Environment

Toxic air, tainted land

Activists fight to put environmental concerns back on the public agenda

D’ARCY JENISH December 8 1997
Environment

Toxic air, tainted land

Activists fight to put environmental concerns back on the public agenda

D’ARCY JENISH December 8 1997

Toxic air, tainted land

Environment

Activists fight to put environmental concerns back on the public agenda

D’ARCY JENISH

After a tumultuous summer, the forests of British Columbia are quiet again. The loggers have left for the winter, and so have the environmentalists, their confrontations halted until logging resumes again next spring. But the past season has left some environmentalists, particularly the in-your-face activists at Greenpeace Canada, bruised and battered as never before. In April, their scathing report on logging practices in the province earned them the title “enemies of British Columbia” from the NDP premier, Glen Clark. In early July, irate loggers stole a page from the protest movement’s books, blockading two Greenpeace ships in Vancouver harbor for 48 hours. That move won the loggers applause from many government and opposition politicians, as well as some newspaper editorial writers. “What surprised us was the level of support for the blockade,” said

Jeanne Moffat, the Toronto-based executive-director of Greenpeace Canada. “That’s not something we’ve experienced before.” But for many Canadian environmentalists, the public thrashing of Greenpeace came as no surprise—the 1990s, after all, have been full of setbacks. As the ’80s ended, opinion polls showed the environment as the top concern of Canadians. But the subsequent recession, growing deficit consciousness and high unemployment levels have almost knocked it off the charts. While some surveys show that Canadians continue to place high value on clean air and water, other polls

now find that only one to two per cent rate the environment as the most pressing issue facing the country. Even more disconcerting for the activists, fiscally frugal governments have slashed their environment budgets and erased hundreds of regulations designed to protect the quality of Canada’s air, water and land. As leaders from almost 160 countries meet in Kyoto, Japan, this week to consider one hot issue— the threat of global warming—concerned environmentalists feel they are losing ground on many fronts in Canada. “There’s a lot of nervousness in our community,” admits Monte Hummel, president of the Toronto-based World Wildlife Fund Canada. “The ’90s will go down as the decade when the environment took a kicking.”

But many environmentalists believe the worst is behind them. While the environment is hardly top-of-mind, they acknowledge, they are counting on Canadians to take a stand for their cherished clean air and water. Activists like Hummel are hoping the

10-day World Environment Summit in Kyoto will bring their movement a long-awaited lift. The timing may be right, as public attention to the environment often rises with economic recovery. “All our polls suggest interest in the environment is back up,” says federal Environment Minister Christine Stewart “Over 90 per cent say they are concerned enough to do something economically or to change their lifestyles.”

But if that is the message the Chrétien government is getting from its own soundings, many activists wonder if it is listening. For one thing, they believe Ottawa is about to cede its ability to protect the environment against the incursions of global business. Next May, Canada and the other 28 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development are scheduled to sign the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a controversial pact that would limit the power national governments have to regulate the operations of foreign companies. Critics fear that multinational corporations could use the MAI to flout environmental restrictions or to seek compensation for costs incurred due to those provisions.

Domestically, activists are concerned that Ottawa will forfeit much of its power to protect Canada’s land, water and air if it signs the Environmental Harmonization Initiative with the provinces as scheduled next month. That accord, Stewart insists, simply reduces overlap and duplication to produce a “seamless web” of regulations across the country. But environmentalists say it will deprive the federal government of its role in setting standards, conducting inspections and holding hearings to assess projects like roads, mines and logging operations. “The impact of the agreement,” says Paul Muldoon, staff lawyer with the Toronto-based Canadian Environmental Law Association, “will be to ensure that most of the actual work is done by the provinces.”

Yet, throughout the 1990s, cash-strapped provincial governments have made deep cuts to their environmental departments as they struggled to balance their books. Quebec, for example, has cut its annual spending on environmental regulation and protection by 65 per cent, to $53 million from $151 million, since 1994. The provincial government has also reduced its enforcement staff to 21 from 72, and eliminated the legal services branch of its environment ministry. As a result, future prosecutions will be handled by the justice department.

The situation is similar in other provinces. Newfoundland, for instance, has cut its annual environmental spending to $3.6 million from $10.6 million since 1995, a 66-per-cent cut. Alberta has trimmed ex-

penditures by 22 per cent, from $405 million to $317 million, since 1993. ‘When you get beyond 30-per-cent cuts,” says Gary Gallon, president of the Montreal-based Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment, a non-profit research organization, “you substantially jeopardize the ability of governments to protect the environmental health of the public.”

In fact, almost every provincial government has taken some of the punch out of laws and regulations. Mark Winfield, research director with the Toronto-based Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, says Ontario’s Conservatives have gone further than most, amending and weakening almost every statute pertaining to natural resources or the environment since taking office 2V2 years ago. Mining companies, for example, are no longer required to post bonds to ensure that cleanup funds are available once they suspend operations. They can also blast and drill while exploring for minerals on public lands without obtaining permits. Similarly, companies

or individuals can build small dams, docks and boathouses without permits, even though they may be altering public waterways. “In the last five years,” Winfield said, “we have seen an unprecedented dismantling of laws and regulations across Canada.”

The signs that air and water quality have deteriorated are unmistakable, environmentalists say. Troubling industrial accidents involving toxic substances; hasty approval of major projects with little regard for environmental consequences—those, they say, are the results of deregulation and budget cuts. Among developments the activists frequently cite to support their argument:

• In late July, a report from the Montrealbased Commission for Environmental Cooperation fingered Ontario as the third largest producer of chemical pollutants in North America, behind only Texas and Tennessee. Using the most recent available data, the commission, established under the auspices of the North American Free Trade Agreement, found that in 1994,

Ontario industries produced almost 79 million kg of chemical wastes such as formaldehyde, arsenic compounds and sulphuric acid, either released into the air or water or transferred to treatment facilities. “To find that Ontario was right up there with a lot of U.S. states was obviously a surprise,” said CEC director Janine Ferretti. “Canadians have generally thought of themselves as being in a better position in terms of discharges.”

• Environmentalists say that two accidents at Canada’s largest hazardous waste incinerator, in Swan Hills, Alta., 200 km northwest of Edmonton, demonstrate the need for stronger regulations and better enforcement. Calgary-based Bovar Inc. shut down the plant, used to destroy hazardous PCBs formerly used in electrical transformers, after a July 12 explosion damaged an incinerator, and has only reopened part of the plant. And next month, Bovar officials are to appear in court on five charges, most stemming from a PCB leak in October, 1996. In May, as a result of that leak, Alberta health officials restricted the consumption of wild game by 8,000 Indians living near the plant. Children and pregnant women were advised to eat none at all.

Company officials, who are not commenting, reported the leak to the Alberta environ-

ment department but did not disclose the amount of toxins released for several months—a lapse critics attribute to Alberta’s system of self-regulation.

That system also meant that the government was not inspecting the plant prior to the explosion.

“The cop is not on the block,” said Brian Staszenski of the Environmental Resource Centre in Edmonton. “The aggressive monitoring that used to exist is not there at the same level.”

• The Ontario government is spending $1.8 million to clean up the site of a plastics recycling warehouse in Hamilton destroyed last July by a fire that | raged for four days. About 600 d people were forced from their f homes for up to three days as a 8 toxic brew of hydrogen chloride g and the carcinogen dioxin 5

spewed into the atmosphere.

And the costs could become a lot

steeper. Hamilton lawyer Gerald Swaye is suing the government and the plant’s owner, Plastimet Inc., among others, for $200 million on behalf of the evacuees. Last year, an Ontario fire marshal’s report cited 20

fire code violations in the Plastimet facility, and the company still had not installed a sprinkler system when the blaze erupted, “A lot of environment ministry inspectors who would have been monitoring the plant

have been laid off,” says Greenpeace toxics campaigner Morag Simpson.

• A coalition of five environmental organizations filed a lawsuit in the Federal Court of Canada early last month to prevent work from starting next spring on the Cheviot open-pit coal mine adjacent to Jasper National Park in west central Alberta. On Oct. 2, the federal cabinet approved the project, owned by Luscar, Alta.-based Cardinal River Coals Ltd., following an environmental assessment by a panel of federal and provincial appointees. Kevin McNamee of the Ottawa-based Canadian Nature Federation, one of the groups involved in the suit, says the panel circumvented the Environmental Protection Act by focusing solely on the mine itself and ignoring related road construction and deforestation. As well, he charges, political factors influenced both the panel and the cabinet. “There is no question,” he says, “that the biggest thing on the federal cabinet’s mind was their relations with Alberta, and not the environment.”

Even in difficult times, environmental activists can point to some important victories. Paul George, founding director of the Vancouver-based Western Canada Wilderness

Committee, notes that since 1991, British Columbia’s two NDP governments have nearly doubled the amount of space devoted to parks and protected areas—to 9.5 million hectares, or 10.6 per cent of the province’s land base. The latest addition came in midOctober, when Clark announced the creation of a major new wilderness recreation area, the million-hectare Northern Rockies Provincial Park south of the Yukon border, to

be surrounded by a 3.4-million hectare protected zone with tight restrictions on commercial activities. The entire area supports one of the world’s largest populations of big animals—moose, elk and caribou, along with grizzly bears and wolves. “The map of B.C. is markedly different now versus the way it was seven years ago because of the parks and protected areas,” says George.

Environmentalists in some provinces can only dream of such tangible achievements. But they do find comfort in opinion polls that

Activists hope the Kyoto talks will generate more heat among the environmentally apathetic

identify environmental protection and conservation as “core values” or “enduring concerns” with most Canadians. Douglas Miller, president of Toronto-based Environics International Ltd., says his company’s surveys show that throughout the 1990s, more that 90 per cent of Canadians have remained concerned about toxic chemicals, air pollution and water quality. “The public concern for the environment is deeper than many people think,” says Miller. “On these three issues, it’s immovable.”

Within the environmental movement, many are counting on the Kyoto conference, and its attention to global warming, to generate more heat among environmentally apathetic Canadians. Others, however, contend that the lesson of the 1990s is that environmentalists cannot wait for governments, or anyone else, to put their issue back on the front burner. They say the movement has to become more aggressive—launching private prosecutions against polluters and mobilizing public support for their cause. ‘When governments repeatedly show an inability to do things, you’re not very wise to keep counting on them,” says the World Wildlife Federation’s Hummel. Environmentalists may have been knocked around in the 1990s, but there is no indication they have been knocked out.D