The people in the coastal community of Richibucto, N.B., are used to stink. The rotten egg smell of low tide. Lobster shells in the compost. Or simply “wharf,” the pong of fish bait that’s part of life on the Northumberland Strait.
But the stench from a crustacean-waste drying plant – an acrid gag-inducing rotting animal smell – has plagued the lives of people in this Acadian town off and on more than six years, leading to a continuing provincial public-safety investigation, seven lawsuits and a petition to “Stop the stink” tabled at the legislature.
“You have to take a breath and run to your car,” said Claudette Robichaud, a registered nurse who lives 400 metres downwind from the Coastal Shell Products plant. “You can’t stay outside. You’ll vomit.”
Coastal Shell, formerly Omera Shells, trucks in the waste of lobster, crab and shrimp shells to its facility at the end of a residential street. The shells are fed into a propane-burning dryer, according to the company’s provincial permit issued by the Department of Environment and Climate Change. They are crushed, sorted and bagged for export to Asia to be used as fertilizer and pet food, and to make chitosan, a compound studied for use in medications and tissue engineering.
The company sold its business plan to local politicians as one that would bring prosperity to Richibucto, recently amalgamated into the town of Beaurivage.
The unemployment rate in Richibucto – population 1,400 – is more than double the provincial average. Vacant shopfronts darken the scenic main drag. The promise of new jobs, much-needed tax revenue and a business that would deal with crustacean waste for seafood producers seemed like an ingenious idea – until the townspeople caught their first whiff.
“It’s not just a hold-your-nose and try to go outside,” said Maisie McNaughton, a member of the citizen-led Kent Clean Air Action Committee and founder of the “Stop the stink” sign campaign. “The stench is so bad it will make your eyes water.”
The plant began operating in a vacant rum distillery in 2016, several hundred metres from homes, an elementary school that also houses a daycare, and a senior’s complex.
Beaurivage Mayor Arnold Vautour said the previous elected council approved the factory’s operations in the commercially zoned area. Amid growing concerns from residents, the school board and business owners, he said he asked the provincial and federal governments to lend the company between $1.5-million and $2-million to buy odour-control equipment.
“The smells coming out from that factory need to be fixed,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
JoAnne Robichaud, chair of the citizen’s committee fighting to close or relocate the plant, recently resigned as a councillor for Beaurivage over the stink. Ms. Robichaud, who lives 500 metres from the plant and is also one of the people suing the company, said it had become too much of a conflict of interest for her to serve on council while fighting against what her group calls an environmental disaster. She said she felt restricted from speaking out and representing her community, after council sought advice from a lawyer.
Mr. Vautour said he involved a lawyer to protect Ms. Robichaud and the town against a potential lawsuit. He said the lawyer advised Ms. Robichaud to recuse herself from any discussion at council about Coastal Shell and no longer speak out against the company.
Earlier this month, as per its most recent provincial permit, the plant fired up at 8 p.m., sending plumes of white smoke into the pastel sky. Half an hour later, an acrid fecal stench engulfed Ms. Robichaud’s waterfront property on a street lined with well-kept homes.
“We don’t open windows anymore. We barely can go outside,” said Ms. Robichaud, 54, who is one of the people suing the company for loss of property value. “I’ve been here all my life. I’d like to stay, but it’s getting too hard.”
The stink has emitted from sewage drains, prompting local authorities to seal off vents in the manhole covers. It has excreted into homes through bathtub and sink drains, according to local resident Arina Hébert. She said no amount of essential oil or air freshener can mask the fetid odour in her small bungalow about half a kilometre from the plant.
“It’s just like a devil smell. Sometimes it’s worse than other times. Sometimes it’s burned lobster water. Other times it’s mixed with the sewer and you’re running for your life,” said Ms. Hébert, 54, who has stopped going outside on her property or for walks.
More than 100 parents with children at the nearby elementary school formed a group to press the province to act. Despite a reduction in the plant’s operating hours, the stink is still getting into the classroom, causing headaches and illness for some teachers and children.
“Some days it’s so bad. You almost want to choke,” said Christian Poirier, a father of twin seven-year-olds and the group’s founder. “I’m not asking for them to close down permanently, but they either got to move out where there’s no population or set a system up that can take the smell away.”
The owners of Coastal Shell Products – Denis Albert, Stéphane Boudreau, Louis Bourgeois and Omer Gaudet – declined an interview through their lawyer, but provided a statement, saying they have heard the community’s concerns and want to work toward a harmonious solution.
The company – which employs 26 people, not 74 as promised – said it has committed to a “capital investment project designed for efficient handling of facility emissions,” for which it plans to announce the start date soon. “In the interim, the situation will continue to be closely monitored, but most importantly, the company wishes to reassure citizens that the emissions from the facility have been tested and there have been no breaches of regulations or standards as detailed in our operating permit.”
In a statement of defence filed in court in March, Coastal Shell denied the existence of any noxious smells, gases or fumes coming from its operation. The company maintains it hasn’t caused any unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of the plaintiffs’ land. It says it will plead the defence of statutory authority because it has all the necessary permits and authorizations from government.
In November, the citizen’s committee presented a petition to the legislature calling for the province to “Stop the stink” and shut down the plant. More than 1,900 signed – more than the population of Richibucto.
Since then, the province has continued to issue operating permits. On May 1, it was approved for another three months, restricting operations to between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. The company must also test its emissions and submit a schedule to install odour-control equipment.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Gary Crossman said in a statement that his department is monitoring the smell and the company is required to submit an odour-control plan. He said a third party conducted emission testing and his department is satisfied the results meet air quality regulation standards.
Mr. Crossman and Minister of Local Government Daniel Allain have met with community members and municipal politicians to address their concerns.
“It’s important to work with all involved, have the right rules in place and to look at the technological improvements that can be made to reduce impacts,” Mr. Crossman said.
Meanwhile, New Brunswick’s Justice and Public Safety Department is conducting its own investigation, said spokeswoman Judy Désalliers.
For the people living near the plant, it’ll be another summer of locking their windows. Of keeping their air exchanges off. And being unable to sit on their decks.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sean Sullivan, a resident and retired manager of public works for the town. “At what cost does this have to continue?”