The first omen that Hartlen Point’s newest arrival—a controversial Canadian naval testing facility that’s soon to be built on three acres of Halifax’s shoreline popular with birders, hikers and surfers—might not begin as smoothly as Canada’s Department of National Defence leaders had hoped came this past Sunday, March 5, the same day that construction crews readied to begin clearing trees and brush from the site. The snow was melting. An 18-wheeler was bound for the DND site with an excavator in tow, only to find its wheels stuck in snow along the two-lane road that serves it and many of the residents of Eastern Passage. The truck came to rest on a neighbour’s front lawn and held up traffic on Shore Road. According to onlookers, it nearly hit a telephone pole.
That worries Angela Granchelli, who has lived in Eastern Passage for 15 years and has concerns about the DND’s choice of Hartlen Point for its 11,500-square-metre coastal facility, where it plans on testing its future Canadian Surface Combatant warship fleet’s capabilities. Shore Road isn’t built for that kind of heavy traffic equipment, she says. There are no sidewalks. It’s winding and narrow. Seniors walk on the road’s shoulder. Children play near it. For many residents, it’s the only thoroughfare they have—by foot, car or otherwise.
“They haven’t even started [construction] and people are in danger already,” Granchelli says, in an email written to The Coast.
The roads are just one thing. Granchelli’s among a group of nearly 18,500 people who have signed an online petition calling on the DND to relocate its planned facility away from Hartlen Point. They argue that Canada’s military hasn’t sufficiently answered residents’ concerns about the site’s potential long-term impacts, from the health effects of planned radiofrequency emissions, to the loss of crucial wetlands and trees in a biodiversity hotspot, to the potential effects on lobster fishers offshore. Granchelli and others further argue that the DND hasn’t kept up its promises of transparency throughout its site-planning process.
“People who live here are afraid,” she says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “And so if it’s not scary, then [they] need to give us more information. We wouldn’t have questions if we had answers.”
Warship testing project ‘critical’ for Navy’s future, DND says
The CBC’s Brett Ruskin first reported on the DND’s plans for a Hartlen Point military site in June 2021. Those plans involve an eventual $129-million facility, deemed “critical” in preparing the Royal Canadian Navy’s future warship fleet’s “combat systems” through “rigorous tests and trials.” The warships in question are 15 soon-to-be-built Canadian Surface Combatants (CSCs), described by Ottawa as Canada’s “major surface component of maritime combat power.” Canada’s current fleet is showing signs of its age, the Navy argues: More than half of its 12 Halifax-class patrol frigates (dubbed the “backbone” of the Canadian Navy) are 30 years old, and its four 1970s-era Iroquois-class destroyers have been out of commission since 2017.
Both Lockheed Martin and Irving are leading the design and build of the new ships. Those CSCs were announced at an estimated cost of $56-60 billion, but Canada’s parliamentary budget officer believes the final project could run $77.3 billion and rise to $79.7 billion if there’s a one-year construction delay—for a cost of more than $5 billion per ship. (The Government of Canada’s website continues to cite the lower figure.)
The DND has its eyes on Hartlen Point for the same reason that many hikers enjoy it: At the southeasternmost tip of Eastern Passage, the DND-owned site offers unimpeded views of the Atlantic Ocean over nearly 130 degrees. That range of vision, the DND has repeatedly stressed, is “essential” for testing the eventual CSC fleet’s capabilities.
Neighbours argue they haven’t been properly briefed throughout the DND’s planning process. Some of the “tests and trials” that the DND plans to run at Hartlen Point involve high-powered radio frequencies used in the CSCs’ navigation and communication systems. A private site-selection document prepared by Irving reveals that the range of frequencies are banned in Halifax Harbour “due to potential adverse impact to the populous health and safety.” But Hartlen Point falls just beyond Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada’s radiofrequency exclusion zone.
That’s a cause of concern to some Haligonians—including Marnie Reynolds, who, up until recently, lived in Eastern Passage. Reynolds wonders why it took six months to hear about the DND’s plans for her own community. The DND filed an impact assessment registry about its plans in January 2021 and solicited feedback through an online portal for three weeks, but Reynolds says neither she nor any of her neighbours were told about it. Nobody knocked on her door. No pamphlet arrived in her mailbox. There were no town halls advertised on Facebook or in her local newspaper.
“It feels disrespectful,” says Reynolds, who lived in Eastern Passage. “It feels arrogant. And it feels like they don’t care whether we trust them or not.”
DND fields heated questions at public feedback session
The DND has not provided a spokesperson for phone interviews with The Coast, but members of the Armed Forces’ media relations office have offered emailed replies to several of The Coast’s inquiries. In an emailed statement to The Coast on Nov. 18, 2022, a DND spokesperson—who did not offer a name in their email signature—replied that community engagement around Hartlen Point “has been ongoing, in various formats, according to the progress of the project,” and that the DND “will continue to keep the community and other stakeholders updated about our plans and timelines as they’re developed.”
Exchanges between the DND and stakeholders have not always gone well. Speaking at a public information session held at the Hartlen Point Forces Golf Club on Jan. 31, 2023, the Canadian Surface Combatant’s deputy project manager and naval captain Jay Thor Turner assured those gathered that the DND would be following “stringent safety procedures” set forth by Health Canada’s radiofrequency exposure guidelines.
That response didn’t land with some residents, who questioned the DND’s claims that its eventual land-based testing site wouldn’t pose a threat to migratory birds; or who raised concerns about the impartiality of a site-selection report led by Irving, which was also contracted to build the ships; or who wondered why the DND hadn’t considered other sites beyond the five in Irving’s report.
DND comes under fire in public feedback session on proposed Hartlen Point warship testing site: Canada’s military said during a public feedback session Tuesday night that it will mitigate any environmental effects from its planned $129M facility. But for some onlookers, the Navy is missing the boat.
“You guys would hate if it was your backyard,” one attendee who’d grown visibly frustrated shouted, before storming out. “I live 100 metres away from here, for Jesus’ sake. Wake up.”
Reynolds and Granchelli were among the 80-odd community members in the room that evening, which they describe as “packed and passionate.” They left unimpressed by the DND’s responses. Reynolds felt they were “very scripted.” Granchelli calls the DND’s choice of phrasing “ambiguous.”
“They always say things like, ‘It is not our intention to, but with the needs of the project, we may need to fine-tune later,’” Granchelli tells The Coast. “Or we’ll ask, why wouldn’t you move the facility somewhere else? And they’ll say, ‘Well, in the Canadian context…’ Well, what is the Canadian context?”
Granchelli takes issue with the DND’s decision to move ahead with clearing land at Hartlen Point before it has received ISED’s approval to transmit radio frequencies. The move seems premature, she argues: “To start cutting down trees… what if they don’t get the license?”
“It feels disrespectful. It feels arrogant. And it feels like they don’t care whether we trust them or not.”tweet this
In an email to The Coast, a military spokesperson writes that the DND has yet to apply for licensing “as the ship systems are still in development,” but that it expects to “start the process” in spring 2023. The spokesperson adds that ISED’s compliance requirements are “rigorous,” and that “safety of the local community and the surrounding environment” are “top priorities.”
A spectrum management officer with ISED tells The Coast that it requires “that all radio licensees demonstrate compliance with Safety Code 6”—a Health Canada guideline for recommended exposure limits to electromagnetic fields—“as a condition of licensing.”
Excavation underway at Hartlen Point
Construction and security crews arrived on site at Hartlen Point earlier this week. All told, the DND expects that it will clear “approximately six hectares” of trees and brush at Hartlen Point in order to build its land-based testing site and its surrounding security fencing. But a military spokesperson adds that “operational requirements are still being identified,” which “could require adjustments to the amount of clearance required.” The DND expects it will have finished clearing trees and brush “no later than” April 15, 2023.
In a March 3, 2023 email, a member of the DND’s media relations office notes that the tree-removal window was chosen to “avoid the bird and bat breeding and migratory windows.” The military’s Environmental Effects Determination Report, which summarizes potential harmful impacts of the site’s construction and steps to mitigate those impacts, notes that existing trees and vegetation—which make up one of Canada’s most biodiverse bird habitats—“will be maintained to the extent possible,” and that new trees and native plants “will be planted onsite.”
That doesn’t sit well with Halifax resident Karen Robb, who has family living in Eastern Passage. No matter the aforementioned efforts, the outcome is the same, she argues: Less habitat for the deer, rabbits, bobcats and 301 bird species that call the windswept trees and wetlands home.
“They call it mitigation, but it’s habitat destruction,” Robb says, speaking by phone with The Coast.
In an email to The Coast, a DND spokesperson writes that respect for the environment and wildlife “is a top priority,” and that environmental surveys have found the project is “not likely to cause significant adverse environmental impacts.” Four studies were carried out by “unbiased experts,” the DND adds: Soil characterization by SNC Lavalin, wetland assessment by Canadian British Consulting Limited, bird and bat assessment by Canadian British Consulting Limited and the environmental effects determination. The first three reports have not yet been made public, but the DND says it expects to release them this month.
DND spends $98.5K on PR firm for project support
As The Signal’s Crystal Greene reported in February, the DND has enlisted Ottawa-based PR firm Prospectus Associates for support in its community outreach strategy on Hartlen Point. Prospectus’ website says it helps clients with “complex, challenging and high-profile issues” and offers support in planning and executing “public affairs, advocacy and awareness campaigns.” That support extends to crisis management. Clients include Atlantic Lottery, CN, weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin—which is leading the design of the DND’s Canadian Surface Combatant project—and retail oligopoly Walmart.
It’s unclear if the DND’s contract with Prospectus is an ongoing one or limited to the Hartlen Point project, but the Ottawa firm moderated the DND’s public information session on Jan. 31.
That’s an issue to Granchelli, who wonders why taxpayer funds are being spent on outside PR consulting when the DND has its own public affairs department.
In an email to The Coast, an Armed Forces spokesperson says the DND has spent $98,500, excluding taxes, on its contract with Prospectus. That contract started in the summer of 2022. The spokesperson adds that the decision to enlist the outside PR help came out of last spring’s public engagement session, when the DND heard requests for “improvements in community engagement.”
Ask Robb, and those improvements haven’t come. She’s hopeful that decision-makers will change course and find a different location than Hartlen Point—or failing that, offer the answers she says she and others are still waiting for.
“This is not over,” Robb tells The Coast. “We still have more questions than answers and we are not done asking.”