Quebec homeowners say Ottawa must tackle decades of erosion caused by shipping

VERCHERES, Que. – Every year, 100-year-old Angélique Beauchemin sees more of her land sink into the St. Lawrence River.

From her home along a busy stretch of river in Vercheres, Quebec, on Montreal’s South Shore, she watches the waves of passing ships crash into the rock wall at the base of her property, sweeping pieces and gnawing the unprotected banks from below.

The higher parts of her land, she said, are sinking an inch or two a year as they slope more and more towards the river. Although she is not a scientist, she says her biggest fear is that one day there will be a landslide and the white house on the top of the hill where she has lived for decades will collapse.

“It could go completely,” she said in a recent interview.

Despite her age, she made the steep hike downhill to the river, wearing a straw hat and sunglasses, using a cane. Below, she pointed to places where water has carved bays into the shore since her last visit.

“It’s even worse than it was,” she said. “It’s not reassuring.”

Beauchemin says the area under the wall was once a small sandy beach where people could swim. Now she feels the rest of the rock face – along with the remnants of the concrete sidewalk that allowed residents to walk from town to town – will be swept away before the end of the summer.

Beauchemin is part of a group of people who live in cities on the South Shore of Montreal who are urging the federal government to counter the effects of shoreline erosion which they say affects animals and vegetation and damages their territory.

The culprit, they say, are the waves from large ships that cross the narrow stretch of the St. Lawrence, eating away at rock faces and dragging cloudy swirls of land with every ripple.

Micheline Lagarde, the president of a residents’ committee formed in 2019, points to old articles showing that the federal government built anti-erosion infrastructure along the river in the 1960s and 1970s.

But the federal program that funded maintenance of the walls was eventually cut back and eliminated entirely in 1997. The walls, she said, have since crumbled.

In an interview in his kitchen overlooking the river, Lagarde said people felt “completely abandoned” by the ongoing property damage.

“It’s like there’s no one who wants to take responsibility,” she says.

Lagarde said that after years of lobbying their MPs, residents came together to form a citizens’ committee. Since then, they have done more lobbying and even traveled to Ottawa to present a petition with 2,300 signatures and tried unsuccessfully to meet with the Minister of Transport at the time, Marc Garneau.

Lagarde says it’s nearly impossible for homeowners to build or repair retaining walls themselves, as the operation requires specialized contractors and engineers and would cost between $5,000 and $6,000 per yard, meaning that the bill for an entire property could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even if they wanted to, she said they might not even get a permit because the St. Lawrence River is under provincial and federal jurisdiction.

Last week, Lagarde and his colleague Diane Lalonde, a member of the committee, took The Canadian Press to visit several properties in the Vercheres and Contrecoeur regions of Quebec. They reported trees and other vegetation that had been lost, chunks of earth washed away, and concrete and stone retaining walls that had collapsed.

John Masserey’s house sits about nine meters from the water, with a lawn that is held back from the river by a nine-foot-high metal sheet pile wall built in the 1960s.

Last week, Masserey walked along the base, pointing out rusty spots where water had started seeping in. The wall is anchored on one side by a concrete base, about half of which has eroded away, and on the other by angled rods digging into the grass.

“If they fail and the sheet pile goes away, the house is no longer suitable for habitation,” he said.

Masserey raised concerns about sheet piling nearly 30 years ago, when he wrote to the federal government suggesting wave action from shipping traffic was degrading the base. The Canadian Coast Guard’s response in 1993 said there was no federal money for restorations.

Masserey and Beauchemin have joined a class action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of residents of Varennes, Quebec, Verchères and Contrecoeur. The $50 million lawsuit, which has yet to be heard on its merits, alleges that the owners have experienced worsening erosion that exceeds what would occur through natural processes from ships.

In a statement, Transport Canada said it is aware of erosion issues in the area and is monitoring the issue with other partners.

“In order to protect the banks, funds were provided by the federal government in the 1960s to build protective structures; that program has since ended,” he wrote.

Transport Canada said it has taken steps to reduce the impact of ship-generated waves, including issuing shipping advisories based on water levels, monitoring ship speeds and instituting voluntary wave reduction measures. speed which entered into force in 2000.

The department also said the erosion is not just caused by ships, but also by “natural factors” such as ice, wind and currents.

“As these issues are outside of Transport Canada’s mandate, the department does not have a program or funding to address bank erosion related to these factors,” the department said, noting that the responsibility for the river is shared with the province and the cities.

Lagarde said she is not opposed to the class action lawsuit, but hopes the case can be resolved out of court.

She hopes to meet with federal environment and transportation ministers about repairing crumbling walls and working with scientists to find new, environmentally friendly ways to counter erosion.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 26, 2022.

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