Quebec's Lower North Shore has a junk problem, and civic leaders would like to have it fixed

·4 min read

To get a handle on the magnitude of the scrap metal situation in Chevery, Que., population 236, imagine an Olympic-sized hockey arena.

"We'd probably fill it up," said Darlene Rowsell Roberts, who lives in the hamlet and serves as the administrator of the rural municipality of Côte-Nord-du-Golfe-Saint-Laurent. "And it would be piled, too."

And the Lower North Shore isn't alone. Earlier this year, the Association des professionnels du dépannage du Québec, which represents towing companies, raised the alarm over growing numbers of old vehicles being dumped by their former owners and ending up in storage yards all over the province.

In many cases, they'd happily recycle them. Except they're not the legal owner.

Municipal officials in the Magdalen Islands decided to tackle the problem head-on earlier this month, spending $90,000 on hiring a company to unilaterally remove 116 disused wrecks from Entry Island.

So, it's a mounting problem. It's also not a new one. Roberts said the rotting husks of cars, heating fuel tanks, appliances and sundry other bits of refuse have been piling up around her region since the 1970s.

"We don't realize how much it accumulates when you're not able to get it out," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Roberts said the situation has improved somewhat over the past half-decade, at least the smaller stuff like cube freezers and dishwashers is moved out in shipping containers every few months. But it hasn't dented a backlog that was decades in the making.

The accumulation can come at a hefty cost to the local environment. In many cases cars and other scrapped machines leak contaminants into the soil, and environmental remediation costs money.

Roberts, whose community is not connected to the provincial highway network, said it would help if the area had roads. When the highway was extended to Kegashka, which lies to the west, Roberts said "it made all the difference."

Garland Nadeau, a former fisherman who lives a little further up the coast in Rivière-Saint-Paul, isn't so sure that's a panacea.

"We have a connection to the road, and we still have a problem with scrap metal," said Nadeau, a local historian who is also a board member of the Coasters' Association.

Once-per-decade clean-ups

There have been attempts to deal with the scrap metal surplus in the past.

In the early 2000s, Roberts said, the government set up a partnership with an environmental organization to train locals on how to disassemble and cut up cars and the like.

"Other than that, it's been accumulating ... we have tons and tons, and we don't have the equipment to push it down, flatten it down," she said.

Nadeau said his area is lucky, in that Newfoundland-based salvage operators will periodically swing through and pick up the high-value stuff.

"Every eight or 10 years we have a scrap clean-up, they advertise it on the radio and people come down," he said.

And in between those trips?

"Well, people have been taking their cars down to the Bonne Espérance dump, setting them on fire and leaving them there," Nadeau said. "The other issue is there must be a couple thousand tires out there."

Shifting attitudes toward environment

There are many urgent priorities on the Lower North Shore, and if the junk problem has slid down the list at the expense of more pressing matters in the past, it is once again at the forefront.

Roberts and others have pleaded for more resources before, usually unsuccessfully. But the social context has changed, and it seems to be evolving in their favour.

Whereas nobody thought much about burning garbage a few years ago, that's no longer the case. And Roberts estimates her municipality has reduced the amount of garbage it generates by at least a third in the last couple of years.

The hope is the province will share the local population's growing desire to do something.

"It's been a lifetime change over the past 10 years," said Nadeau. "It used to be that out of sight was out of mind, but that's not the way things work anymore."