in the fields.
The people of Penobsquis have been without their well water since 2004 – some wells went dry as early as the late 90s.  For a time the Potash Corp. supplied drinking water to the residents while the government delivered utility water which was stored in tanks in their basements.  The company claims no responsibility for the loss of the well water but say they’d be willing to pay if it could be proved that the mining operations are responsible.  So far the costs have been borne by the residents.  A community water supply piped in from from several kilometers up the road is now in place but the people of Penobsquis have to pay for it, despite the loss not being their fault.  The problem of the shifting earth remains. In addition to the water woes they have the gas wells to deal with.  The people of Penobsquis and the surrounding area believe that hydrofracking is a further assault on their water, property values, soil, air, and way of life. 
The government whom we elect to look after our interests seem to be seem to be making sure the new mines and gas drilling  throughout the province proceed at all possible speed without first solving the problems  experienced by the people of Penobsquis.
The Penobsquis  group is led by Beth Nixon who herself has experienced  damage to her property – including the loss of her water and shifting of her home. All pleas to the government to force the Potash Corp to pay restoration have gone unheeded except for the appointment of a mining commission hearing being held at intervals in Sussex.
Ms Nixon and her neighbours have few resources to pay for lawyers for a drawn out hearing of this nature.  The government seems to have set itself up as a co-defendant with the Potash Corp.,   and is careful  not to accept any responsibility for the damage and  cites these projects as being vital to the economy – providing jobs, and resource income. Beth and her neighbours are just collateral damage – sacrificed for the good of the majority.
On Oct. 12 this year I attended the mining commission hearing as one of an audience of about 50.  Beth Nixon Herman Hawthorne, and Cynthia McEwen…….. were representing the group.  There were no high priced lawyers on their side of the room.  On the other side of the room were Michael Hogan and Brian Roulston. of the Potash Corp and Peter Zed representing the corporation.  The mining commissioner sat at the front in the room in the role of judge.  He asked no questions, took few notes, twiddled his foot in what looked like boredom, and nodded agreement whenever Mr. Zed objected to a question.  The witness sat with his back to the audience speaking into a microphone for recording purposes.  It was difficult for those of us behind him to hear his responses clearly.  The witnesses on the day I attended were two mining engineers who had previously or still did work at the mine.  Their job included mine inspections and making sure the mining act was followed.  It did not, they both testified under oath, include monitoring the effects of the mining operations on the people of the community.  Both of these witnesses, I might add, were not employees of the Potash Corp but the Department of Natural Resources (our government employees, paid with our tax dollars).
I was impressed by Beth Nixon and her team who were well prepared with documents and pertinent questions. They maintained their aplomb when Mr. Zed objected to some of their questions. Taking time, they carefully reworded questions as needed to get a response and calmly accepted answers that left me shaking my head.  When Mrs. Nixon asked  a witness if he had felt any responsibility for how people in the area were affected, he said that he thought the Environment Dept. was looking after that.  When asked if he ever inspected the mine at Penobsquis he said, no, that it was the responsibility of the mining company to report any “unusual events”.
Water flowing into the mine was such an unusual event.  A study was commissioned to find out if the water going into the mine was coming from community wells which were going dry.  The witness reported that the study was inconclusive so he did not read it all.  Even more distressing to me was the number of times both witnesses said they didn’t know the answer, couldn’t remember, or that they weren’t experts on the topic and couldn’t speak on it with any authority (e.g. subsidence).
The mining engineers were interested in stopping the water from flowing into the well or finding a way to get rid of it. That it might be a community’s water supply was of no interest.  That was up to the Environment Dept. It is hard for me to believe that they work for us.
If the next potash mine – one of many planned by this government  - is allowed to go ahead before concerns of the people of Penobsquis are addressed, it will be an act of a desperate government attempting to curry favour with big business instead of looking after the people of New Brunswick.  I think we can expect more collateral damage.