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UPDATE: Protecting the Wakefield Spring

Since early-2010, residents of Wakefield, a scenic town situated on the Gatineau River in western Quebec just north of Ottawa, have been raising concerns about the Harper government-economic stimulus fund financed expansion of the two-lane Highway 105 into the four-lane Highway 5.

The primary concern expressed by people in the area has been about the impact of the highway construction on their local water, specifically the Wakefield Spring, a source of free and fresh drinking water that flows from a modest set of taps under a road-side shelter on Valley Drive as you enter the town. These two taps provide clean drinking water to more than 5,000 people in the area.

Last January-February, the community also mobilized to stop the cutting down of a 300 year old white pine tree within the boundaries of Gatineau Park, but in the path of this new highway. On March 1, despite the efforts of tree sitters who had occupied her branches in sub-zero weather, the tree – 100 feet in height and 19 feet in circumference – was cut down. With the loss of the ‘Mother Tree’ and the devastating visual that reveals to even the casual observer the path of clear-cutting and rock-blasting in the area to make way for the highway, the situation is grim.

The situation worsened in May when it became clear that Couillard Construction, the company hired to construct the highway, had begun extracting sand and dumping clay in the nearby Rockhurst Road sandpit, located just 900 metres from the Wakefield Spring taps. This is taking place despite both a Natural Resources Canada report and a Transport Canada Environmental Assessment Report that have identified this sandpit as the source of the Wakefield Spring and the filtration medium of the spring water.

The construction company simply claims they own the sandpit and therefore have the grandfathered right to remove the sand and dump the clay (this despite numerous other less-threatening places to extract sand for the highway work in the area).

The Quebec Ministry of the Environment (Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs/ MDDEP) disagrees with these actions enough to say a work permit hasn’t been authorized – and so the company has now been given two notices of non-conformity and a $5,000 fine. While this may appear promising, the company continues to extract sand – and the provincial ministry has not given the company a deadline to stop, applied additional pressure on the company to prove its so-called acquired right to extract from the sandpit, or sought an injunction until the situation can be clarified.

And when residents recently tried to uphold the law – by bravely standing on the road and trying to stop the massive dump trucks from entering or leaving the sandpit – the area police made them leave.

But now the tenacious group of local water activists – working under the name SOS/ Save Our Spring Wakefield – have a legal opinion that says both the municipality of La Peche and the MDDEP have the legal authority to seek an injunction to stop Couillard Construction. One of the arguments by Franklin Gertler & Associates notes that provincial regulations in Quebec require a prior Certificate of Authorization to extract from a sandpit and quarry, notably if it falls within a kilometre of a municipal water source (the Spring is 900 metres away).

So there is some renewed hope that either the municipality (which has raised zoning concerns) or the province – now that local activists have provided them with the legal arguments for an injunction – will finally find the political will to take the necessary action.

For more information from SOS Wakefield, please see http://soswake.weebly.com/index.html. For recent news coverage, see this article from the Low Down newspaper, http://www.lowdownonline.com/sos-wakefield-sends-out-legal-s-o-s/, as well as this CTV report, http://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/wakefield-residents-protest-sand-pit-with-mock-funeral-1.885351, and this La Presse article, http://www.lapresse.ca/le-droit/actualites/actualites-regionales/201207/19/01-4557109-manifestation-a-wakefield.php.

Numerous Council of Canadians blogs on the local fight to protect their water from the highway construction can be read at http://canadians.org/blog/?s=wakefield+highway. Just this week the Council of Canadians provided some additional funding and support for SOS Wakefield to make their legal case.