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Algae Blooms Controversy

Issue: 69 Section: Agriculture Geography: Atlantic Nova Scotia, Yarmouth County Topics: water, environment

May 10, 2010

Algae Blooms Controversy

Nova Scotian mink industry blamed for water woes

by Steven Wendland

Carleton residents believe blue-green algae, thriving in the Carleton river watershed, is a result of mink farming run amok. A YMCA summer camp had to relocate from Lake Fanning (pictured) after 81 years due to pollution concerns. Photo: Carlene MacDonald

HALIFAX—Tensions are running high in Yarmouth County. A proposal for a lakeside mink ranch near Carleton, Nova Scotia has resulted in a call for the provincial government to declare a moratorium on the establishment of new lake- and riverside farming developments.

Residents are worried their lake will be condemned to the same fate as many other water-bodies in the Carleton River watershed, which have been overrun by blue-green algal blooms.

“The pollution is so bad," says Carlene MacDonald, a Carleton resident. "The mink breeders choose to use 100 kilometres of river systems as their toilet and the government allows it by not responding.”

Preparations have begun for the mink ranch on Sloans Lake. Locals are concerned their lake will be polluted by manure, urine, offal, caustic cleaning liquids and fly control chemicals from the ranch. Photo: Carlene MacDonald

Blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, have overtaken a number of lakes in the region. Possible contributing factors include faulty lakeside septic systems and run-off containing agro-industrial fertilizers, but many believe the primary source is manure, urine, offal, caustic cleaning liquids and fly control chemicals from riverside mink ranches in neighbouring Digby County.

One and a half million minks are raised in Nova Scotia each year on almost 80 mink farms, according to the CBC. The majority of those mink farms are located in Digby and Yarmouth Counties. In 2006, Nova Scotia ranked first in the country for mink farming, with 49.8 per cent of the country’s mink, according to Statistics Canada.

“Fur, mainly from mink farming, is one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in NS, and currently represents approximately $64 million in farm cash receipts,” states the Nova Scotia Agriculture Business Plan.

In October, Yarmouth County Municipal Council voted to amend a municipal land-use bylaw, increasing, from 328 to 500 feet, the required minimum set-back distance from lakes and rivers for buildings and manure storage facilities used in conjunction with fur ranches, and hog and fowl farms.

In response to the bylaw amendment, the Nova Scotia Mink Breeders Association and a group of Yarmouth-area livestock farmers filed an appeal with the Nova Scotia Utility and Review board. At the request of the appellants, the hearing has been postponed twice since February, most recently on March 30, and a new date has yet to be announced.

The Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) has sided with industry against the bylaw change. The NSFA was initially named among the appellants but has since changed tactics and is now coupled with the NS Mink Breeders Association to jointly present at the eventual hearing. Donna Langille, operations manager of the NSFA, said the reason for jointly presenting “was that we felt if we combined our resources [with the NS Mink Breeders Association] into a collective effort we would have a better standing.”

In a more recent example of "collective effort," NS Minister of Agriculture John MacDonell introduced a bill to the provincial legislature on April 29 that would require fur ranchers to obtain a site approval permit before being administered their operating license and also would require they have an environmental management plan in place. The bill was drafted by the Department of Agriculture with input from the NS Mink Breeders Association.

MacDonald calls the bill a "scam" and another example of closed-door policy making which fails to represent the concerns of affected residents.

The blue-green alga that is flourishing in many Yarmouth County lakes is a toxin-generating microscopic plant that thrives in water containing high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen. The algae's prevalence has raised concerns regarding health and safety, property values, local ecologies, and the proper regulation of industry.

In July, 2009, Camp Wapomeo, a YMCA summer camp for local youth that had held its water recreations on the same lake in Yarmouth Country for 81 consecutive years, had to relocate their activities due to the algae and consequent safety concerns. Camp director Kathleen Whyte stated publicly that the algae’s growth is becoming more apparent each year and said she is inclined to attribute declining camp registration to parental concerns over health risks.

Randy Cleveland is a member of the Tusket River Environmental Protection Agency (TREPA), a group comprised of residents and concerned citizens from Carleton. TREPA has conducted its own research and investigation into the community’s water troubles.

Cleveland points to the fact that Nova Scotia’s mink and fur farms are only subject to recommended guidelines for reducing environmental risk in their operations, meaning they are self-regulating entities. He says Carleton needs "bylaws so the municipality would have recourse when it comes to establishing and enforcing regulations for mink and fur farms.”

In its mission statement and progress report entitled Environmental Performance of the Agricultural Sector in Nova Scotia 2009: A Report Card, the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture acknowledges that “manure management in areas of livestock concentration has to be improved,” and that “the mink sector, in particular, is primarily located in an area with a small cropland base, reducing alternatives to effectively manage mink manure and other wastes close to mink farms.”

The Report also states, however, that self-regulation is working. "Nova Scotia’s environmental acts and regulations support [environmentally sustainable farming practices] by encouraging compliance and by establishing a culture of self-regulation, minimizing the need for a harsh regulatory approach.”

Cleveland disagrees: “The waste problem has been acknowledged and the ecological consequences are now apparent, but the culture of self-regulation is not effectively operating. The provincial acts and regulations are either too broad to be useful or not being properly enforced.”

MacDonald agrees: "The pollution is so bad. I’m sure if more people could be made aware of the situation they would scream 'Pollution!’ along with us.”

Steven Wendland is a writer and filmmaker from Harmony, Nova Scotia.

This article was originally published by the Halifax Media Co-op.

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