Ellen Page offered to buy a well for Shelburne. Then it got complicated

On the surface, it seemed like good news.

A small town, where many residents have problems with their wells, gets an offer from a celebrity activist to pay to have a community well drilled.

It seems simple enough, but that offer from Ellen Page, and the circumstances leading up to the actor's gesture, have led to some strained relationships in Shelburne, N.S., and concerns from the town's mayor about the way the community has been portrayed.

Louise Delisle started thinking a few years ago that the water in the community should be tested, while considering the issue of environmental racism and potential links to cancer rates.

The south end of town, traditionally the more economically depressed part of the community, is adjacent to where the town dump once operated.

Delisle said she and others were concerned that the long-term effects of the now-shuttered facility could be finding a way into people's wells.

Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada

Along with other members of the South End Environmental Injustice Society, which Delisle helped form in 2015, partnerships were struck with researchers to test wells in the area.

While those test results, which were first delivered about a year ago, found no evidence of leachate from the former dump, there were high rates of coliform and E. coli detected.

The wells were cleaned, but subsequent testing showed the coliform and E. coli had returned, meaning the water wasn't fit for consumption and human use.

Meanwhile, for the last three years, Shelburne, like many parts of the province's south shore, has been plagued with wells running dry in the summer, further exacerbating people's water challenges.

"The wells are old and they're shallow and that's part of the problem," said Delisle.

Another problem is there are few easy solutions.

Dug wells, in use for about 75 per cent of the properties in the town of 1,750 people, are the responsibility of the property owner. Although there are provincial programs available for the public to get help digging new wells, there isn't a lot the town can do on its own.

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Mayor Karen Mattatall said the town has a limited tax base and that's made extending the municipal water service to more people difficult.

"We've wanted to do it forever, however, there's not funding programs available," she said.

Even if more people did have the option to tap into the service, Mattatall said she thinks the cost would be a deterrent. When the town last extended municipal service, far fewer people than expected opted to connect.

In an attempt to address the issue of dry wells in the summer, the town made water available to anyone who needed it via the local community centre and two other relatively central locations.

"It was something we did because we thought … if people don't have water in their wells, that's a struggle," said Mattatall.

An offer from Ellen Page

But Delisle is hoping for something more. That's where Page enters the story.

In her 2019 documentary, There's Something in the Water, Page profiles several Nova Scotia communities that have experienced environmental racism.

One of the communities is Shelburne. That's how Delisle connected with Page.

As she learned about the water problems, Page offered to pay to have a well drilled for community use, which, in theory, would be installed at a recreation complex in the south end at a cost estimated at between $10,000 and $12,000.

"I thought it was awesome," Delisle said of the offer. "I thought it was a real good news story for the town."

But so far, no well has been drilled.

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Delisle and members of her group met with Mattatall and other town officials. Both sides agree that the meeting did not go well and there have been no subsequent meetings.

Mattatall insists council has yet to make up its mind about the proposal because it's still waiting for information about how many people are likely to use a new well, and how much it would cost to maintain.

"We have to know, if we're spending any money that we're spending it properly and wisely, because it is all … taxpayers' money."

There is also the question of location.

Given that wells throughout the town run dry in the summer, Mattatall said it might make more sense for a central location to serve as many people as possible. She notes that the recreation complex identified as a possible location for the well is at the edge of town.

Delisle, meanwhile, said the offer from Page was intended to address an infrastructure gap in the town's south end, and to move it elsewhere would be akin to saying something positive shouldn't go to the south end. She's frustrated her group has been unable to address town officials since that first meeting.

Outcome remains uncertain

For her part, Mattatall bristles at the way the issue has been covered by reporters. She said it's led to her receiving messages accusing her of being a racist and portrays municipal council as uncaring toward certain people because of skin colour or where they live.

"We've worked so hard to grow our community," she said.

"Those things aren't helpful when they're not based on true statements, when they're based on opinions."

It's unclear how the issue will be resolved.

Mattatall said she'd be requesting the additional information again this week in hopes of council getting what it needs to make a decision, but she doesn't think a meeting between the two sides is necessary.

Delisle said she'd like the mayor to accept Page's offer, and for council to give more consideration to her group's efforts to address the water problem.

Whether any of it leads to a well being drilled remains to be seen.

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