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Raw sewage pumped into this woman’s building for months. Officials did nothing

The video shows an old, low-ceilinged basement, the dirt floor flooded with black and brown sludge. A broken cast-iron pipe is visible — the source of a leak spewing raw sewage into the basement of a home in New Glasgow, N.S., for about a year.  

A plumber is walking through the mess, assessing the damage. 

“This has been going on for far too long,” said the plumber, Paul MacLeod. “The smell down here is horrific.”

Tricia Gallant, 38, was living upstairs in one of the three rental units, experiencing nausea, dizzy spells, sinus infections and brain fog. 

She had an inkling there was a problem, but didn’t realize her home was dangerous. 

“When I moved into that place, I was living in my car,” Gallant said in an interview. “So I thought it was going to save me, when in reality it just made me sick.”

Raw sewage leaked into New Glasgow rental

Plumber Paul MacLeod realized the extent of the damage caused by a months-long sewage leak after it was vacuumed out. He took a video and called the Department of Environment. (Better Call Paul Plumbing)

Gallant’s living conditions are an extreme example of how low-income tenants stuck in unfit housing can suffer physically and psychologically as they struggle to get repairs and keep a roof over their head. A recent CBC News investigation found renters living in dangerous, dilapidated housing are up against unresponsive landlords and a lack of protective bylaws. 

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, approximately 30 per cent of households in Canada live in substandard, inadequate or unaffordable housing. It cites the importance of having physicians understand the housing status of patients, including whether they have pest infestations, poor water and air quality or unstable housing. 

One Nova Scotia physician says he sees more patients living in housing that doesn’t meet their basic needs, dealing with landlords who don’t make repairs and government systems that allow them to fall through the cracks. 

“These are things which are simply unacceptable,” said Jabu Mathew Abraham, a family doctor currently working at a clinic in East Preston, N.S. “We all have different tolerance for pain and for suffering, but that doesn’t mean that we all have to be subjected to that.”

A two-storey white century home is pictured next to an overgrown lawn on a quiet street.
A three-unit apartment building at 166 Edward St. in New Glasgow, N.S., had a massive sewage leak. In May, tenants left once they realized their health was at risk. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Gallant lived in the rental unit on Edward Street for two years, paying $1,100 monthly, utilities included. She said there were rats, roof leaks and the electricity didn’t work in every room — as well as a slight smell of rotten eggs that permeated the home. 

She said her landlord was difficult to get in touch with and avoided doing repairs. But it was a place she could afford on her wages working at Tim Hortons, and she opted to stay. 

The building’s landlord did not respond to repeated requests from CBC News.

Emergency move

When the sewage leak was finally discovered by MacLeod on May 1, he said he called the landlord and was told to investigate and repair the leak. But when he realized the severity of the issue, he called the town office and the provincial Department of Environment.

Gallant found out about the sewage leak from the tenant living below her. She was advised to get out and leave her belongings, as they were likely contaminated. 

Then came a panic. Gallant searched for housing with the help of a support worker from Viola’s Place, the local homeless shelter. After two weeks, she found a two-bedroom apartment in Pictou, N.S., nearly 20 kilometres away. 

She received some financial help from the shelter to pay her first month’s rent, and moved in with few possessions, packed in milk crates. 

“I lost my bed, I lost my clothes, I lost everything,” Gallant said. “So basically, I’m just slowly picking away at what I can afford.”

A woman is shown with her medical mask hanging on her chin. Her lips and nose are red and swollen. She is wearing tinted glasses and a baseball hat.
Tricia Gallant says she went to the emergency department several times in May because she was suffering from dizziness, headaches, nausea and a swollen face. She was prescribed antibiotics. (Tricia Gallant)

She’s slowly recovering from the toll it took on her body as well. Gallant said she went to the emergency department at least four times and was given antibiotics.

“They confirmed the nausea, the dizzy spells, the issues with the cognitive functions and all that was most likely associated with the septic issues,” she said.

Abraham said a yearlong sewage leak can affect someone’s lungs, sinuses and skin. He said being “constantly exposed to sewage means exposure to nasty bugs/pathogens that can lead to more serious things like sepsis.”

Abraham said on top of the physical effects, he’s seeing more people experiencing psychological issues caused by their housing situation.

“We’re seeing blatant disregard for living conditions,” he said. “That’s a human right to have a healthy living condition, especially when you’re paying money and there’s agreements and there’s contracts.”

As Gallant settled in her new place, she was under the impression her previous building had been condemned. What she didn’t know is that officials from two levels of government passed the issue off to each other, with neither taking action.

‘Passing the buck’

When CBC News asked if the Edward Street building had been condemned by the Department of Environment, a spokesperson said no. 

An inspector from the department “visited the site … to look into the matter, however, where the sewage was inside the building, on private property, we did not have jurisdiction,” spokesperson Lorena Casales said in an email.

The provincial inspector contacted the town, since municipal building inspectors determine whether a building is safe and meets bylaws and building code standards, Casales said. The inspector was told staff were already aware of the situation and their sewage infrastructure was working properly.

Black sludge is seen covering pipes and wires on a basement floor. A large hole is seen in one pipe which was the source of the leak.
A major sewage leak was discovered in the basement of a New Glasgow apartment building on May 1. (Better Call Paul Plumbing)

But municipal officials told CBC News they also didn’t enter the home to investigate. Earl MacKenzie, the director of engineering and public works for the Town of New Glasgow, said he was contacted by both MacLeod and a provincial inspector, but he also had no jurisdiction inside the property. 

“And so at that point this was being kind of turned over … to the Department of Environment,” MacKenzie said in late June. “So that’s actually the last I heard of it until we’re discussing the issue today.”

New Glasgow doesn’t have a minimum standards bylaw for housing. MacKenzie said the town has a bylaw inspector dedicated to dangerous and unsightly buildings, but that mainly applies to the exterior of the home. And he said the tenants didn’t make a bylaw complaint, so that option was never explored. 

“It does sound like, I guess, passing the buck,” said New Glasgow Mayor Nancy Dicks. “It’s not what you like to hear for sure, that it’s going from one to the other.”

Burden on the tenant

Experts say the fact that Gallant didn’t make an official bylaw complaint about the sewage leak shouldn’t mean officials can wash their hands of it. 

“The way that the system typically works is the onus is on the tenant to identify and raise concerns about unhealthy conditions, and this is one of the roots of the problem,” said Erica Phipps, executive director of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment. 

“We’ve put the burden on the people who have the most to lose.”

Phipps also runs a research project in Ontario called RentSafe, which tracks health issues for low-income renters and works to identify ways for the systems and departments involved to work together to respond. 

A window is smashed in a metal door that is covered in mildew, next to an overflowing black mailbox.
The apartment building on Edward Street has been vacant since two tenants fled their units in May. The Town of New Glasgow and the Department of Environment knew about a sewage leak but both said they didn’t have jurisdiction. (Dave Irish/CBC)

She said many tenants remain living in substandard, unhealthy or even dangerous conditions for prolonged periods and never make an official complaint, either because they’re scared of being evicted in retaliation or they worry the building will be condemned. 

Either way, she said, they often won’t find housing at the same price and may end up on the street.

“How can we make sure that when a referral or a passing of the issue happens that you get to an ultimate conclusion to that situation,” Phipps said, “and we don’t have the revolving door of people moving into units that are known by at least some agencies to have a significant health risk.”

The province’s Residential Tenancies Act states landlords are required to maintain their properties in a good state of repair and ensure they are livable throughout the tenancy. 

Casales, from the Department of Environment, said if a tenant is living in substandard conditions without running water, heat or with sewage issues, for example, they can file an application for a hearing with the Residential Tenancies Program.

That’s what Gallant plans to do. She said since she moved out, her landlord offered her $2,500 in compensation — but she declined, instead gathering evidence for a hearing. 

An arm is shown with a finger pointing to a blue tattoo of an anchor with the number 13.
Tricia Gallant has a tattoo of the number 13 on her wrist. She says it’s a symbol of her bad luck. (Tricia Gallant)

She points to a tattoo of an anchor with the number 13 on her left forearm, representing her luck. 

“Because if I didn’t have bad luck, I’d have none at all,” Gallant said. “But just because you have bad luck, it doesn’t mean you can let it weigh you down. And you just got to kind of keep going.”

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