From dust to disgust in Cartwright

Bonnie Learning
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Local nurse says dust levels impacting health of community, daughter

For the second year in a row, residents of Cartwright are having to deal with extreme levels of dust in the town. Residents like Phoebe Davis — who took this picture on May 16 from her house across from a local store — notes the grey vegetation by the side of the road.

A resident and nurse in Cartwright fears for her health — and the health of her daughter — as the community faces its second summer without dust control measures in place.

“I have asthma and chronic sinus issues … my daughter has a heart defect; we are greatly impacted by the dust in town,” Tina Mesher said recently.

“We quite literally can't get out in the summer because of the dust levels. My daughter, Hannah, will be 14 in June. She has never learned how to ride a bike because the dust levels have been so bad; I fear what might happen to her.”


Province pulled funding

For the second year in a row, the town is trying to cope with a lack of dust control on the main highway through town. The road is part of Route 516 of the South Coast highway. The provincial government previously funded a program, but it was cut in Budget 2013.

Prior to the cut, the province provided an application of calcium chloride around May of each year, which essentially lasted the entire summer.

As a nurse at the local clinic, Mesher said she sees all too often the impact the dust is having on other residents in the community as well.

“There are people living here who are far worse off then me, people who are oxygen dependent. We have to prescribe medication we don't want to have to prescribe, such as rescue inhalers, because we have no choice.”

Mesher noted she can't even open her windows in the summer because everything in her house gets coated with a fine layer of silica dust.

“You're basically inhaling this stuff,” she said. “And for (Transportation and Works) Minister Nick McGrath to recently state in the media that the only harmful dust is the stuff you can't see, what is that supposed to mean? I am sure he wouldn't enjoy living here in these conditions.

“We may be a small place, but this is a big concern.”

Mesher said she and her daughter basically “do nothing” in the summer.

“As soon as my summer holidays get here, we get in the car and hit the road to spend our vacation elsewhere, so we can at least enjoy a part of the summer away from the dust,” she said, noting that not everyone is as fortunate to be able to get a break from the dust.

“There are people who have houses literally on the main road. They can never open their windows. You can't take a walk through town or go for a bike ride. If you do go for a walk, your hair is literally stiff with sand when you get home. You can't even get out to exercise.”


Prisoners in their homes

Acting Mayor Dwight Lethbridge is as frustrated as Mesher by the lack of dust control and agrees the dust is so bad on dry and humid days, it is keeping many residents prisoners in their own homes.

“The dust has a tremendous impact on residents,” said Lethbridge.

“You can't dry clothes on the line, you can't put fish out to dry, you can't walk around the harbour. It's poor.”

Lethbridge said its especially hard on children and seniors.

“Last season, I saw with my own eyes, kids on their bikes wearing hospital masks.”

Lethbridge explained on dry and humid, still days, the dust kicked up by the traffic on the main road can stay suspended in the air for extended periods of time.

“Everything gets choked by the dust,” he said. “Our main concern is the fine dust, which is known to cause health problems. You can't see it, but it has to be mixed in with the dust you can see.”

Residents have been approaching town councillors since earlier this month, asking what they are doing to try to resolve the matter, but as it stands right now, Lethbridge said there is not a whole lot they can do, as the town does not have the fiscal capacity to support a calcium chloride application.

“I would cost us tens of thousands of dollars to treat that six kilometres of road,” said Lethbridge. “Treating it with water would not even be a lower cost option, as you would have to pay a driver every single day during the season, maintain the vehicle and equipment and so on, whereas with the calcium chloride, it's just one application.”

For now, Lethbridge said all the town can pretty much do is continue a lobby effort to try to convince the province of the need of the calcium chloride.

“We've been in touch with Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador to lobby on our behalf and we're going to touch base with some chemical supply companies to see what options and costs are out there.”

Lethbridge said it is crucial something be done.

“We're an industrious town, we have an active fishery, we're establishing ourselves as a gateway to the Mealy Mountain National Park, and we are expecting an inaugural visit from a Holland America cruise ship on July 17 that could quadruple our population for a day,” he said.

“We have no provincial presence here to keep things as good as they were two years ago; nothing for us to build on.”


Province responds

In an email to The Labradorian on May 21, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Works said calcium chloride “was applied annually to approximately 192 kilometres of gravel roads throughout the province as a dust suppressant where there are permanent residents.”

“These are low traffic, low speed roads,” stated the spokesperson in the email.

“In Budget 2013, the decision was made to stop applying calcium chloride,” the email continued. “That said, the department has heard concerns voiced by residents from different parts of the province where calcium chloride was used. The minister has directed departmental officials to look into the voiced concerns in consultation with other relevant departments and quickly identify an appropriate course of action.”

Mesher said she isn't optimistic that something will change.

“I hope (the province) will go back to (calcium chloride), but I'm not holding my breath,” she said.

Organizations: South Coast, Department of Transportation and Works

Geographic location: Cartwright, Mealy Mountain National Park, Holland America

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