Former Wellington family awarded $1.7-million in pollution suit

Once it was a farm that dreams might be built on – but those dreams turned into a nightmare for Holland immigrant Ben Beren­d­sen and his family.
And receiving an award last week of $1.7-million in a law­suit with provincial govern­ment after 14 years in the courts hardly seems like com­pensation to him for what he and his family went through.
On moving to Canada, Ber­endsen bought a 200 acre dairy farm just south of Teviotdale in 1981, and almost immediately, began having problems. He was unaware that in the 1960s, tonnes of asphalt were dumped near a municipal drain on his farm, close to the house’s well, and all that deteriorating asphalt was polluting his water.
Several of his cows became ill, many refused to drink from the creek, and several died. Milk production dramatically decreased, and cows that did produce milk passed on the pollution to their calves. Their meat also became too dan­ger­ous to eat, and doctors warned the family to stop drinking the water from the farm’s well.
He and his wife, Marie, and their three children soon began suf­fering, too. He himself got spots on his liver, and a daughter began losing her hair, just like the calves that were drinking the milk from cows who had drank the con­tami­nated water.
Now, after 14 years in the courts, the family was awarded compensation by the Supreme Court. On­tario Superior Court judge Silja Seppe found that even if a private contractor had caused the pollution on the farm, it is the responsibility of the pro­vincial government. It had hired the contractor that built the road and who dumped the waste from a nearby high­way.
Berendsen said he eventu­ally learned from the former owner of the property about the asphalt there, and where it was buried. The MTO and MOE had water trucked to the farm for a few years, and sent inspectors to the farm to test the water.
Berendsen, though, said their findings often conflicted with what his private tests indi­cated.
He noted, too, that when his cows were checked, the fat in them contained PCBs.
He and his family tracked down the man who took part in the burial of that road waste, and Berendsen said he learned the burial of waste went on two to three weeks. He estimated from what he learned that there was over 3,000 tonnes of bur­ied asphalt in a stretch of 100- by 100 feet, 8- to 10-feet deep.’
He noted that provincial rules state that such wasted is not allowed to be buried within  100 metres of a river, or within 200 feet of a well. He said it is within 60 feet of the farm’s well, and another 60 feet from the drain that flows to the Maitland River.
Berendsen said of the fam­ily experience, “It was all going downhill – financially – and health wise.”
The Berendsens moved to a farm near Chepstow in the 1990s and started court action to recover their losses.
Berendsen said in an inter­view the family moved in the dead of winter, forced to sell by the Farm Credit Cor­pora­­tion, and he now thinks that was a good thing, because some of them gradually man­aged to get their health back. He did not wish to speak about some of their illnesses, noting that is a private matter.
The family managed to sell 100 acres, half their farm, with a condition that the new owner could not sue them for the pollution in the ground­water. He said they realized about 60% of the value of the land. He then had to finance his new farm 100 per cent, and had to rent it for nine months before he could even do that. The pre­vious owner of the family’s new farm financed them for three years.
Berendsen said the old house and barn on County Road 7 were vandaliz­ed and goods were stolen from them, and while the family has been willing to sell the remaining land, there are no takers at any price. The copper wire was ripped from the barn, the phones and washroom fixtures disappeared, and even the front door, only a few years old was stolen from the house. The place has now been abandoned for nearly 18 years, and it looks it.
He added that neigh­bours were also resentful, mainly because their property values were dropping, too.
One way he can demon­strate the value of the farm drop­ped was to have his prop­erty taxes cut in half, and then reduced again by 25%. He said he has not paid property taxes for 18 years, and neither old Mary­borough township now Mapleton Township have done anything to collect those taxes.
Normally, after three years of nonpayment of taxes, municipalities can seize a property, sell it for the taxes, and give the balance to the landowner. He believes it is telling that no one has done that in this case. He has paid no property taxes for 18 years.
Mapleton Director of Finance Mike Givens said in an interview that he is aware of the situation with unpaid taxes, but the township was waiting for a resolution to the court case. He said it likely would not discuss the issue until the appeal period is passed and that legal issue is settled.
Berendsen said the provin­cial government, more specifi­cally the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Environ­ment fought him in the courts for so long because they do not want to accept liability for polluted asphalt. From the 1950s into the 1970s, he said, paving companies that built roads in Ontario heavily used oil to make those roads smooth.
He said the result is miles of roads with PCBs and dioxin in them.
“Because of that, MTO is scared of so much asphalt in Ontario,” he charged. “That is the whole issue. They don’t want to be liable – but why should I be liable?”
Berendsen said Seppie noted in her ruling that pro­vincial officials were “reck­less” and that independent tests were ignored by provin­cial of­fi­cials.
He said a number of pro­vincial politicians at first be­came involved, but when they talked to the bureaucracy, they backed away. He added that the News media, too, accepted the word of government officials and dropped his case.
As for the $1.7-million in the award, and the province being ordered to pay his legal fees, Berendsen said he won’t count any cash until the cheque clears the bank.
The provincial government has until Feb. 15 to decide if it will appeal the ruling, and he doubts he will learn about its decision until close to 5pm that day. The following Monday is a new provincial holiday – Family Day. It remains to be seen if the Berendsens will be celebrating it.