Revisiting Saint John's Marsh Creek: Environmental success story still has chapters to come

·7 min read
Tim Vickers canoeing in Marsh Creek during his time as ACAP Saint John's executive director.  (CBC - image credit)
Tim Vickers canoeing in Marsh Creek during his time as ACAP Saint John's executive director. (CBC - image credit)

Most Saint Johners likely never give Marsh Creek a second thought.

The stream winds its way across much of the east side of the city, starting at the far eastern end of city limits, and emptying into Courtenay Bay, a linear distance of about seven kilometres.

The creek is a nearly invisible refuge for local wildlife, and few people have ever visited its banks on the marshlands that make up a good portion of east Saint John.

But there was a time not too long ago when Marsh Creek was hard to ignore.

"The City of Saint John was still discharging about 50 per cent of its sewage from residents and businesses directly into Marsh Creek raw untreated," said Tim Vickers, standing near where some of those sewer outfalls used to be.

"So whatever you flushed down the toilet ended up in here. And then, of course, on a hot summer's day, it would just stew. And then you'd end up with nasty, nasty odours that really … gave the city of Saint John a bad reputation."

And exactly how nasty was that smell?

"It was to the point where some of the businesses near where we are right now would actually have to close on bad day," Vickers said. "So, very pungent. People had to hold their breath at times when they were driving through this area."

Vickers works for an engineering firm in Saint John now, but from 2003 until 2014, he was executive director of ACAP Saint John.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

The organization was set up in the early '90s by the federal government in an effort to kick-start anti-pollution efforts driven by local communities.

The group's first task was to establish just how polluted Marsh Creek was.

Sean Brillant was a master's student back in 1994, when he joined the fledgling organization. He said the city had pretty much turned its back on Marsh Creek and for most people, the creek was a bit of a mystery.

In an interview from his home in Halifax, where he now works with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Brillant said it was a canoe trip by two members of ACAP that began Marsh Creek's journey from an ignored body of water to poster child for Saint John's efforts to clean up its environmental mess.

Canadian Wildlife Federation
Canadian Wildlife Federation

Canoeing the length of it and taking water samples along the way, Matt McKim and Ken Sollows discovered a refuge for wildlife in the heart of the city.

Brillant said they also came across an unknown problem, an "unsurprising example of historic industrial pollution in an historic industrial city."

In the parking lot behind Saint John's main post office, they discovered a badly eroding riverbank and signs something more sinister was also at work in the creek.

"They noticed the strange sheen on the banks, which were utterly saturated in a hydrocarbon, which they presumed was creosote," Brillant said.

ACAP Saint John
ACAP Saint John

The petroleum product was also bubbling up from the creek bed.

The post office had been built on the site of a plant that made telephone poles and railway ties, operating long before there were rules about the proper use and storage of dangerous materials.

"That creosote ran, dripped, directly into Marsh Creek and still exists almost in a similar form today. It hasn't degraded at all," Vickers said, "So there is an abundance of creosote that exists in the sediment in Marsh Creek. And obviously, that's not a good chemical … and it can bio-accumulate."

Creosote is a carcinogen and can cause developmental issues in wildlife consuming it.

ACAP Saint John
ACAP Saint John

It also is dangerous to exposed skin, as Brillant can attest when he and a summer student gathered water samples at the site and didn't have gloves that covered the entire arm.

"I remember having to submerge my arm far enough to get a sample," Brillant said. "Both the student and I had some chemical burns on our arms."

Brillant would go on to lead ACAP in those early days of the push to get the city to stop dumping raw sewage into Saint John Harbour.

"Marsh Creek was the poster child, but for opportunities as well as problems," he said.

CBC
CBC

"It was the one area that we saw the chance to see the largest difference."

And Vickers said it was easy to get everyday Saint Johners onside.

"Really, if you look at the development of businesses, residences … you'll see that the backs of those buildings are all put towards the creek, not facing it," Vickers said.

"A lot of other places, buildings would look towards the water because water is an asset. With Marsh Creek, the buildings looked away from it, so the community was well aware that there was an issue here."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

It took more than 10 years of lobbying all three levels of government, but eventually a $100 million agreement was put in place to treat all of the raw sewage being dumped into the harbour. That project was completed in 2014.

The federal government and Canada Post also agreed to put in a containment system and retaining wall to stop the flow of creosote into the creek.

Graeme Stewart-Robertson had worked with ACAP for a decade and took over leadership of the organization as the work wrapped up. He said he was shocked by how quickly the creek rebounded once the flow of sewage stopped.

The realization hit him in the summer of 2015, the first time he waded into Marsh Creek to do water sampling.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

"I actually stopped dead in my tracks because I realized that I could actually see where I was walking," Stewart-Robertson said. "I could see my feet.

"I spent 10 years up until then, either as a student or a full-time employee of ACAP, looking at this creek in different ways and had never seen what the creek bed looked like in this area. And it was astonishing."

The odour problem began to diminish, bacterial counts in the water dropped quickly. Less than a year after the completion of harbour cleanup, Stewart-Robertson said, ACAP began to catch gaspereau, a species they had never caught before, trying to make their way up into Marsh Creek.

But Stewart-Robertson believes this success should be just the beginning of a new relationship between the people of Saint John and the creek.

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC

It provides drainage for the lowlands on the city's east side, which have a long history of flooding problems and face more serious issues because of climate change.

"We have well over a billion dollars of private property, not even public infrastructure that, based on provincial assessment, is located in the floodplain of Marsh Creek," Stewart-Robertson said.

"And if we don't take that seriously and consider it for our adaptation plans moving forward, then we won't be able to adequately deal with the seasonal variability, the variability of climate change, sea level rise, increased precipitation, that's going to be coming in the coming decades."

He also believes there are parts of the creek that could be opened up to people as green space.

ACAP Saint John
ACAP Saint John

"There are some areas — I like to call them almost the 'Land Before Time,'" he said, "So between Rothesay Avenue and Highway 1, there is a long, several-kilometre stretch of Marsh Creek, which, I would say, rivals any canoeing you could do in the province if you're after a nice, relaxing creek bed."

He even envisions a day when the east side could be linked to the uptown by nature trails along the creek.

And there's still environmental work to be done along the section of creek bed contaminated with creosote.

It's a complicated matter, with questions of which level of government is actually responsible, and no firm approach on how to actually get rid of it.

ACAP Saint John
ACAP Saint John

All three men agree it needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

"I can't help but think we're just kicking the can down the road," Sean Brillant said.

"You know, cities just saw rivers and streams as problems and treated them that way. I think we're changing, but I see Marsh Creek as a cautionary tale.

"People just can't bury their waste and hope."

Mike Heenan/CBC
Mike Heenan/CBC
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