TRURO - Colchester County is exploring the possibility of forming a citizens' committee to oversee monitoring of the Atlantic Industrial Services (AIS) plant in Debert.
The company, which deals with the disposal of hazardous wastes, is storing 15.5 million litres of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing processes in Hants County.
The material was approved for storage by the Department of the Environment without prior notice to the municipality and AIS has applied to the county for permission to treat and discharge the material into the public sewer system.
The initial request is to dispose of 4.5 million litres of the wastewater and, if that is successful, it is expected the company would apply to also dispose of the remaining 11 million litres.
The problem, however, is that the wastewater has been identified to contain naturally occurring radioactive materials, some of which are above Health Canada's "unconditional derived release limit," a factor that has created concern for residents in the area who have also complained of air pollution issues.
"If you drive by this facility at 5:30, 6 o'clock in the morning, it can make your eyes water, it can make you start to choke up a little," said newly elected District 9 councillor Doug MacInnes. "It's not good. I don't know what it is, no one seems to know what it is. I know there's a lot of citizens who are very concerned. This may not have anything to do with fracturing water ... it may have something to do with other things coming out of the facility."
MacInnes suggested a citizens' committee be formed, similar to one that existed several decades ago, that would provide for external, ongoing monitoring at the site.
Prior to the election, the former council had instructed municipal staff to look at the county's existing bylaw regarding waste disposal, with the intent of drafting new legislation that would allow it to ban substances deemed harmful to the environment or the county's sewer treatment process.
A draft revision of the bylaw is in the works and is expected to come before council in December.
In the meantime, council passed several motions on Thursday night aimed at contacting the DoE about the possibility of establishing a process for ongoing air and water quality monitoring in the area to see whether the department would be interested in working with a citizens' committee and to also communicate with AIS to see if the company would entertain the prospect of working with such a committee.
Currently the company is not permitted to release any of the wastewater into the sewer system and could not legally do so at any rate, until it has gone through two treatment processes.
Because the material is contained in open, man-made ponds, however, MacInnes said there is real danger some of the effluent is making its way into the waterway system.
"It can't be moved (into the sewer system) but it's sitting in an open pond with an overflow drain on top of it, so every time it rains it runs into the ditch, so it's moving right now," he said.
And while council recognized that the company is legally entitled to operate and that it serves an important function, local concerns and interests have to come first, a number of councillors said.
"We all know it needs to be there but someone needs to be watching it a lot closer than what we are today," MacInnes said.
What the county is not permitted to do, however, is simply change its policy without following proper procedures outlined in the existing bylaw.
"The problem is your existing bylaws allow for this application to be made," municipal solicitor Dennis James told council.
"It was my advice to council that they have to allow the process to work and part of the process is an appeal (to council committee by any citizen who feels they may be impacted by the decision)," he said.
"It's a little convoluted. It's easy to say no. But sometimes just saying no quickly without proper process gets you into trouble."
That is because any changes to the policy deemed to be unjust could be struck down by a Nova Scotia court.