Picton Bay: A Life Story

History / September 12, 2013

It’s a long story…

500 million years ago in the Palaeozoic era, the region we inhabit was flooded with water.  Countless living creatures fossilized into limestone, which now underlies most of Prince Edward County.  Like the rest of the Great Lakes, Picton Bay was created about 11,700 years ago by glacial scouring and meltwater, as giant ice sheets retreated northwards.

The first human inhabitants, First Nations fished, hunted and farmed close to the shores of the densely forested land.  The Bay of Quinte is celebrated as the birthplace of Tekanawita the Peacemaker, who in the 12th century united five feuding nations into the Iroquois Confederacy.

From the early 1600s, French and British explorers, missionaries and fur traders came through, but pursued only furs and converts, not settlement.  In 1784, the British resettled loyal soldiers and families from the Thirteen Colonies here.  Preferred destinations:  two sheltered harbours the newcomers named Prinyer’s Cove and Picton Bay.

Development spread rapidly from the Bay.  Land was cleared, forests cut, farms planted, roads, mills, wharves, and villages built, two of them on the Bay – Hallowell on the escarpment, then Picton on the harbour.  In 1837 they amalgamated.

From the early 1800s ferries began to ply the Bay and cross to Adolphustown.  Ships – first schooners then steamers, many built in local shipyards – became primary conveyors of passengers and freight, chiefly timber, barley, hops, apples and other farm crops.  The coast is littered with shipwrecks, now a draw for divers.

In 1879 the Prince Edward County Railway opened for regular service between Picton and Trenton, where it connected with the Grand Trunk Railway between Montreal and Toronto.

A loading dock was built in Hallowell Cove, a notch in Picton Bay, by US giant Bethlehem Steel.  Zoning allowed iron ore from a mine in Marmora, Ontario to be shipped from the port.  The ore was transported to the dock by train.

1958:  The Picton cement factory opened farther up the west shore of the Bay, with its own loading dock.   The rock required by the factory was blasted from quarries north of the town.  Later the railway added a branch line to serve the quarries.

When iron ore deliveries from the mine stopped, the Marmora dock closed down.

Railway service dwindled, then stopped.  The rails were removed, and the rail bed converted to a walking trail.  The only remaining land transport to serve the docks would be trucks.

1985:  Over centuries, the Great Lakes have endured ever-increasing pressures from human settlement and agricultural/industrial activity.  In 1985 the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes (IJC) designated the Bay of Quinte, which surrounds Prince Edward County, an Area of Concern (AOC).  This identified a part of the lake where human activity had severely degraded the aquatic environment.  One of several designated ‘pollution hotspots’ was/is Picton Bay.  Main causes: phosphates from sewage and agricultural fertilizers, and toxins from various sources accumulated over many decades in bottom sediment, including mercury and heavy metals, with mercury levels exceeding federal guidelines.  Since 1985, significant progress has been made on reducing phosphates, but toxic sediment remains a major problem.

1980s – 90s. Occasional shiploads of salt were unloaded at the Marmora dock, for use on roads

When Prince Edward County amalgamated, County Council officially changed the Marmora dock site’s zoning to “extractive industrial,” basically it was to function as a quarry

An Environmental Assessment recommended that a new drinking water intake be built for the Town of Picton’s water system.* The two current intakes are too shallow, too subject to sediment turbulence from small boat traffic. Two preferred sites were identified: off Wellington (est. cost: $21 million) and in the middle of Picton Bay (est. cost: $7 million). The Picton Bay installation would increase the intake depth from the current 10 to 21 feet. When the legally required Intake Protection Zone was established, the former Marmora site was still an abandoned dock, posing no significant threat.

* The Town of Picton’s water system provides potable water to 6,000 people in Picton over 600 people in the Village of Bloomfield in Prince Edward County, and by truck delivery to many others with wells and/or cisterns in rural areas.

A newly published provincial government report, the Eastern Ontario Transportation Needs Analysis (EOTNA), recommended the establishment of a new deep-water port on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

The Doornekamp family of Odessa, Ontario, purchased the old Marmora dock, through their Abna Investments company. They planned to rebuild the defunct facility into Picton Terminals, a new deep-water port, “a gateway to the world’s economy” that would accommodate 100+/- deep-draught lake and ocean-going ships a year. Proposed cargoes: road salt, aggregates (gravel etc), fertilizers, biomass (eg garbage and/or manure), wine barrels, new and scrap steel. Others have since been added: bauxite, and petroleum coke (petcoke), an industrial fuel.

Thursday, March 23, 2016. While moored at the Picton Terminals dock, an industrial barge sank.

March 24. A sheen or oil slick was detected on the water near the barge. High winds pushed it toward Picton’s water intake zone. Coast Guard Canada and the Eastern Canada Response Corporation (ECRC) were called in to contain it.

March 25 – 26. The source of the slick was identified as “contaminants believed to be diesel fuel and hydraulic fluid” from a container on the barge. As the slick entered Picton’s water intake zone, the ECRC deployed a floating boom around it.

March 28. A “foul odour” was detected in raw water entering the Picton water filtration plant through the intake pipes in the Bay. As a precautionary measure, the Mayor of Prince Edward County declared a state of emergency. Operations at the Plant were suspended. To replenish the town’s reservoirs, bulk water was trucked in from the Wellington filtration plant and neighbouring municipalities. A boil-water advisory was issued, as a precaution against potential bacterial contamination.

April 2. The barge was re-floated, and towed out of Picton Bay the next day.

April 6. The boil-water advisory was lifted.

April 11. The state of emergency ended.

The incident proved to be a sharp wake-up call for people living in the area. How long we stay awake remains to be seen.

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September 8, 2013