Seven days a week, 26 million gallons of a black liquid effluent containing at least 40 lethal chemicals flow into Lake Superior from a pulp and paper plant in Terrace Bay, Ont., 225 km northeast of Thunder Bay.
And the pollutants are causing a dilemma for Ontario’s socially activist Liberal government. By the end of February, Premier David Peterson has to decide whether to enforce an order passed by the previous Conservative government requiring the plant’s owner, KimberlyClark of Canada Ltd., to install costly pollution control devices. But company officials say that the firm cannot afford the equipment. And local labor leaders and town residents say that they fear that, rather than comply with the order, Kimberly-Clark would close the plant, putting 1,600 employees out of work.
Ontario Environment Minister James Bradley has made cleaning up industrial pollution a priority. When the Liberals took office 19 months ago, Peterson said
that his government would prosecute polluters. And last December, Bradley earned a reputation as one of Canada’s toughest environment ministers when he put legislation into effect that provided for jail terms for polluters. Three
weeks ago Bradley rejected a recommendation from his own regional officials in Thunder Bay, who said that Kimberly-Clark’s deadline for installing pollution control equipment should be extended for three years because of the firm’s financial difficulties. But an independent audit commissioned by the ministry confirmed the company’s claim that because the mill has lost $78 million since 1980, it cannot afford to install additional equipment costing up to $20 million. And two weeks ago, Bradley’s cabinet colleagues overturned his attempt to force Kimberly-Clark to obey the cleanup order.
Sources close to the cabinet said that Peterson was reluctant to approve a measure that could jeopardize jobs in a
region already suffering from nine-percent unemployment. Said one environment official: “It is the rawest situation of jobs versus environment I have seen.” In addition, the sources said that Bradley’s tough order would have weakened the electoral prospects of the minority Liberals—who hold only two of northern 15 ridings—in a provincial election expected later this year.
Instead, Peterson has asked a committee of five deputy ministers to submit an alternatative pollution-control proposal within several weeks, taking 'into account the impact on Terrace Bay’s 2,500 residents. Said Bradley: “I am attempting to ensure that environmental concerns are met. The government as a whole has a concern about the town of Terrace Bay.”
Still, that reprieve did not guarantee that the plant, which produces raw materials for Kleenex tissues and other paper products, would continue operating. Last year officials of the parent company, Texas-based Kimberly-Clark Corp., told its Canadian executives to make the Terrace Bay operation profitable by the end of 1987 or close the plant. And local unions are supporting the company’s efforts to negotiate an extension of the cleanup order. Said Merton Burrows, president of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union in Terrace Bay: “I agree with pollution controls, but our backs are up against the wall. If the company is slapped with pollution controls, we will never show a profit.”
At the same time, company officials say that they have in fact reduced the plant’s pollution flow. Indeed KimberlyClark spokesman Daryl Payette insisted that the firm has “reduced the toxicity of the effluent by 70 per cent in the past five years.” For their part, some opposition politicians say that the Liberals should break the stalemate by investing in the plant. Said New Democrat environment critic Ruth Grier: “There is no reason why it can’t be both ways. The government should protect the jobs by taking equity in the company to finance the pollution controls.”
But providing financial aid for pollution controls could set an expensive precedent. For one thing, another pulp and paper producer, Boise Cascade Canada Ltd., has only until the end of the year to negotiate pollution controls at an 850-employee plant in Fort Frances, 335 km west of Thunder Bay. And some environment officials say that they fear that if Kimberly-Clark receives money, Boise and other companies may demand the same concessions. For the Liberals, controlling pollution in job-poor areas of Ontario may prove to be one of their most costly and contentious tasks.
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