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MTQ hid water risks amid Hwy 5 expansion

March 2nd,2023 | Environment, News

Ten years ago, a group of Wakefielders had serious concerns about how the Hwy 5 extension work would damage the nearby watershed.

Those concerns were warranted, as a Quebec Superior Judge ruled on Jan. 31 that the Ministère des Transports du Québec (MTQ) hid “crucial” information that six artesian wells in Wakefield were at risk of contamination by dynamite blasting during the Hwy 5 extension project.

According to Quebec Judge Michel A. Pinsonnault, the MTQ knew as early as 2009 from a Transport Canada Report that “six wells were identified to be at risk of contamination,” but the provincial agency “did not deem it appropriate to notify the contractor or take measures to control this risk.” The MTQ sat on the information for three years before awarding the highway contract to Couillard Construction in 2012.

According to court documents, the problems began immediately after dynamiting work in November 2012 when Gauvin Realty owners complained of “a gas odour” coming from the taps.

The court ruling says an analysis was done on the six wells near the highway following the blasting, including Gauvin’s well, and the water was deemed “unfit for consumption.” According to the MTQ, the analysis showed that the wells had “abnormally high nitrate and perchlorate levels that are most likely linked to products used for dynamiting operations” on the Hwy 5 extension work.

According to Health Canada, human exposure to high doses of perchlorate can interfere with iodide uptake into the thyroid gland, disrupting thyroid functions and potentially leading to a reduction in thyroid hormone production.

The MTQ tried to blame Couillard Construction, who then accused Dyfotech, the company hired to do the blasting, for using dynamite containing the harmful perchlorates.

The case had dragged on in court since 2015 until late January when Pinsonnault rendered his ruling. According to the judge’s decision, “the use of explosives containing perchlorates was not prohibited by the MTQ” when it awarded the contract to Couillard Construction. The decision states that Couillard and Dyfotech, who routinely use explosives in their work, were also unaware that some of their products contained perchlorates and the dangers it posed to human health if consumed.

Once it was known that the wells were contaminated, the nearby homes and businesses, including Gauvin Realty, were supplied bottled water from Couillard Construction. However, in 2018 the company said it had “sufficient evidence to demonstrate that it is not responsible for the contamination of the groundwater table,” and the MTQ took over supplying bottled water to tenants (See story page 7).

While the courts agreed “it is more likely than not that the blasting work carried out by Dyfotech is the source of some contamination of the groundwater circulating under the rock excavation site,” Justice Pinsonnault ruled that “the MTQ clearly failed in its obligation to inform, both in the call for tenders and during the execution works” of the associated risks.

“Once the harm was discovered, the MTQ tried to pull out all the stops to hold Couillard – and therefore Dyfotech – responsible for the contamination of the artesian wells located downstream near the site where the blasting took place,” the decision reads. “Worse still, the MTQ knew that the aquifer serving several of these wells passed precisely at the place where it had requested a major excavation of rock by using explosives which risked contaminating this water.”

Readers may recall in 2012, an advocacy group called Save our Spring (SOS) Wakefield raised concerns about the Valley Drive spring and the artesian wells on the Valley Verde aquifer. At the time, the MTQ promised to “ensure a continuous supply of quality drinking water for the concerned residences” before construction began. A decade later, the homes and businesses nearby are still dealing with water issues and have not had clean drinking water since 2012.

“What this case reveals clearly is that the MTQ, as an institution, is not operating in a precautionary way, despite being required to undertake environmental assessments before major works like the highway 5 extension,” said SOS member Peter Andrée, who raised concerns about the water table before the highway was built. He added that when he and others met with MTQ officials back in 2009, he said he felt like he was getting an “honest risk assessment.”

“The documents that have surfaced through this case show we were not being given the whole story. I hope this punitive judgment against the MTQ will lead to a shakeup in that institution, or others may be harmed again,” he said.

The MTQ has been ordered to pay $1.9 million to Couillard Construction, with just over $1 million for “the cost of additional work and services rendered in connection with the contamination” and $855,000 for “the contractual balance” that the MTQ was withholding.

Once those fines are settled, Couillard will pay $654,000 to its subcontractor, Dyfotech.

The MTQ told the Low Down on Feb. 16 that it has reviewed the judgement and “is currently analyzing it in collaboration with the Attorney General of Quebec.”

They said they would respect the 30-day deadline to decide whether or not to appeal the decision. They would not comment futher.

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