Residents fear the effects of increased quarry activity on Elmvale’s groundwater, considered the cleanest in the world

Bonnie Pauzé carefully lines up small mason jars full of water on the porch of her farm near Elmvale, Ontario. She has collected dozens of them at regular intervals for over a decade. The water in some is clear, in others less. Pauzé lifts a jar and shows dirty black sediments, another contains a layer of silt which has settled at the bottom. She shakes it and the water turns cloudy.

“It’s kind of my own little clinical study that reminds me of when I lose heart and lose hope,” she said. “I look at the work that has been done and I look at the water and I’m like, ‘Oh, you know what? You have to keep going.'”

Pauzé says she started noticing changes in her well water when a nearby quarry, now operated by CRH Canada’s Dufferin Aggregates division, began drawing millions of liters of groundwater almost every hour. days to wash the gravel in 2009.

The quarry is located at the north end of French’s Hill, a groundwater recharge area where precipitation penetrates the soil and replenishes the regional water flow system.

The owners of at least a dozen wells located downstream of the Teedon Pit and its aggregate washing operations have complained about changes in their water, and they suspect that the wash water is leaking into the system. underlying groundwater flow.

Pauzé and his family have lived on their farm below for almost 30 years. She says that until the aggregate washing operations intensified, the water in her well was always crystal clear. Now it’s unpredictable.

Pauzé has regularly been collecting water jars from its wells for several years to show the evolution of silt levels. (Brenda Witmer / CBC)

Pauzé has been on its ninth washing machine since 2010. Even though it has a filtration system, silt seeps in and any device with a pump becomes so clogged that it stops working.

During some times the water was so cloudy that she bought bottled water to drink. Eventually, she had to get rid of her cattle because they often refused to drink the water.

Over the years, Pauzé has complained several times to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. He investigated in 2015 and found no evidence that quarry operations had an impact on local water quality, a claim he maintains today.

The ministry concludes that the problems are caused by faulty construction or poor maintenance of the wells. Dufferin cites the ministry’s findings in its reports which conclude that its overall activities do not affect residents’ well water.

Pauzé shows the silt that has accumulated at the bottom of a drinking trough for his animals, which is fed by one of his wells. (Ousama Farag / CBC)

The explanation for the failed well was disputed by an expert hired by Bonnie in 2015. In his reports, independent environmental consultant Wilf Ruland wrote: “If there was a problem with the construction of the wells, then it would be a problem. permanent. It wouldn’t be something that was episodic. “

The report added: “The time when the problems develop (both wells provide excellent water until 2009, then both wells have had episodic silt issues since) is also very unlikely to have occurred. produced by chance. “

Pauzé is convinced that the water table is in danger.

“We have to protect him. He’s the canary in the coal mine.”

The purest water in Canada

Elmvale is an area of ​​artesian wells, where water frequently comes out of the ground under its own pressure.

And that’s a source of pride.

A water kiosk housing an artesian well near the city center attracts people every day who come to fill cans with water so clean that there is even an annual water festival to celebrate it. And although there is no indication that the water is unsuitable for drinking, the fear is that its source is threatened.

Mike Powell, assistant professor in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, is one of a group of scientists who have studied water in Elmvale for decades. Powell says an extraordinary aquifer, an underground rock formation laden with water, produces what scientists consider to be the purest water in the world.

“This water has been determined to be the cleanest water ever described on the surface of the Earth,” said Powell. “The only water in which we cannot find any human footprint. No organic pollutants, no chlorides, no phosphates, no pesticides and herbicides.”

Powell is currently preparing a new study to determine what makes Elmvale water so clean. Based in London, Ontario, he was recently in Elmvale collecting water samples from nearly 30 locations, including the Pauzé farm. He and his team also dug trenches to examine layers of rock and sediment that act as a natural filtration system.

“To understand this natural algorithm of why this water hitting the surface of the ground bubbles through the soils, travels along the glacial sediments, and then emerges out into the valley as pure water, it’s going to take a long time. science. Lots of different kinds of science, ”said Powell.

Mike Powell is one of a group of scientists who have studied Elmvale water for decades and identified it as the cleanest water known on Earth. (Brenda Witmer / CBC)

Powell’s study is expected to take five years and could reveal whether quarry operations are impacting groundwater.

At least a dozen local wells have experienced problems – some homeowners say they have noticed changes in their water levels as well as problems with siltation – and the concern is that more wells could be affected. The province recently renewed the quarry’s 10-year water withdrawal license to continue washing aggregate, allowing it to withdraw an additional one million liters of water during the 210 days of operation each year.

That’s why a residents’ association, the Federation of Tiny Township Shoreline Associations (FoTTSA) and the township are appealing the province’s decision to renew the permit. The appeal is before the Land Tribunal of Ontario, an independent adjudication tribunal that holds hearings on land use and environmental issues in the province.

Another place where Powell’s team collected water and soil samples is the farm owned by Anne Nahuis. Nahuis has been an archivist and advocate for groundwater protection for years. She rummages through one of the many boxes full of documents and reports that recount a long and complex search for answers and responsibilities.

Nahuis says for many it is a battle for livelihoods and inheritance.

“We are in the farming community and I want my kids to build a farm in the area,” Nahuis said. “It’s a bread store. Clean water is so important. Will that also affect groundwater levels? We know it does. It already does.”

Anne Nahuis owns a farm in the Elmvale area and is a strong advocate for groundwater protection. (Ousama Farag / CBC)

These concerns are escalating as career operations are poised to expand.

The Sargeant company is not yet exploiting its new quarry in the region, but has clear-cut land in preparation.

In a statement to CBC News, the company said that in an effort to allay the concerns of local residents, “rather than proposing a well drilled into the pristine aquifer, we proposed to dig a surface pond to collect the water. rainwater and shallow groundwater, identical to ponds used for agriculture throughout the region.

When contacted for comment, Dufferin Aggregates also responded in a statement saying she takes pride in being a responsible steward of the natural environment in the communities in which it operates across Ontario, ” including minimizing water consumption through reduction, reuse and recycling measures where possible. The company added that its operations comply with all legal and environmental requirements.

These requirements, according to the province, reflect stronger legislation to protect natural water resources. The Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry says this includes a more robust application process for requests from existing sites to extract aggregate below the water table.

But Powell says that until more is known about Elmvale’s extraordinary groundwater system, the risk remains unknown.

“There is a claim that these operations will not alter the quality or quantity of the water. We will do the first such study to show whether this is true or not.”

There is a claim that these operations will not alter the quality or quantity of water. We are going to do the first such study to show whether this is true or not.-Mike Powell

Powell says he understands the demand for aggregates is huge to build critical infrastructure like roads and highways. Ideally, he says he would like to join forces with the aggregate industry and the province to protect the water ecosystem and learn from it.

“We are not against taking aggregates and we are not against developing infrastructure,” said Powell. “We say it’s a unique place on the face of the Earth as far as we know. And once it’s gone it’s gone. It should be seen as a model of what the real one can be. water quality, and not destroyed. It doesn’t make sense, not for a few gravel trucks. “

Farmers, scientists and indigenous rights advocates have formed a coalition of water advocates that includes Beth Brass Elson, a member of the Beausoleil First Nation. Elson camped to protest a proposed landfill project in the community in 2009 and says she is ready to fight for water again.

“I consider myself to be an Indigenous woman who was put here on this Earth at that time to do this kind of work,” Elson said.

Elson adds that the struggle of yesterday and today is to put a natural source of clean water before industry.

“They wash the gravel with the purest water. And yet they [the government] can’t even take care of our First Nations in the North who don’t have clean drinking water, ”Elson said, shaking his head. ” Nothing make sense anymore. We have to push the boundaries. “

Beausoleil First Nation member Beth Brass Elson says Elmvale’s groundwater problem is putting a natural source of clean water ahead of industry. (Brenda Witmer / CBC)

Back at the Pauzé farm, the struggle over the years has taken its toll on his finances and his health. Holding back tears, she says that many days are like a test of faith.

“We were fortunate to have wonderful water to drink. And if we lose the quality of our water for industry, I am very disappointed with humanity. The facts are there. You know, we have to slow down and we have to protect this water for future generations. We should celebrate it, not fight to protect it. “

Sighing deeply, she adds, “I keep fetching my water and I keep hoping.”

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