• Protecting Water and Farmland in Simcoe County

Paradise lost for many rural dwellers

In Agriculture
Dec 20th, 2009

Martin Mittelstaedt Globe and Mail
Trent Hills, Ont. Friday, Dec. 18, 2009 Wendy Deavitt remembers the day in 2001 when she spotted her dream home in the country. At the end of a tree-dotted gravel driveway stood the farmhouse and adjacent horse barn that turned her fantasy about rural living into a reality. “This is heaven,” she recalls thinking.
But at the end of September, Ms. Deavitt fled the property, her five horses and one donkey in tow. The erstwhile small corner of heaven in Eastern Ontario, an eight-acre hobby farm, turned into a kind of hell when the farmer who owned the land around it started spreading municipal sewage sludge on his alfalfa field.
Ms. Deavitt says that being exposed to large amounts of sewage, within 45 metres of her home, was an experience she never wants to relive. “As soon as you went outside, the smell was so noxious that you wanted to vomit,” she says. “Then the diarrhea started, [and] headaches.” Her horses also started falling ill.
After eight years of living in the country, Ms. Deavitt has become something we’re not used to hearing about in Canada: a rural environmental refugee. She abandoned her home because she was fed up with being sick and living around land she felt had been poisoned. “I can’t live here any more. I can’t live here with the fear,” she says.
Rural life often has a bucolic image of neat farm fields and undulating hills, especially when contrasted with the crowded housing and traffic jams of urban living. People flee the degradation of cities for the countryside, but when they get there, they find anything but clean, green open spaces. From sewage-spreading to wind farms and gravel pits to garbage dumps, many people in rural areas are finding themselves involved in environmental issues that almost never afflict urban dwellers.
Although no one keeps figures on where, geographically speaking, environmental fights are breaking out in Canada, lawyer Richard Lindgren has an indication, via his caseload.
Mr. Lindgren works for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, a legal clinic that represents individuals and community groups in anti-pollution fights. Nearly all of his clients these days hail from the countryside. “I would say, easily, 90 per cent of them involve situations in the rural landscape, as opposed to urbanized areas,” he says. When he first started out as an environmental lawyer in the mid-1980s, it was more of a 50-50 split.
He is helping to fight “lots of dumps,” incinerators, gravel pits and subdivision sprawl. “You name it, we do it,” he says. But there’s one simple commonality in all his cases: Rural areas have cheap, available land.
“You can’t put a landfill in Rosedale,” he quips, referring to the downtown Toronto neighbourhood. “But there might be room in the hinterland. That’s one practical reason why there is a number of these rural fights.”
Mr. Lindgren may also have a lighter urban caseload because many traditional, high-polluting manufacturing businesses in cities have either been cleaned up or shut down, while some rural areas, by contrast, are starting to have the look, feel and smell of industrial areas. Wind farms are little more than massive power plants, after all, and factory farms have been given their name for a reason.
“Certainly rural is the place that is under intense land-use pressure and land-use conflict as people project different kinds of dreams on it,” observes Roger Epp, a professor of political studies and a dean at the University of Alberta who has studied development disputes in rural areas.
It may also be a tad ironic that some rural environmental problems have arisen as solutions to pollution created in the cities. Vast quantities of sewage sludge are available, for instance, because modern municipal treatment plants are now more effective at straining out pollutants. Urban residents don’t want this residue incinerated or dumped anywhere near them, and it has to go someplace.
“Rural does seem to be the focus for the stuff that’s out of sight, out of mind, for the vast majority of Canadians who live in cities,” Dr. Epp says.
Factory farms have been an issue in many places, but particularly in Manitoba. Even tiny farmed critters can be an issue. This summer, there was an outcry in a rural area near Yarmouth, N.S., over farmed mink, with concerns that the animals would cause water pollution. “Mink stink” is how one news account dubbed the squabble over them.
In parts of Western Canada, particularly Alberta and British Columbia, there is opposition to coal-bed methane extraction, or the effort to pump natural gas out of shallow coal seams. The big fear? Such extraction could allow gas to seep into groundwater, polluting the drinking water, says Tom Easton, a spokesman for Citizens Concerned about Coalbed Methane.
There are other disputes too – over uranium mine staking, mobile asphalt plants and even the location of plants for storing explosives, which are often located in rural areas because of government regulations requiring that no people live within the potential blast zone in case of accidents.
Demographics are also a factor: While Canada is becoming an increasingly urban country – about 80 per cent of us now live in cities – that growth isn’t necessarily coming from rural areas. In fact, population is continuing to grow in the countryside, according to Statistics Canada.
Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta have seen significant growth in their rural populations by as much as 5 per cent from 2001 to 2006, the date of the last census. Over longer periods, the growth has been even more stunning. Ontario’s rural population rose by the size of a decent-sized city – 450,000 people – or by 33 per cent, since 1971. Alberta’s grew by a larger percentage – 36 per cent, or 159,000 people. Even in British Columbia, where most people flock to the Vancouver area, the rural population has risen by 72,000 or about 14 per cent.
The increasing number of rural residents doesn’t necessarily translate into increased political clout to stop unwanted development because urban areas have been growing even faster. “Governments see the urban voter as their constituency, and not the rural population,” observes Maureen Reilly, head of Sludgewatch, a group based in Ontario that opposes the practice of sludge spreading.
And while environmental fights break out frequently in rural areas, the problems typically don’t get much attention from the country’s big, national environment groups, such as Greenpeace, all of which are urban-based and deal with high-profile issues such as global warming or the oil sands.
In response, some rural residents have begun setting up their own groups. So many fights have erupted over wind turbines in the Ontario countryside, for example, that they have spawned the country’s first grassroots anti-windmill movement – Wind Concerns Ontario – representing 41 citizens groups in 27 counties, practically everywhere wind farms are proposed or operating.
What could be greener than a group of wind turbines, their propeller like-blades gracefully twirling over the landscape, pumping greenhouse-gas-free electricity into the grid with every gust? It’s a scene that would warm the heart of any planet-saving environmental crusader.
But just try living near them, challenges retired teacher Stephana Johnston, who has 18 turbines within a few kilometres of her home, on the north shore of Lake Erie west of Long Point. She says they’re making her sick.
Regulations, said by the Ontario government to be the most restrictive in North America, require turbines to be placed at least 550 metres from a home. The nearest to Ms. Johnston is 562 metres away, but it’s still too close for her. She denounces them as “400-foot-tall industrial machines.”
Since they started cranking out electricity a year ago, she has had a bevy of strange symptoms – disrupted sleep, muscle twitches that feel like she is being prodded by stray voltage and congestion in her ears – ailments that mysteriously fade whenever she leaves home for any length of time.
The possibility that wind turbines may have health effects is denied by advocates for the technology and remains a disputed topic. One hypothesis that needs to be tested and proved is that turbines are able to create frequencies too low be audible, but with health impacts.
Ms. Johnston worries she will have to flee her home, built with her life savings in 2004 as a retirement haven, to save her health.
She is frustrated by the fact that the environmental movement has embraced wind farms.
“Any time I get to speak to someone who says, ‘I don’t believe you. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the wind turbines,’ this is what I ask: ‘Please, come and stay for a week,’” she says.
The sheer number of environmental problems has led to the coining of an unflattering term for rural areas that is just about as far from the stereotyped view of the countryside as a romantic idyll as one can go: sacrifice zone. “Rural areas sometimes become the sacrifice zones for urban areas,” says Jeffrey Jacob, a professor at the faculty of education at the University of Calgary, who wrote a book about the back-to-the-land movement. In his view, the biggest zone in the country is the Alberta oil sands.
Rural residents in the line of development often feel blindsided by the arrival of environmental problems on their doorsteps, suggesting unrealistic expectations on the part of some, and perhaps a little naiveté too. “We’re all downstream from someplace,” comments Prof. Jacob, who says he found that the back-to-the-landers who adapted best to rural living were those “who could really deal with imperfection.”
Sometimes, though, the amount of environmental imperfection is overwhelming. Ms. Deavitt says her experiences have left her shocked that Ontario not only permits, but encourages the “putting of human feces” around rural homes. The Ministry of Environment says the practice, if carried out properly, poses no risk and has the benefit of returning nutrients to the soil. But the province hasn’t conducted formal studies to track illnesses around farms where sewage is disposed of.
For her part, Ms. Deavitt has tried to sell her home, but finds that buyers run when they look at the standard real-estate disclosure form asking about any environmental problems with the property. She now considers the property unsellable. Her horses are being boarded and she has moved to a rental home in Campbellford, about a 15-minute drive from her farm.
Living in a town, she says, is a refuge from the environmental mayhem of the country. “They can’t spread [sewage sludge] around the town.”

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