March 9, 2001

Moncton Times and Transcript

Pressure mounts for river study
by James Foster

Pressure is mounting to quickly begin an environmental-impact assessment of the idea of replacing part of the Petitcodiac River causeway with a bridge. “Let’s get on with the environmental assessment, yes,” Moncton Mayor Brian Murphy said yesterday. “I’ve been saying this for about five or six years.”

The assessment is proposed in a report sponsored by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on finding the best way to allow fish to move upriver beyond the causeway, which stretches between Moncton and Riverview.

The report, released Wednesday, suggests a full environmental-impact assessment of the proposal to replace 250 metres (820 feet) of the causeway with a bridge, near the Riverview side of the structure. The EIA suggestion has received the endorsement of federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Herb Dhaliwal, Environment Minister David Anderson and Moncton MP and Labour Minister Claudette Bradshaw, who say the next step is for the province to agree to and initiate the process.

In yesterday’s Times & Transcript, however, provincial Environment Minister Kim Jardine said she’s waiting for the federal government to chip in on the cost of the study, roughly estimated at $3 million and taking at least two years to complete.

Moncton’s city council has been awaiting such a study before weighing in on the decades-long debate on the causeway because it wants to be fully informed before taking a stand on the issue, Murphy said.

For example, will restoring the free flow of the river damage city infrastructure such as the sewage treatment plant? Will it erode an old dumpsite in the west end? Will the increased water-flow damage new boardwalks along the river? An EIA will answer those questions and others.

The Petitcodiac has often been referred to as the most-studied river in Canada because of the scrutiny it has come under since the causeway was built in 1968. Murphy disagrees, pointing out that of the 100-plus documents that were studied by report author Eugene Niles, most were memos, notes and reports — not scientific studies.

“Niles has said this himself, and it should be made very clear, there hasn’t been 100-plus studies on the Petitcodiac River,” Murphy said. “There has been one, maybe two.”

That’s why the mayor is pressing for a quick start to the EIA.

Moncton must not be hurt either economically or environmentally by reopening the river, the mayor said.

“This isn’t our fault. The (provincial government) did that illegally and the federal government saw that almost immediately and . . . they turned a blind eye.”

As well, the mayor wants assurances that work related to the causeway won’t affect the construction of a new Gunningsville Bridge, slated to be open to traffic in five years.

“Are they going to say, Well, that’s your bridge money for this year? ‘ That just wouldn’t be right.”

It is likely that an environmental-impact assessment will be ordered for the Gunningsville Bridge project as well, though that hasn’t been confirmed yet. Some have speculated that by combining environmental assessments on both projects, time and money could be saved.

While Jardine couldn’t be reached yesterday, a spokesman in her office said it was not likely that both studies could be combined.

“They are two different projects,” he said.

He also said there has been no word yet on a cost-sharing arrangement with Ottawa, while local members of Parliament Bradshaw and Dominic LeBlanc did not return calls.

Niles’s study looked only at how to improve fish passage up the Petitcodiac River. However, according to sources in Fredericton, the EIA will examine much broader questions than that, covering the economic fallout of all five remaining options for easing fish passage, the effect on tourism, the tidal bore, infrastructure, wildlife — almost anything imaginable and encompassing not only reopening the river to something approaching normal flow, but also examining the ramifications of keeping the causeway in place.

The options Niles did not discount as being unfeasible include keeping the status quo, improving the fish ladder, opening the causeway gates on the rising tides, opening the gates permanently except for ice control, and replacing about 250 metres of the causeway with a bridge. He proposes the EIA be carried out on the bridge option as that would include all the risk factors of the other options at the same time and is more practical than to carry out five separate studies.

The causeway debate has polarized communities and individuals, but no one has ever publicly opposed an EIA.

Norman Roach, president of the Lake Petitcodiac Preservation Association which has led the charge against restoring the river, said Niles’s suggested step-by-step EIA process has merits.

“Because if it determines along the process that they can’t go beyond Option 2, or they can’t go beyond Option 3, then they’d never even get to the point of (considering) the bridge,” Roach said.

“That has to be made clear to the people so they are not misled.” Roach believes an EIA will show that a partial bridge would allow sewage from Metro Moncton’s treatment plant to be carried upriver on the rising tide, will carry tonnes of silt daily downstream and deposit it on top of a $19 million fishing industry in Shepody Bay and the Upper Bay of Fundy, will breach old dikes and flood farmland, wreck municipal infrastructure and cause other havoc that can’t be mitigated.

So he too hopes a study gets under way “fairly quickly.”

Roach was happy that Niles’s report insists on wide-ranging public input into the EIA process, including a dispute-resolution system, to ensure everyone feels they’ve been treated fairly.

While the homes and offices of Metro Moncton MLAs were contacted to get their input into this story, only Dieppe’s Richard (Cy) LeBlanc responded, noting that his constituents have repeatedly called for the river to flow.

But LeBlanc couldn’t pinpoint a date on when the study might begin or when a cost-sharing agreement could be firmed up.

“Both governments seem to be committed to this, and I’m hopeful we’ll be seeing something in the near future, but I couldn’t tell you exactly when,” he said.