A couple living in Rideau Lakes, Ont., said they might lose their family home of 43 years because a nearby former landfill had contaminated their drinking water and forced the couple to sell the house to the township.
Brenda and Gerry Haughian bought their property on Old Kingston Road in 1979 because of its proximity to Kingston and Perth, where they each worked. Family also lived nearby.
They built their home on the land, nestled among trees and steps away from a lake, where they’ve welcomed children and then grandchildren, and created countless memories.
Now the Haughians say they’re living a “nightmare” where the landfill has contaminated the water, forcing them to sell the house to the township.
Mayor Arie Hoogenboom said the couple might have to leave once the sale is complete because it is a “liability” to the township if they stay and put their health and safety at risk.
The Haughians argue they’re fine where they are, citing a filtration system and bottled water provided by the township. If they have to leave, they at least want to have a say on when.
Chemicals found in the water
The nearby dump site was not a secret when they bought the property in the late ’70s, but at the time “it was very small … there were only two other people on the road,” said Brenda. The couple had been told similar small landfill sites in the area were being closed down.
“We didn’t really consider what was awaiting us, possibly down the road,” she said.
After amalgamation in 1998, a newly formed Rideau Lakes Township decided to designate it an official landfill because of its central location, increasing the amount of waste dumped there.
The couple, which uses a well, said there were always concerns around possible contamination in the groundwater because of the landfill.
It wasn’t until 2012 that a test revealed high levels of metals in their water, and the township began supplying the Haughians with bottled water.
Six years later, Ontario’s environmental ministry conducted a test that revealed elevated levels of polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — chemicals used for lubricants, stain repellents, waterproofing, non-stick coatings and firefighting foams that can be found in products ranging from carpets to cosmetics to clothing to food packaging.
Studies have linked them to a variety of health effects in humans and animals, including increased risk of cancers, reduced immune response and fertility, and altered metabolism and increased risk of obesity.
“It was quite frightening,” said Gerry.
The couple approached the township again, which this time agreed to pay for a water filtration system for their home. The Haughians said they’ve been living comfortably in the house since.
“I certainly never thought … that we’d have to sell our home,” said Brenda.
No choice but to sell
In the fall of 2020, provincial officials recommended the township establish a contamination attenuation zone around the landfill, which means buy up the land surrounding the site to stop any further development.
The surrounding properties were vacant, except for the Haughians.
“We knew once the water was contaminated that we couldn’t resell it as a residential and we only had one buyer and that was the township. We weren’t in a position to do anything else,” said Brenda.
The couple said they’ve “come to grips” with being tenants, but they don’t want to leave the house as long as they’ve got filtered and bottled water.
The situation is ‘difficult,’ says township
The couple said they’re now in a years-long holding pattern with numerous appraisals of their home, ongoing delays because of the pandemic and a lack of clarity on the township’s decision-making process over whether they would be allowed to stay.
“It’s awful to live like that,” said Brenda.
Calling the situation “difficult,” Hoogenboom said no final decision has been made but the township is working with its solicitor to find an “amicable solution.”
The major said the township has spent a lot of time and money trying to make the area around the landfill safe, which includes burying the material dumped there with clay, converting the landfill to a transfer station, installing wells around the perimeter and paying to improve the water quality at the Haughians’ home.
“We have to not just think about what’s good for the Haughians, but what’s good for the township as a whole,” he said.
Fight to stay
The most recent appraisal, ordered by the city, valued the property at about $870,000, which is $20,000 less than just over a year ago.
The Haughians argue it will be nearly impossible to find a comparable property, on the waterfront and close to family — their children built homes nearby and rely on the couple for child care — no matter what number is in the final offer.
“It’s certainly frustration but also, to be honest, there’s anger,” said Gerry.
In a statement, the Ministry of the Environment said it was still in contact “with the affected property owners to address human health impacts,” but did not say whether or not the couple should be allowed to stay in the home.
The Haughians said they plan to fight expropriation if that’s where this road is headed.
“If we don’t have to go for safety reasons, we don’t want to move.”
Ottawa Morning6:53Rideau Lakes water contamination