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VIBERT: Province doesn’t have Hantsport’s back

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

A natural disaster has beset Hantsport and environs and seems to serve as a cautionary tale for other Nova Scotia communities, particularly those at risk from rising sea levels.

The provincial government does not have your back. It doesn’t have Hantsport’s back.

Residents of the Hantsport and Mount Denson area in western Hants County feel all but abandoned by Stephen McNeil’s government, and they’re not even a little impressed by the high-priced bureaucrats the province sent down from Halifax to talk about their problem.

Their problem is water. For more than a year, the world’s highest tides have rushed up the Halfway River, spilling its banks, destroying land and threatening homes and other properties, including a cemetery and the local ballfields. Wells that once provided families with clean, fresh water now offer brine.

So what changed?

For all of living memory, a railway crossing almost as old as Canada served as a dam near the river’s mouth. An aboiteau built into the earth wall of the crossing allowed fresh water to flow to the sea while holding back the Bay of Fundy’s tides.

About a decade ago, the aboiteau failed, and slowly but surely the earth dam eroded until, in the fall of 2017, it gave out completely.

Now, with every tide — twice a day — huge volumes of saltwater rush up the river, flooding fields where farmers once cut hay and carving away at land once thought to be a safe distance from the river. The Riverview Cemetery is riverside twice daily, and the tidal surge may soon claim graves.

Before the railway was built in the 19th century, dykes along the river held back the salt water, but the railway dam made the dykes unnecessary, so they were not maintained. When the time came — with the full force of the bay — they provided no defence.

Residents have formed an action committee and today they plan to march to the Halfway River bridge in an effort to draw attention to their community’s plight and try to force some action from the province.

The bridge is a vital link to Windsor, about 10 kilometres away, where the nearest hospital and other critical services are situated. Hantsport residents fear erosion under the bridge abutments threaten the structure.

As for the provincial government, Hantsport’s problem is not its problem. Because the old dam was first and foremost a railway crossing, the province seems to be waiting for the American owner of the long-idle railway to pony up a solution.

The railway company — the Windsor and Hantsport Railway, which shut down with Fundy Gypsum’s mines in 2011 — did apply for a permit to make repairs to the aboiteau. But the aboiteau no longer exists.

The railway’s owner lives in Virginia, which is a better excuse than the province has for being out of touch with the damage, danger and anxiety in Hantsport.

“While the province is not taking ownership of the Windsor Hantsport Railway Company’s aboiteau, we recognize the urgency of this issue and are working co-operatively with all stakeholders, including the federal government, to come up with a resolution,” the province said in a written response to questions.

The people of Hantsport don’t feel like the province has been working co-operatively with them. In fact, some said they felt condescension when senior civil servants, including a deputy minister, came from Halifax to talk to them.

Suggestions from the provincial bureaucrats did seem to run from the absurd — “we’ll raise the roads to keep them above the rising tide water” — to the patronizing. A desperate property owner whose land is being consumed by the tide water asked what he can do, and a provincial civil servant suggested he hire a lawyer, although it was never clear for what purpose.

It’s Hantsport’s problem today, but it could be another coastal community’s tomorrow.

While no one’s suggesting the disaster in Hantsport is the result of global warming, science tells us climate change is here and rising sea levels are always among the first consequences mentioned.

At present, the province’s plan to mitigate the impact of rising seas seems no more advanced than the bureaucratic notion that the roads should be raised, presumably so Nova Scotians are high and dry as they flee their flooded homes.

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