COVER

DANGER IN THE WATER

MANY CANADIANS ARE EXPRESSING A GROWING CONCERN ABOUT THE WATER THEY DRINK AND USE

MARK NICHOLS January 15 1990
COVER

DANGER IN THE WATER

MANY CANADIANS ARE EXPRESSING A GROWING CONCERN ABOUT THE WATER THEY DRINK AND USE

MARK NICHOLS January 15 1990

In February, 1989, Emily Gallant, who owns a beauty salon in Tignish, P.E.I., 100 km northwest of Charlottetown, noticed that the water from taps at the salon was yellow. Gallant sent a sample to the provincial environment department, where government officials said that it was free of bacteria and fit to drink. Still, Gallant recalled, “I didn’t feel right using it to wash my customers’ hair.” In August, provincial officials sent another sample of the water to a privately operated laboratory in Dartmouth, N.S. It reported that the water contained dinoseb, a pesticide that is used on pea and potato crops. Use of dinoseb, which can harm the fetuses of pregnant women, was banned in the United States in 1984 but remains legal in Canada. Said Gallant: “They said I shouldn’t even put my hands in it, let alone drink it.” Provincial officials subsequently discovered that 21 privately owned wells in Tignish were contaminated by dinoseb and advised householders to use alternative water sources while investigators looked for the source of the pollution.

Although their water is not as bad as that in Tignish, residents of many Canadian municipalities and regions are expressing rising concern about the water they drink and cook with. The reason: despite efforts to protect the environment, most Canadian governments still tolerate many industries and municipal sewage systems dumping pollutants into the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters. The discharges include raw sewage, industrial chemicals and airborne contaminants, which eventually are deposited in bodies of water. At the same time, the natural underground reservoirs, or aquifers, that provide well water are being polluted by pesticides and agricultural chemicals, and by leaks from gasoline, oil and septic tanks and industrial chemical dumps.

Need: Given the amount of pollution in Canadian waters, some experts say that there is a pressing need for Ottawa to pass legislation to provide for the enforcement of national standards for drinking water. As well, they say that most Canadian municipalities need to modernize their water treatment systems. Most existing systems are designed to remove bacteria, but they cannot effectively deal with many toxic chemicals. “Toxic levels are low now in drinking water,” said Craig Boljkovac, a researcher with the Toronto-based Pollution Probe environmental organization. But, said Boljkovac, a large toxic chemical spill “could render drinking water useless.”

By the time most water flows from Canadian householders’ taps, municipal water systems have treated it with chemicals that make it safe for human consumption (page 35). Still, many Canadians say that they do not believe assurances that their local tap water is safe to drink. According to a Gallup poll published last October, 95 per cent of those polled were concerned about the quality of drinking water in Canada. Anne Lofting, a pregnant 41-year-old who lives in College Heights, a suburb of Prince George, B.C., says that she does not know who to believe. “One set of experts told us there were dioxins in the water,” she said. “But the government told us there was nothing to worry about.” As a result, last August Lofting bought a water-cleaning device to use on her kitchen cold-water tap at home, joining the millions of Canadians who drink only bottled water or use filtering devices at home (page 36).

Part of the concern over water stems from the fact that scientists are now able to detect traces of some toxic substances in quantities as small as one part per quadrillion (a quadrillion is a million billions). Tiny amounts of some substances, including industrial chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, may not be harmful by themselves. But experts say that they can build up in the bodies of fish, which people may later consume. An independent laboratory analysis commissioned by Maclean’s showed that a glass of Toronto tap water contained traces of 20 substances, some of which are potentially toxic, including zinc, copper, arsenic and chloroform (page 34).

All the substances found in the Maclean’s sample were within federal guidelines. Still, said Pamela Millar, a researcher with Pollution Probe: “We don’t really know the long-term effects of drinking that stuff. It could cause developmental defects in the next generation.”

Toxic: Unease over water quality has grown with the rising awareness of serious pollution in many of Canada’s major lakes and other waterways. The St. Lawrence River, the source of drinking water for about half of Quebec’s 6.7 million people, is so polluted that beluga whales in the river are dying (page 38). In British Columbia, where six pulp mills dump an estimated 32,000 tons of potentially toxic chemicals into the Fraser River each year, the environmental organization Greenpeace has labelled the river the “biggest sewer line in British Columbia” (page 40). According to federal officials, industrial polluters annually discharge an estimated 1.7 billion gallons of liquid waste into Canadian lakes and rivers, an amount equal to the water that flows over Niagara Falls in a 10-hour period.

Environmentalists and other critics charge that Canadian governments often tolerate pollution because they are unwilling to crack down on industries that provide jobs and tax revenues. Indeed, Ontario government officials told Maclean’s that surveys by Ontario’s environment ministry showed that half of the province’s industries and one-third of its municipal sewage treatment plants violated water pollution guidelines in 1988. In Quebec, Jean-Paul Letourneau, executive vice-president of the Quebec Chamber of Commerce, said that the provincial government would “never close down a plant if it is going to cost a community hundreds of jobs, no matter how badly it is harming the environment.”

At the same time, many Canadian companies are waking up to the fact that environmentally acceptable products, and industrial practices, can be good for business. Officials at Toronto-based Loblaw Companies Ltd. say that the supermarket chain is selling $500,000 a week in products that are billed as environmentally beneficial, including recycled toilet paper and unbleached coffee filters. As well, Shaun McLaughlin, editor of the Ottawa-based business letter Environmental Eye, said that some businesses will not cut down on pollution “if it doesn’t pay, or they’re not forced to do it. But there are senior business executives in large firms who have developed a concern.” Such executives, said McLaughlin, also realize that, if their firms clean up, they can publicize that “and have the potential for greater sales.” For their part, some Canadian governments are cautiously moving towards a tougher stand on pollution. Ontario has embarked on a long-term program aimed at persuading municipalities and companies to cut back on pollution—or face penalties after 1991. In Ottawa, Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard announced last week that stricter controls governing pollution by pulp-and-paper mills would be introduced next spring. Bouchard said that the new regulations, aimed at eliminating dioxins and furans (suspected of causing cancer) from mill discharges, would be phased in over four years. Still, environmental critics said that they had heard such promises before. “The feds talk a good line, but their performance has been less than impressive,” said Toby Vigod, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Environmental Law Association, an organization that helps citizens groups fight legal actions on environmental issues.

Radium: Meanwhile, highly publicized episodes during the past six months have heightened concerns over the quality of water serving Canadian homes. In November, for one, a faulty valve at a northern Saskatchewan uranium mine operated by Cameco, a firm jointly owned by the Saskatchewan and federal governments, caused a spill of 440,000 gallons of radioactive water—enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Tests carried out by the company and government agencies after the spill showed that the amounts of radium, nickel and arsenic in a nearby lake were below danger levels. Still, residents in the area expressed concern over possible health risks.

In some communities, protests are rooted in fears of toxic and cancer-causing substances in the community’s water supply. In Prince George, where three pulp mills dump an estimated 100 tons of organochlorines into the Fraser River each day, many residents have expressed concern about water affecting their health. Although most of Prince George’s drinking water comes from the Nechako River, the suburb of College Heights draws water for its well system from an intake near the Fraser River and just downstream from the pulp mills. Dr. Robert Dykes, a Prince George physician who lives on a farm about 15 km north of the city, said that a study carried out three years ago by the Prince George Public Health Unit indicated that the rate for certain types of cancer in the area could be as much as 46 per cent higher than the provincial average during the period from 1956-1983.

Concern: In the centre of the continent, North America’s largest source of drinking water, the Great Lakes, stands as a shocking symbol of pollution on a grand scale. Scientists say that joint U.S.-Canadian efforts to clean up the lakes, which provide water for millions of people on both sides of the border, have made them less polluted than they were a decade ago. But despite that, levels of mercury, lead, pesticides, PCBs and other toxic substances in the lakes still exceed U.S.-Canada “water quality objectives” in 42 so-called areas of concern—17 on the Canadian side of the border and 25 on U.S. shorelines. As well, scientists say that sediment and water in the lakes are contaminated by more than 362 toxic chemicals, some of which, including PCBs and dioxin, can accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish. Because of contamination, Ontario government experts say that people may risk cancer if they eat certain kinds of Great Lakes fish more than once a month.

Alarming in itself, the spectacle of tainted drinking-water sources also serves as a powerful symbol of the environmental contamination that is widespread in Canada. And environmental critics blame governments across the country for turning a blind eye to the discharge of toxic waste. “The shocking part of it is that they do this by government permit,” said Kai Millyard, policy director of the Ottawa-based Friends of the Earth environmental organization. “In essence,” added Millyard, industries “are being given licences to pollute.”

Most environmentalists say that Canada’s pulp-and-paper mills are among the worst offenders. According to Victor Shantora, director of industrial programs for Environment Canada, the mills discharge a total of 2,777 tons of effluent, some of it highly toxic, every day. A confidential report completed by Environment Canada last year and published in The Vancouver Sun said that many of the mills could face prosecution if 1971 federal guidelines requiring mills to clean up their effluent were strictly enforced.

In industrialized Central Canada, government officials admit that much of the toxic waste generated by industry is probably winding up in water. Edward Turner, a senior official in the Ontario environment ministry, said that about 15,000 Ontario firms probably dump toxic chemicals into municipal sewer systems. Because sewage plants are not designed to treat certain chemicals or heavy metals, said Turner, the substances may eventually be discharged into the nearest body of water. Later, those substances may turn up in drinking water.

Disposal: The situation in Quebec is equally alarming. The province has some of the toughest environmental laws in Canada, with provision for fines ranging up to $1 million a day for certain offences. But environmental critics say that the province makes little effort to enforce its laws. Last October, a commission under Yvon Charbonneau, a former union leader, reported that in 1987 fewer than half of the 3,300 companies that are required under law to report hazardous waste production in fact complied. The commission, which was appointed to investigate toxic waste disposal in Quebec, also reported that it could not account for 250,000 tons of toxic waste produced that same year in Quebec. Said Charbonneau: “All we know is that it was lost somewhere in the cycle between the producer and the eventual disposal.” Charbonneau said that some of the missing waste was probably dumped in the St. Lawrence River.

In many parts of Canada, municipalities contribute to water pollution by dumping untreated, or partially treated, sewage into rivers and lakes. In Quebec, only 250 of the province’s 1,500 municipalities have sewage treatment plants. Less than half of Montreal’s sewage is treated, and the remainder is still dumped, untreated, into the St. Lawrence River. In Ontario, about one-third of the province’s municipalities dump sewage that has been treated, but does not meet provincial standards, into rivers and lakes.

Environmentalists argue that, unless governments are willing to get tougher with industrial polluters and municipalities, water pollution will only grow worse. Lome Giroux, a member of the Ottawa-based Canadian Environmental Advisory Council, said that Canadian governments “are often more interested in negotiating with major industrial polluters than in prosecuting them.” Canadian governments, said Friends of the Earth’s Millyard, are often “too accommodating to industries that threaten to shut down every time they hear the word ‘regulation.’ ”

Now there is evidence that Canadian governments may gradually take stronger stands against polluters. In Ontario, Premier David Peterson’s Liberal government launched a program in 1988 to monitor effluent discharges from 350 companies and 415 municipal sewage plants as part of a long-range cleanup campaign. Later this year, Ontario government officials plan to begin talks with industry to find ways of cutting back on pollution. Said the provincial environment ministry’s Turner: “The definition of what is economically achievable is the real key. We cannot force people out of business.”

A stricter attitude towards polluters is already in evidence in Ontario. In 1988-1989, the province took 343 polluters to court and gained convictions against 176 firms, while the courts levied fines totalling $2 million. In November, Ontario became the first province in Canada to jail a corporate chief executive for pollution-related offences. Sam Siapas, owner of a Toronto electroplating company that persistently dumped toxic waste into Metropolitan Toronto’s sewer system, was sentenced to six months in jail for ignoring a court order to stop discharging pollutants. His company, B.E.S.T. Plating Shoppe Ltd., was fined $100,000.

Effluent: For their part, federal environment officials said that the new regulations aimed at reducing pulp-mill emission would be introduced in the spring under the 1988 Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Environment Canada’s Shantora said that as many as 300 substances, including dioxins and furans produced by the chlorine bleaching process used in certain types of pulp and paper, would be covered under the regulations. As well, mill operators would be required to collect effluent from their mills and test it to see whether fish can survive in it.

Still, Julia Langer, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said that the effect of the new regulations would be undermined if Ottawa, as is expected, allows the provinces to assume responsibility for enforcement. Ottawa, said Langer, is “missing a big opportunity here to take advantage of public opinion” and to crack down on water pollution by mill operators. For his part, Shantora said that Ottawa would hand over responsibility to the provinces only if they were willing to commit themselves to enforcing provincial regulations as strict as the federal requirements. Added Shantora: “Our objectives will be set out and open to public scrutiny. The trouble is, the public wants something done about the environment yesterday.”

Or soon, at least. But the path towards unpolluted water and a cleaner environment will involve difficult decisions about the costs that will have to be borne by industries, and society at large. According to Denis Davis, Ottawa’s director general of inland waters, the ultimate goal must be “zero discharge of contaminants.” But he added, “We cannot turn off the pollution tap overnight.” Given that harsh reality, Tignish hairdresser Emily Gallant, and the thousands of other Canadians who have had encounters with tainted water, may never feel the same about Canada’s most abundant resource.