Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Despite recent findings by Grade 7 students at South Queens Middle School indicating the fecal bacteria level in the Mersey River far exceeds recommended levels, Region of Queens Municipality (RQM) Mayor Darlene Norman doesn't think it's much of an issue.
"I grew up on that river, and we swam in it, and I'm going to continue to swim there," she said. "I was talking to an acquaintance the other day, the water flows past their house and they intend on continuing to swim in it."
According to the mayor, the quality of the water has improved significantly over the past 20 years, with many homes being hooked up to treatment facilities.
"This region has been working hard since amalgamation, extending the water and sewer through Brooklyn and Milton and correcting antiquated sewer issues in the former Town of Liverpool," said Norman.
The students have been testing six different sites along the river since last fall as part of a school project.
Enterococci bacteria numbers at the sites have reached up to 758 enterococci to 100 millilitres of water. Under Health Canada regulations, it's not advisable to swim in waters where there is 70 enterococci to 100 ml recorded. And at 170 enterococci/100 ml, the water should not touch the skin.
Students have pleaded their case that action needs to be taken to RQM council a couple of times. They have written letters to MLA Kim Masland, Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard Minister and MP Bernadette Jordan, as well as to the provincial Minister of the Environment Gordon Wilson.
Norman maintained that most of the testing was done along the edges of the water, and suggested that the levels of bacteria the students found could probably be found on most lakes and rivers.
"It doesn't necessarily point to humans. A lot of that bacteria comes from ducks and geese and other animals," the mayor told LighthouseNOW in a phone interview. "It could be historic and sediments are just getting stirred up at a time and shifting. All the money in the world is not going to fix that."
Norman added that if Nova Scotia's Department of Environment brought it to their attention that there were a large number of inadequate septic beds and straight pipes, perhaps then the region would consider looking at some type of funding proposal.
However, when the school's Grade 7 first brought their findings to RQM council at its meeting on December 22, 2020, the mayor had congratulated the presenters and their class for their efforts and bringing the issue to the council's attention. She encouraged them to "keep at it and keep asking questions."
At the time the mayor advised that cleaning up the Mersey River is a big, expensive task. "There is a way to fix it, and it is simply called spending millions and millions of dollars. But we are working towards that goal," the mayor said.
Federal minister weighs in on the issue
Canada's Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Bernadette Jordan, who is the MP for South Shore-St. Margaret's, met with the students via a Zoom conference recently to discuss the issue.
Jordan told the students on March 1 that any clean-up project would have to begin at the municipal level.
"The challenge, of course, is this is very expensive to clean up. That's not an excuse, because we have to do it, but we have to make sure we are working together to do it," Jordan advised at the time. "We will reach out to the municipality and we'll tell them that we had this meeting to see if there is anything that they want to do."
The minister said it was necessary to bring all three levels of government together to make a project of that scale successful.
LighthouseNOW subsequently reached out to Jordan for an interview to discuss whether she or the department had been in touch with the municipality since then. Instead of the interview, the newspaper received an emailed statement from Jane Deeks, Jordan's parliamentary secretary.
"Minister Jordan appreciated the opportunity to hear from students at South Queens Middle School about their concerns for the Mersey River. She is inspired by their determination to improve water quality and protect our river ecosystems," wrote Deeks.
"As Stella Bowles demonstrated through the LaHave River cleanup project, determined, young people can enact positive, environmental change. Stella's advocacy led to collaboration and investment from all levels of government, and Minister Jordan similarly looks forward to working with her counterparts to find a solution to the Mersey River."
Norman confirmed her staff has been in communication with Jordan's office about rectifying the Waterloo Street sewer outfall.
In January 2019, the region applied for federal and provincial government funding to remove sewage from two outfalls in Liverpool Bay, including at the Waterloo Street location. The application was under the Green Environment Quality Stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure program. The proposed projects came at a cost of almost $4.5 million plus HST.
The funding was rejected, and the municipality took on some of the project itself using municipal funds. However, the work on Waterloo Street was not completed at that time.
A second application for funding has been put forward recently to complete the project, at a cost of about $3.5 million.
"She (Jordan) had mentioned to us that she just wanted to keep in touch about our funding proposal and wanted to be alerted to when we place it again," said Norman. "Our communication was with her and the province, is that when that green infrastructure funding opens back up that they consider the projects that were denied to go to the top as a priority."
Norman added that a municipality correcting an outfall "is a priority and should be a priority for this province."
Shanna Fredericks, assistant director of the not-for-profit environmental group, Coastal Action, recently accompanied the students' teacher, Jill Leuschner, to do some parallel testing of the testing sites.
"There's always some variability, because they are using two different analysis methods, but they were all quite similar and well-aligned," she said in an interview with LighthouseNOW. "Both the kit and lab results showed extremely high bacteria levels at their Site 1, which is at Waterloo Street, where there is a known straight pipe allowing sewage to come from neighbourhood homes."
She said further along the river students have found contamination exceeding recreational guidelines as well, but it is difficult to say if it is the result of human sewage specifically.
"Bacteria can come from so many different sources, and it's also very closely tied to rainfall. So depending on whether they are sampling after a few days of drought, or a few days of rainfall, that can have a huge impact on their results as well," said Fredericks of the students' results.
She said it is up to the individual person whether they feel comfortable using the water recreationally or not.
"If you are not swimming at a designated swimming area, a place with a lifeguard, then it's likely not an area that is being tested on a regular basis for bacteria, so you are using it at your own risk," she opined.
Nonetheless, Fredericks supports the students in their efforts and hopes they will continue.
Nova Scotia Environment reacts
Barbara MacLean, a spokeswoman for Nova Scotia's Department of Environment, commented in an email that the government "is aware of the ongoing work at Mersey River and commends the students from South Queens Middle School for their environmental action."
However, she noted that although the enterococci levels reported by the students "are above Health Canada Guidelines for recreational water quality, there is currently no evidence of onsite sewage system failure along the river."
As for the students' teacher, Leuschner commended the students' commitment to the project and their ongoing efforts in testing the river.
"We appreciate the efforts the municipality has made to connect neighbourhood pipes to our wastewater treatment facility in recent years," she said through social media messaging. "Hopefully, the provincial government will agree to provide funding to complete the project on Waterloo Street so there is no longer sewage being released into the water from that location."
She continued by saying the Mersey River is an integral part of the region's tourism industry and, since many residents also swim in the river, it's in the council's best interest to explore various water monitoring programs that other municipalities are involved in, such as Lunenburg and Chester.
"If these areas are implementing such programs, why can't we do the same for the Mersey?" asked Leuschner. "Then perhaps we would be in a better position to decide whether we want to swim in it."