Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans | The Coast Halifax

Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans

6 takeaways from Stantec’s 96-page report—and what it means for Halifax, wildlife and the site’s future.

A "No Trespassing" sign, seen at Hartlen Point on Feb. 28, 2023. In an email to Eastern Passage resident Angela Granchelli, the DND says the sign was "posted in error" and has been removed.

For months, Canada’s Department of National Defence has promised Haligonians it would share the results of four third-party environmental studies of a controversial Canadian naval testing facility soon to be built at the edge of Eastern Passage. Last week, for the first time, the DND made those full-length reports public on its Trident newspaper website. And while the findings on the planned Hartlen Point site, for the most part, make for dense reading—think ChatGPT being asked to do science homework—the reports offer a range of new answers into the land-based warship testing site’s future, along with what it might mean for the surrounding environment.

The four reports—prepared, the DND says, by “unbiased experts”—cover soil and wetland studies, traffic impacts and the likely effects of the proposed $129-million military development on the area’s birds and bats, for which the rocky federally-owned coastline is famed. Combined, the reports make for 521 pages worth of notes on the much-discussed Canadian Surface Combatant testing site. The findings are also summarized in a 96-page Environmental Effects Determination, authored by Dartmouth-based design and consultancy firm Stantec. While that report concludes that residual effects of the future CFB-Halifax site are “predicted to be not significant,” those who live, hike and fish near Hartlen Point beg to differ.

We’ve broken the report down with the main takeaways on Hartlen Point’s future—and what details might be gleaned from the finer print.

1The site’s total footprint is now expected to be 62,500 square metres.
Thus far, it’s proven difficult to pin down just how big the DND’s proposed Hartlen Point site will be when it’s completed. That’s largely—pardon the pun—because, since the military announced its plans for a land-based testing facility, the proposed site’s size and cost estimates have swelled. When The Coast began its reporting on Hartlen Point in November 2022, the DND described its future land-based testing facility as roughly 9,000 square metres. The price tag at the time? A cool $65 million. By January 2023, when DND representatives met with concerned Eastern Passage residents for a public info session at the Hartlen Point Golf Course, those figures had ballooned to 11,500 square metres and a projected cost of $129 million.

“It isn’t a small footprint at all,” says Marnie Reynolds, who lived in Eastern Passage until recently and has concerns about the site.

The great unknown has been how much of Hartlen Point’s woods, wetlands and dunes the DND plans to fence off for its Canadian Surface Combatant testing facility. Canada’s military brass has repeatedly shared its plans to build a fenced perimeter around the site, but any specifics of what that will look like have been brushed aside as “preliminary” and “subject to change,” based on final designs.

At the DND’s public info session on Jan. 31, 2023, the Canadian Surface Combatant’s deputy project manager and naval captain Jay Thor Turner told attendees that any fence would be “at a minimum” 30 metres away from the facility itself. If the DND adhered to that minimum range, the site’s footprint would expand to 18,850 square metres. But the footprint listed in Stantec’s third-party environmental report is a much larger one: 62,468 square metres—or roughly the equivalent of 11.5 football fields.

Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans
Department of National Defence
A site rendering of the DND's planned land-based testing facility at Hartlen Point. The DND's current estimate is that the full project footprint will cover 62,468 square metres.

We asked the DND what led to the project footprint growing nearly 700% in five months. In an emailed reply, a military spokesperson says that the information shared on Jan. 31 “remains valid and has not changed,” and that the project area includes space for the building, “access road alignments and improvements, construction of a parking area, and the potential for septic field development for wastewater management of the facility.”

2Field surveys identified eight bird species at risk and 38 more deemed “of conservation concern.”
Birdwatchers drawn to Hartlen Point’s windswept shoreline for a glimpse of great cormorants or Ipswich sparrows have been calling on the DND to move its planned warship testing site, lest one of Canada’s richest bird habitats be destroyed. The rocky outcrop is “one of the best mainland migrant traps in Nova Scotia,” according to the Nova Scotia Bird Society; it’s the 10th most biodiverse bird habitat in Canada, according to eBird, a global crowdsourced inventory of bird species and where to find them.

click to enlarge Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans
Angela Granchelli
A snowy owl, spotted at Hartlen Point. The bird species is one of more than 300 found at the southern tip of Eastern Passage.

Several of the bird species found within Hartlen Point—including the barn swallow and Canada warbler—are listed as “endangered” or “vulnerable” under Nova Scotia’s Endangered Species Act. That worries Nikki Gullett, who is one of more than 19,000 who have signed an online petition calling on federal decision-makers to move the military testing site and pledge “total cooperation” to maintaining the ecosystem as is. She takes issue with the government’s reactive approach to conservation and development, when she sees the solution as obvious.

Too often, she told The Coast in November, decision-makers “just wait until a species is endangered. We push it to the brink of extinction, and then we say, ‘OK, now we have to do something,’ instead of just building somewhere else.”

“We just wait until a species is endangered. We push it to the brink of extinction, and then we say, ‘OK, now we have to do something,’ instead of just building somewhere else.”

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While it’s difficult to put a number on just how many at-risk species call Hartlen Point home—or how often they frequent the southern tip of Eastern Passage—field surveys led by engineering consulting firms WSP and CBCL identified as many as eight bird species considered “threatened” or a “special concern” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, and another 38 species deemed to be “of conservation concern.”

That hasn’t stopped the DND from its development plans. The site’s planners say they expect to clear “approximately six hectares” of trees and brush at Hartlen Point in order to build the testing site and its surrounding security fencing. That work, as The Coast has reported, has already begun. In a March 9 email to The Coast, a military 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.” (The Stantec report comes to the same conclusions.) The DND says it aims to have the trees and brush cleared “no later than” April 15, to avoid the spring bird and bat migratory windows.

Gullett worries that the damage is already done, despite any mitigation measures: “Once it’s gone, you can't get it back once this place is developed… That is it. It will not return to what it was.”

3In 60 years, the DND’s planned facility could be under serious environmental threat.
At January’s public info session, the DND leadership stressed the importance of building a land-based testing facility as “critical” to the future of Canada’s national security. Without it, the Canadian Navy would need to test all of its ships’ components at sea, which it says leads to “higher costs, greater demands on personnel and equipment, less control of the test environment and increased energy usage.”

“This is an essential capability for us to deliver the Canadian Surface Combatant project,” naval captain Jay Thor Turner said. “Without this site, we face significant risk to the program… and it continues to be my job and effort to move this project forward.”

click to enlarge Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans
Photo: Martin Bauman / The Coast
Naval captain Jay Thor Turner, deputy project manager of the Canadian Surface Combatant project, says the DND will not consider new sites for its land-based warship testing facility.

The aim is for the 62,500-square-metre fenced-in facility to be built by 2026. But Stantec’s environmental effects report casts doubt on the long-term prospects of any coastal facility. Sea level rise and storm surges present “extreme risks” to the land-based testing site by the 2080s, according to a Climate Vulnerability and Risk Assessment based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s global heating projections. If the planned facility manages to weather future hurricanes, a separate CBCL analysis predicts it has “more than 100 years of use” before its infrastructure would be “lost to coastal erosion.”

Sea level rise and storm surges present “extreme risks” to the land-based testing site by the 2080s, according to a third-party Climate Vulnerability and Risk Assessment.

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Thus far, the DND has been reluctant to consider other sites for its proposed land-based testing site. Asked in January whether he and his colleagues might explore options beyond the five initial sites reviewed in Irving’s site selection report, Turner’s answer was short: “We’re not going to.”

4The DND is considering septic fields for the testing facility’s wastewater.
Project planners for the DND’s proposed Hartlen Point site have been noncommittal about whether it will hook into Halifax’s existing storm and wastewater system, or require septic fields to handle and process the poop produced by the facility’s 120 to 150 personnel. Stantec’s environmental effects report isn’t any clearer: One page hints at “the potential for septic field development” (emphasis ours), while another states, without qualifiers, that sewage treatment will be “provided by onsite septic fields.” Yet another page suggests that final designs haven’t been decided upon—but if septic were chosen, “it will be developed in consideration of best practices to prevent adverse effects on water supplies.”

That offers little reassurance to Angela Granchelli, who has lived in Eastern Passage for 15 years and has concerns about the wetlands that dot the landscape around Hartlen Point.

click to enlarge Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans
Photo: Martin Bauman / The Coast
Hartlen Point, facing out toward Osborne Head. The DND says it prefers Hartlen Point due to its unimpeded sightline over the ocean.

“It’s a very special habitat there,” she told The Coast earlier this month. If the DND were to introduce a septic field, she worries about what it would mean for the area’s sensitive ecosystem—and the potential run-off into nearby Cow Bay Lake. Field surveys led by WSP in 2017 found four plant species listed as “sensitive or at risk” by the Department of Natural Resources: Cursed buttercup, satiny willow, seabeach ragwort and seaside groundsel.

The Coast asked the DND if it could confirm its plans for a septic system—and if one were to be installed, how the DND plans to prevent any environmental contamination. In an emailed reply, a military spokesperson says that the site “requires an on-site Sewage Disposal system to service the new facility,” and that it was “factored into” the DND’s environmental assessments. The spokesperson further adds that any septic field will be positioned “outside of the existing wetlands perimeter” and adhere to provincial guidelines.

5The DND says ground-level radiofrequency emissions will stick within a 130-degree ocean range.
Among neighbours’ most frequently-voiced concerns is how the DND’s plans to broadcast radio frequencies will affect the health of those who live, work and play nearby. Canada’s military says its plans for the land-based facility are to put its soon-to-be-built Canadian Surface Combatant ships’ communication and navigation systems through “rigorous tests and trials” before the ships are assembled. That’s been a source of worry for Craig Hartlen, who has been fishing lobster off the coast of Hartlen Point for 26 years. He was in attendance at the Hartlen Point Golf Course when the DND held its first public information session in March 2022, and recalls a spokesperson telling those gathered it would be “too dangerous” to kayak along the shore once the warship testing facility was built.

“I fish up along there,” he told The Coast in November, “and I was like, ‘Well, how can you do that?’ People live and work here, and we were never told anything.”

click to enlarge Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans
Photo: Martin Bauman / The Coast
The Department of National Defence had also considered Osborne Head, which it has a pre-standing facility on, for its combat ship testing facility.

Stantec’s environmental report notes that the DND’s planned radiofrequency broadcast schedule is “yet to be determined,” and that, when in operation, the ground-level radio emissions will broadcast over a 130-degree range of open ocean. Any radio frequencies within the remaining 230 degrees “will only emit in an upward direction,” the report notes. It further concludes that radio frequencies operating within limits governed by Health Canada are “proven to have no adverse health effects.”

The DND has not yet applied for a license from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada in order to broadcast radio frequencies. In a recent 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 the coming months.”

6The DND says it will offset wetland loss “where necessary.”
Field surveys show 17 wetland pockets at Hartlen Point, ranging in size from 11 hectares (nearly 10 times the footprint of the proposed land-based testing building) to as small as 0.02 hectares (about one-sixth of an Olympic-sized swimming pool). Those wetlands vary from slope marshes, to nutrient-rich shrub swamps and carbon-storing basin bogs. Most lie outside of the DND’s proposed project footprint, but one extends into its northeastern corner. Three others border the road that leads to the yet-to-be-built Canadian Surface Combatant testing site.

click to enlarge Here’s what an environmental report says about the DND’s Hartlen Point plans
Field studies conducted by engineering consulting firm CBCL show 17 wetland pockets at Hartlen Point. Most lie outside of the DND's proposed project footprint, but not all do.

The DND has said it will “avoid interactions” with Hartlen Point’s wetlands as much as possible. Speaking at the January public info session, the DND’s director of construction and project delivery, Paul Schauerte, told attendees that where a crossover is “unavoidable,” the project team will “try to improve the connectivity between the wetlands around the site.” Schauerte added the DND will “revegetate elsewhere” to account for any wetland loss, “to keep the overall size of the wetlands comparable to what they were before.”

The DND is, in fact, legally bound to do so: Since 1991, Canada’s federal policy on wetland conservation has set forth goals of “no net loss” of wetland functions on all federally owned and managed lands and waters. It also calls for the “enhancement and rehabilitation” of wetlands in areas where their loss or degradation “have reached critical levels.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story noted that the DND owns the land at Hartlen Point. In fact, the land is Crown-owned and under the “custodianship and administration” of the DND.