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Citizens protect the Valley: a history, part one

The area that used to be called Huntingdon County has long been one of the most prosperous rural jurisdictions in Quebec, blessed with forests, rivers, wild animals, flourishing farms, and land-based businesses. It has not remained beautiful by chance, but because its population fought to keep it that way.

If one tracks the histories of beautiful rivers, forests, or agricultural regions around the world, it is generally revealed that local people have fought – often every day – to protect forests and rivers from dumping, over-exploitation, and water pollution. The Chateauguay Valley has a particularly long and largely successful history of local activism that has preserved the resources we enjoy today.

The Valley’s location makes it very attractive to industries seeking to offload wastes cheaply, or to harvest resources like water. Many will recall the battle in Saint-Antoine Abbé in the early 2000s over efforts to sell access to the sweet water aquifer (the one that fills many Covey Hill residents’ wells) to an international water bottler. Test wells, drilled to reassure residents, resulted in neighbouring well levels dropping at once, further fueling citizen resistance. Very little is known about such fossil aquifers, especially considering that they take thousands of years to fill up and can collapse if over-exploited.

This fight dragged on for years, and only ended when the province of Quebec finally codified a law that essentially grants ownership of the water resource to the collective of citizens, not to any one person with access to an aquifer who could allow an outsider to pump out its contents.

A very large condo development tried to get permission to build at the very top of Covey Hill around the same time. It was ultimately stopped when citizens pointed out to the Havelock town council that there was no way such a population increase could be accommodated with sewage, water, and even road facilities. Similar controversies continue in many Valley municipalities today.

Largest tire dump on continent

In the mid-1990s, the largest and longest environmental battle in Valley history began with the huge used tire dump along Highway 201 in the area known as “The Rock.” This is a major recharge area for the Chateauguay River aquifer – the source of well water for many municipalities and farms across the area. Its porous rock lets rain trickle through, where it’s both purified and stored for people to pump out in their wells. Recently, this recharge has been capped with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of construction waste; but back in the 1990s, what was dumped on it was old tires. One of these dumps was deemed the single largest tire dump in North America.

Tires are mostly made from fossil fuels, so they are both highly flammable and long-burning. If tires catch fire, they liquify, so flaming oils could run down into the rock, destroying the aquifer, and burning for decades. Huge truckloads of tires were coming in daily, not just from Quebec but from Ontario and the U.S., which was illegal.

In 1994, there was a proposal to install a huge incinerator at the site to burn up all the tires; but this would only have vaporized the fossil-fuel chemicals and deposited them on farmland by wind and rainfall. Members of a citizens’ group opposing both the incinerator and the tire dump came from as far as Elgin and Hemmingford. Most were women, farmer’s wives; one of the most involved was Isa Lane, who, with her husband John, owned a large apple orchard on Covey Hill.

Lane and the others sought far and wide for solutions because the main reason all this was happening was that no one knew how to deal with these wastes. Lane found administrations in Europe that were heating entire cities with circular incinerator systems that burned old tires, re-burning the gases emitted over and over until nearly nothing remained. Moreover, tires were also incorporated into asphalt manufacturing for road building.

 

Millions of used tires were piled as far as the eye could see at the Béland tire dump in Franklin in 1999 The last of the tires were removed in 2012 thanks in part to years of opposition by local citizens PHOTO Gleaner archives

 

An enormous dump of 3.5 million tires caught fire in Saint Amable, Quebec in 1990, and the resulting catastrophe for land, air, and water made international news. The government started paying attention, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the very last tires were removed from the even larger dump here on Highway 201. They are now largely recycled into road asphalts.  This remarkable progress, for the province and the entire country, had its inception here.

How this victory was achieved, by regular people trying to tackle an apparently unsolvable problem caused by a vast industry, was due in large part to concerned residents organizing themselves into citizens’ groups. Such groups force municipal, county, and provincial governments to recognize voters’ concerns. They need to generate media coverage and hold regular meetings, both internal and external, with the media and the rest of the community. Since this case happened before widespread internet use, the tire group was printing out brochures and flyers to inform other citizens, meeting regularly, and even stationing themselves outside the dump, noting licences of dump trucks, photographing and tracking them. This was how they were able to prove the dump was accepting tires from far beyond the local area as claimed. The citizens were present and obvious, and it’s hard to maintain a business like toxic waste dumping if you’re under constant scrutiny by a community.

Citizens’ groups typically have just a few leaders and a core of anything from six to fifteen steady workers, as well as the ability to draw on around another forty for petitions, demonstrations, or other group efforts. That’s what’s been required to get amazing protections, for this Valley alone, on so many different issues. This history will continue in the next issue of The Gleaner, with yet more striking examples.

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