Hartlen Point dispute between DND, environmental activists enters House of Commons | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May has co-signed a Parliamentary petition to halt development at Hartlen Point in Eastern Passage until Ottawa commits to an "independent impact assessment" of the DND's plans for a warship testing site.

Hartlen Point dispute between DND, environmental activists enters House of Commons

Calls for an independent impact assessment of the DND’s plans to build a military testing site are now part of a Parliamentary petition

Efforts to halt a controversial $129-million Canadian naval project planned for the edge of Eastern Passage have found one ally in Ottawa: federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May. The Saanich-Gulf Islands MP has sponsored a Parliamentary petition by the Protect Hartlen Point advocacy group. It calls on the federal government to “pause all construction and further development” of the Department of National Defence’s land-based testing site at Hartlen Point until Ottawa can satisfy a list of concerns, beginning with an “independent impact assessment” of the planned facility and public access to “all documents affecting the decision to develop Hartlen Point.”

The dune-covered spit of land has been a hot-button issue in Halifax ever since the DND shared its plans to build a warship testing site on the undeveloped coastal lot back in 2021. It’s a place that has long been popular with hikers, birdwatchers and surfers—along with rabbits, deer, bobcats and harbour seals. The Nova Scotia Bird Society calls it “one of the best mainland migrant traps in Nova Scotia,” and according to eBird, a global crowdsourced inventory of bird species and where to find them, it’s among the 11 most biodiverse bird habitats in all of Canada. (Eight of the top 10 spots are either national parks, provincial parks or protected areas. Hartlen Point has no such designation.)

For birdwatchers like Nikki Gullett, who come to Hartlen Point for glimpses of red-throated loons and purple sandpipers, the prospect of a DND facility at the rocky outpost bodes ill for the 302-odd bird species who call it home. She worries, too, about the potential impact of the site’s radio emissions on the livelihood of lobster fishers who hold licenses just offshore.

“Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back,” Gullett told The Coast in 2022. “Once this place is developed… it will not return to what it was.”

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Photo: Martin Bauman / The Coast
Nikki Gullett is one of 20,000 who have signed an online petition for the Department of National Defence to conduct a “proper environmental impact assessment” of its planned warship testing facility at Hartlen Point, and to consider another site.

She’s not the only one who feels that way: More than 20,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for a “proper environmental impact assessment” to be conducted by “unbiased, uninvolved third parties,” alleging earlier studies were skewed in the DND’s favour, as well as for the DND to consider another site and commit to “honest and transparent communication” with those who live in Eastern Passage.

Facility intended for testing features of 15 new combat ships

The DND’s interest in Hartlen Point boils down to one thing: Combat ships. The Navy argues that Canada’s maritime fleet is getting a little long in the tooth: More than half of its 12 Halifax-class patrol frigates are 30 years old, and its four Iroquois-class destroyers, launched in the 1970s, have been out of use since 2017. (The average lifespan of a vessel, according to Canadian shipbuilding engineers SSI, is “between 30 and 50 years.”)

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Photo: Government of Canada
The federal government is spending upwards of $84.5 billion on 15 Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) ships, which Ottawa calls a “major surface component of [Canada’s] maritime combat power.”

Ottawa’s answer has been to commission 15 so-called Canadian Surface Combatant ships, described as Canada’s “major surface component of maritime combat power.” Both Lockheed Martin and Irving are leading the design and build of the ships. Those CSCs were announced at an estimated cost of $56-60 billion (a figure that still appears on the Government of Canada’s website), 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. (For context, Nova Scotia’s entire spending on capital projects—roads, schools, hospitals and the like—in the next year will come in at around $1.6 billion.)

The DND sees Hartlen Point as “critical to ensuring the new ships are ready” and has designs for a “one-of-a-kind facility” that it says will “foster innovation and support sustainable growth in Canada’s marine industry.” The Navy’s official Atlantic newspaper, The Trident, claims that the project will bring an estimated 350 jobs to Halifax through its construction phase.

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Photo: Google Earth. Illustration: Martin Bauman / The Coast
Hartlen Point sits at the southernmost tip of Eastern Passage.

But it’s the coastline that DND likes most: Hartlen Point fits the bill, the DND says, because it offers 130 degrees of ocean exposure to transmit “safe, government-regulated emitters” that will form part of the ships’ combat and communication systems. (It’s those same emitters, in part, that have given the DND’s neighbours pause.)

A DND spokesperson told The Coast by email that five sites had been under consideration for the testing facility, including Bedford Basin, Ferguson’s Cove, Osborne Head and CFB Halifax - Stadacona, but that Hartlen Point was the military’s preferred site given its coastal location, the fact that it’s DND-managed (a military golf club neighbours the property), and that it “meets our security requirements and provides adequate space for all of this facility’s systems in one location.”

A rocky year of challenges

The last year of developments at Hartlen Point has been nothing, if not contentious. Concerned neighbours have lobbied environment minister Steven Guilbeault to hear their apprehensions about the warship testing project, and the DND’s last public feedback session—more than a year ago, on Jan. 31, 2023—prompted accusations of a “breakdown of democratic function.”

At the time, nearby residents shared concerns that the DND showed little evidence of hearing and responding to community input about the site. Some worried about the naval site’s growing footprint—which had escalated from 9,000 square metres in early estimates to roughly 62,500 sq. m, once all the fencing was included.

“The cart’s before the horse,” attendee Colleen Tierney said at the Jan. 31 public forum, to applause from the room of 80-plus community members. Tierney asked—as others did—what actions the DND’s decision-makers would take to account for the concerns raised that evening: “I need to know what actions are feasible—otherwise, this is just a performance piece.”

“You guys would hate if it was your backyard,” another attendee who’d grown visibly frustrated shouted, before storming out. “I live 100 metres away from here, for Jesus’ sake. Wake up.”

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Photo: Martin Bauman / The Coast
"Wake up," one attendee told the DND representatives on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

Others in attendance—like Gullett—were worried what impacts construction might have on the bird species that migrate annually to Hartlen Point. (Field surveys at the site found eight bird species at risk and 38 more deemed “of conservation concern.”) The DND’s director of construction and project delivery, Paul Schauerte, told the crowd that the department “looked at a number of bird and bat habitats” at Hartlen Point, including the species’ migration and breeding patterns, to get a sense of the facility’s potential impact. While the DND “can’t entirely reduce the risk to zero” for birds and other animal species, Schauerte said, “the goal is to get it as close to zero as we can.”

One community member, Dominic Cormier, wondered—if Hartlen Point was indeed the best location—why the DND hadn’t considered building over a part of the Canadian Forces’ 18-hole golf course, rather than disrupt the neighbouring dunes and wetlands.

“It wasn’t in our original sites that we looked at,” CSC deputy project manager and naval captain Jay Thor Turner replied. “We would have to go back and look at it again, which… we're not going to do.”

The DND eventually started clearing trees and brush from Hartlen Point last March—a move a department spokesperson told The Coast was chosen “to avoid the bird and bat breeding and migratory windows.” That came with its own comedy of errors: An 18-wheeler bound for the DND site with an excavator in tow wound up with its wheels stuck in the snow on a neighbour’s front lawn. Some onlookers said it nearly hit a telephone pole. That came as little surprise—if also little comfort—to Angela Granchelli, who has lived in Eastern Passage for more than 15 years. Shore Road isn’t built for that kind of heavy traffic equipment, she says she’d been trying to tell the DND.

“They haven’t even started [construction] and people are in danger already,” she told The Coast in an email last spring.

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Excavation has begun at Hartlen Point, where the Department of National Defence is planning to build a 11,500-square-metre warship testing facility.

“They just send us on wild goose chases”

Along with concerns about impacts on birds and traffic along narrow roadways, the DND has faced criticism for hiring outside PR help: As The Signal’s Crystal Greene first reported, Canada’s military enlisted Ottawa-based firm Prospectus Associates for support with the Jan. 31, 2023 public engagement session. (Prospectus’ website says it helps clients with “complex, challenging and high-profile issues.” That includes crisis management.) In a pair of emailed statements to The Coast, a DND spokesperson says the department hired Prospectus in the summer of 2022 “to help facilitate community engagement” and paid the firm “approximately” $147,550, not including taxes, over the course of the next year. (The contract lasted until May 2023.)

Granchelli wonders why the DND would spend taxpayer funds on PR consulting when the military has its own public affairs staff.

A DND spokesperson told The Coast that the call to enlist the outside PR help came out of the Navy’s first public engagement session, held in spring 2022, when the DND heard requests for “improvements in community engagement.”

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The Coast
Department of National Defense assistant deputy minister Rob Chambers fields a question during the DND's public information session about Hartlen Point on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

But ask Protect Hartlen Point’s members, and those improvements haven’t come. The DND had planned a follow-up public info session for the fall of 2023, Halifax resident Karen Robb says, but never scheduled it.

Instead, the department issued a written update on Sept. 19, 2023, advising of “early site preparation work” and reaffirming that “respect of the environment and wildlife continues to be a top priority.” In an archived statement The Coast obtained from the Trident newspaper website, the DND says it opted against the fall public info session because “there is no additional information to be delivered beyond the construction updates provided.”

“I live about a kilometre from Hartlen Point, and I do not feel that DND is being a good neighbour at all.”

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As of Feb. 23, 2024, that statement no longer appears on the Trident website.

That doesn’t cut it for Robb and Granchelli.

“I live about a kilometre from Hartlen Point, and I do not feel that DND is being a good neighbour at all,” Granchelli tells The Coast. “They’re just hiding everything from us. They won’t answer any questions; they just send us on wild goose chases and refuse to have community meetings.”

“We still have more questions than answers,” Robb adds. “They’re really not interested in engaging us as a group about our concerns.”

Construction to begin in winter 2025

Late last week, the DND offered its latest update on construction progress at Hartlen Point: According to the Navy’s Trident newspaper, crews continue to lay gravel “for roadway access to the building site and grading.” Other work includes a water meter building, to be completed by fall 2024. The most substantial construction work won’t begin until January 2025 at the earliest, the DND says—a nine-month delay from prior timelines, which suggested crews would start building the facility in March 2024. (The Navy’s expected deadline to complete the facility is still 2027, although the target has shifted from “late summer” to “late fall.”)

The delayed start is a cause for hope, according to Granchelli—especially if the Parliamentary petition can gain any traction. As of Feb. 26, 664 people have signed the House of Commons petition. It’s open until Apr. 14, 2024.

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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.

She and her fellow Protect Hartlen Point members are hopeful the site could still be designated as an OECM site (Other Effective area-based Conservation Measures): A still-relatively-new federal distinction that recognizes community efforts that maintain biodiverse areas. (That could include Indigenous territories, for instance, or—in the case of Nova Scotia’s Eastern Canyon Marine Refuge—cold-water corals off the coast of Sable Island.) As of 2022, OECMs accounted for roughly 7.7 million hectares of land across Canada.

An OECM distinction for Hartlen Point would add it to Canada’s Protected and Conserved Areas Database, Granchelli says—and, she hopes, lay the groundwork for stronger protections going forward.

“At this stage, if [DND] simply stopped, it would all revert to normal in a few years,” Granchelli says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “All the vegetation they removed was either softwoods or shrubs and can grow back quickly.”

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...
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