A promise made by Doug Ford in May 2018, shortly before being elected premier, to conduct a health hazard investigation over concerns about private water wells in the North Kent Wind farm area, is about to get underway.
“I’m proud to say that testing is going to begin within the next number of days,” Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton told the Chatham Daily News Thursday in announcing the Ontario government has established a panel of five individual experts, appointed by the Minister of Health.
McNaughton previously announced in July 2019 that a panel of experts would investigate the health hazards of private water wells after concerns were first raised in 2016 by citizen group Water Wells First about the potential impact construction and operation of the North Kent Wind farm would have on water wells because of the Kettle Point black shale geology and shallow aquifer in the area.
Since that time, several property owners in an area north of Chatham have experienced well water problems, including significant amounts of sediments that have clogged up the flow of water during construction and after operation of the wind farm began. The group has maintained this particular shale is known to contain metals such as uranium, arsenic and lead that are harmful to human health.
But the developers of the wind farm – Korean industrial giant Samsung and its American partner Pattern Energy – have stated the wind farm has had no impact on area water wells. This claim was supported by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change under the previous Liberal government.
Jessica Brooks, a spokesperson for Water Wells First, was surprised to hear the news when contacted by The Daily News Thursday.
“As far as I know, nothing has been done,” she said.
Brooks said in the fall of 2019 she was trying to find out from McNaughton what was happening with the investigation.
Brooks said after going to the Ombudsman office, she got hold of someone in the health ministry who had the file and a phone call was arranged in February to discuss the situation. However, she was soon told by the ministry is was “all hands on deck” to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the investigation was on hold.
McNaughton said one of the delays was an RFP had to be done to hire a contractor to sample and test the private wells.
Englobe Corporation has been selected to execute well water and sediment sample collection and testing. They expect to start contacting residents and be in the field by late January, according to a media release.
The expert panel, consisting of two toxicologists, an environmentalist health scientist, an epidemiologist who specializes in exposure measurement, and local geologist Dr. Keith Benn, have developed a rigourous methodology for sample collection and testing, the release added.
The panel will sample up to 189 private wells that were part of the baseline water tests completed in 2018. The panel is expected to continue their work to review existing and new data collected to assess if the water is safe for consumption.
McNaughton said the government is investing more than $1 million to undertake this initiative.
“This is a big contribution to seek a resolution here.”
Noting he’s been critical of the former Liberal government’s expansion of wind turbines into rural Ontario, McNaughton said, “We moved quickly and decisively to cancel the Green Energy Act to cancel the Otter Creek project outside of Wallaceburg, and now we’re keeping our commitment to test almost 200 water wells in the Chatham-Kent area.”
Brooks is pleased to hear sediments will be collected and tested as part of this process, “because at this point, nobody’s done that.
“Our concern is the sediments,” she added.
She said when water wells were previously being tested, only the water samples were being collected for testing and the sediments weren’t being touched.
“I’m glad something’s happening, because my husband is still hauling water every week,” Brooks said.
She said the water that comes out of the tap from their water well is still full of sludge “and we want to know what’s in that sludge.”
When asked what her hope is for this investigation, Brooks said, “What I’m hoping is we actually have a new standard for groundwater safety.”
She added currently water wells are only tested for biological bacteria, such as E. coli.
She said there is a concern with natural toxins, particularly Kettle Point black shale in the aquifer.
When asked what the plan is if contaminates are found in the water wells, McNaughton said, “I want the expert panel to do their work, we’ll see what they’ll come back with.
“We’ll always be there for the people of Chatham-Kent,” he added. “It’s important that they have safe, reliable water.”
The minister was also asked if Samsung and Pattern Energy will be called on to provide some remedy if it is determined the turbines are causing some issues with water wells?
“It’s fair to say all options are on the table, but this is the next step,” McNaughton said.
“Let’s sample the water and test the water and find out what’s happening, then we’ll proceed with the next steps from there.”
The expert panel’s term has been extended until Dec. 31, 2021.
McNaughton said he wants to get answers as quickly as possible for the families impacted.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”