POLITICS

Storm thrashes deteriorating seawall, causes anxiety in Cape Breton village

03/23/2013 01:58 EDT | Updated 05/23/2013 05:12 EDT
GABARUS, N.S. - High winds and pounding surf that battered an already deteriorating and aging seawall on Friday has renewed calls for its repair from residents of a tiny Nova Scotia village.

Tim Menk, a resident of the 300-year-old fishing village of Gabarus, says the Atlantic's rough surf further twisted the structure in several places and some planks and beams have been blasted away, causing anxiety in the residents who live near the barrier.

Menk said at the height of the storm, waves were thrashing more than a metre above the wall and, at times, engulfing the 70-year-old structure.

"Remnants of (wood planks and beams) are strung across the beach," Menk said in an interview from his home on Saturday.

Menk said the local fishing industry, road access to the village and several private homes are at risk if the wall fails.

Menk is part of a community group called the Friends of Gabarus that has been battling for years to find the money to fix the seawall, which was built by the federal government in the 1940s.

The structure has been the subject of a dispute between the federal and provincial governments, neither of whom claim ownership of the 400-metre structure.

In December, the federal government concluded it is not responsible for the wall, saying it sits almost entirely on Nova Scotia-owned land and is therefore a provincial and municipal responsibility.

The conclusion came after Fisheries and Public Works sought advice from the Justice Department.

On Saturday, a spokesman for Fisheries said in an email that its previous position regarding Gabarus still stands.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia has argued that the seawall is federally owned and it is Ottawa's responsibility to fix it.

Political figures at various levels of government, including Progressive Conservative legislature member Alfie MacLeod and federal Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, who are both based in Cape Breton, have urged the federal government to act before the wall crumbles entirely.

Part of the dispute can be traced back to 1995, when responsibility for harbour operations was transferred to the Fisheries Department from Transport Canada. Since then, the Fisheries Department has divested some assets such as wharfs and breakwaters and no longer subsidizes repairs, Menk said.

The Fisheries Department has said the Gabarus wharf was divested in 2001, but the seawall wasn't because the federal government had no responsibility for it.

Still, the departments of Fisheries and Public Works conducted two studies on the wall in 1995 and 1999. One was a structural study and the other was a divestiture program report encompassing the seawall and wharf.

Last summer, the provincial government issued a report that said the situation in Gabarus was "urgent'' and recommended three options for long-term fixes, all of which involve replacing the wall and cost anywhere from $4.3 million to $5.3 million.

With the latest damage, that cost has only increased, said Menk.

Menk said he has called a community meeting for Thursday to talk about filing a complaint with the public sector integrity commissioner over the Fisheries Department's denial of ownership.

"We need to move on this," said Menk. "We can no longer wait for the delaying tactics that DFO has employed.

"We simply can't wait for a political solution."

About 70 people live in Gabarus year-round, but that number can triple in the summer.

— By Aly Thomson in Halifax