Elizabeth May is the executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada and a lifelong environmental activist. She is also a lawyer, educator, writer, and mother. Her most recent book, coauthored with fellow Canadian activist Maude Barlow, is Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal.
Monday, 7 Aug 2000
Today, being a holiday in Canada, saw most of my compatriots at their cottages or barbecues. But, as usual, I had an “activist” weekend. I was a keynote speaker at the national Green Party convention in Ottawa this weekend. It was a nice contrast to the Republican convention in Philadelphia where those awash in oil money and fresh from business deals with the brutal dictatorship in Burma (Dick Cheney, for instance) paraded their “morality” for the American public.
The Canadian Greens are not yet a political force. Unlike the Greens in Europe, they lack the advantage of proportional representation and a chance to elect members of Parliament from a party that may receive 10 percent of the vote across the country but lack a simple majority in any one riding. And unlike the U.S., the Canadian Greens lack a high-profile candidate of the stature of the incorruptible Ralph Nader.
But the Canadian Greens do not lack commitment, energy, or dedication. The Greens’ national leader, Joan Russow, has just announced that she will challenge Stockwell Day, the leader of Canada’s farthest right political party, the Alliance, in a Sept. 11 by-election in which Day hopes to (and most likely will) win his first federal seat in Parliament. With five national parties sitting in the House of Commons, it’s hard to find the political space the Greens need. But as Jean Chrétien is the most anti-environmental prime minister in living memory, we have to find some way to make environmental concerns feature in the election widely expected for spring 2001.
Back home, the email screams for help on press releases on our completely pathetic federal legislation on endangered species and pleas for assistance fighting mega hog farms in New Brunswick. Meanwhile, I review a proposed federal plan for “strategic” assessment of the environmental impacts of trade deals (FTAA, GATS, etc.). And time is running out to stop seismic exploration along the east coast of Cape Breton Island for oil and gas, as we demand the permit be rescinded.
But, being a holiday Monday, I also redid my nine-year-old daughter’s bedroom and tackled housework — even eco-warriors have to tidy up sometime!
Tuesday, 8 Aug 2000
I never really found the time today to do the handful of things I had to do. Like return the phone call from the lawyer for the gypsum mine we sued (they’ve agreed to an out-of-court settlement which has neat features that we cannot announce until I get through to the lawyer). Or revise the “Report Card on Species at Risk” that we are doing in collaboration with other environmental groups in Canada.
The surprise of the day was a call from a worried resident of Sydney, Nova Scotia, where Canada’s largest toxic waste site sits in the middle of the city, oozing a cancerous mixture of PAHs, arsenic, PCBs, and nasty heavy metals. The Tar Ponds, as the spot is known, is actually an estuary, open to the sea. Over decades of steel-making with no pollution controls and the baking of dirty coal to produce coke, the estuary filled up with PAH-contaminated tarry muck — 700,000 tons of it, of which 45,000 have the added plus of PCB contamination from direct dumping. Upstream from the estuary lie 125 acres contaminated to depths of 80 feet. This area is known as the coke ovens site and was, as the name suggests, where the coal was baked in ovens, releasing vile gasses and dumping tarry toxic waste. All around the coke ovens and tar ponds are homes — hundreds of homes, in a community of 35,000 people. Despite years of promises, and two failed cleanup attempts, the whole mess sits there, allowing 10,000 tons a year of tarry sludge to migrate into Sydney Harbor beyond.
Meanwhile the local homes have arsenic leaching into basements. Cancer rates in the area are through the roof — birth defects, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, too. And no level of government has been prepared to relocate the community. Canada has no “Superfund” program. We don’t even have an inventory of the toxic waste sites that no one is cleaning up. (I have just coauthored a book on the issue with Maude Barlow, called Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal.)<
So, I’ve been — and Sierra Club of Canada has been — working with community residents trying to force a relocation and an accelerated timetable for cleanup. The government has created a “citizens committee” with three levels of government and local residents called the Joint Action Group (JAG). The JAG has been tasked with the job of identifying cleanup technologies. They are also supposed to ensure community pre-approval of disturbances on the coke ovens site. Moving and disturbing materials on the site caused serious health problems in 1998, and residents were given no prior warning.
So today’s call reported that disturbances were happening again, with digging on the coke ovens site as part of the ongoing study process. As it turned out, no significant amount of material was being removed. They were drilling for core samples to expand understanding of exactly where the hot spots are within the area — a process that has been long overdue.
However, verifying what had happened and confirming details relayed by anxious residents occupied most of the day, while other matters stacked up like airplanes over O’Hare. Throw in a series of interviews with applicants for our biodiversity campaign director position, a conference call on a government draft for performing environmental assessment of trade negotiations, and it is little wonder there’s a lawyer from a big firm in Toronto wondering why I never returned today’s first important call.
As Scarlett said, “Tomorrow’s another day …”
Wednesday, 9 Aug 2000
Canada is still reeling from the deaths earlier this summer in Walkerton, Ontario. At least six, and possibly as many as nine, people were killed by E coli bacteria contamination in the town’s water supply. It was a tale of government cutbacks, less money in the provincial environment ministry, and the shifting of responsibility for water testing to lower-funded municipalities.
Compounding the risks of less regulation has been a stunning and dangerous increase in intensive livestock operations. Rural areas in southern Ontario have seen farming change from relatively small family operations with several hundred animals to factory-scale production with tens of thousands of animals in each barn. The increased cattle operations have led to widespread complaints from local residents concerned about water quality. But government at all levels responded with indifference to the complaints — until Walkerton, that is.
The public health officer for the region has stated the probable cause of Walkerton’s water contamination was cattle manure in surface water. The wells had been tested, but not by the government. The whole system was privatized. The private lab used by the town of Walkerton identified E coli, a deadly bacteria, and notified the town by fax, but told no one else. An inquiry is underway, but concern about water safety has never been so high.
The increase in intensive livestock operations has not been restricted to Ontario. The manure factories are booming in Alberta, Man
itoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec, and New Brunswick. Having visited one of these horrors — a 10,000-hog operation in New Brunswick — I’ve been haunted by it. I went because Sierra Club is concerned about water quality and environmental damage. But what I learned about the unethical, barbaric treatment of the animals has stayed with me. They pull out the teeth of the piglets and cut off their tails, knowing that the life they’ll live (although it cannot be called “living”) will make the animals crazy, so they must be unable to attack each other. They are kept indoors all their lives. They eat food dumped by a computer-operated feed auger. Their wastes fall through a slatted floor into a huge manure lagoon. In an age of corporate globalization, there is massive hog “production,” but no jobs. No farmers. This is not Charlotte’s Web. No spider could write “Some Pig” and make a difference. No one would see it. No animal should be treated as these animals are.
Meanwhile, more Canadians have been poisoned this summer in locations across Canada from E. coli eaten in meat. Cutbacks have also occurred in food safety inspection, and our food testing bureaucracy has been partially privatized as the Canada Food Inspection Agency.
Today’s news was of trials of a vaccination that might be able to inoculate cattle against the bacteria. So a TV news reporter interviewed me as I tried to strike the right balance between concern for public health and pointing out that a bacteria-specific “fix” is not nearly as important as rebuilding regulatory and enforcement capacity in testing Canadian water and food.
It’s a shock for Canadians to realize that cutbacks in environmental protection have been so severe that our lives are at stake.
Thursday, 10 Aug 2000
Another day in the office that feels like an episode of M*A*S*H — not enough supplies, not enough people, and operating without anaesthetic. The latest cry of “incoming wounded” came from the Main River in Newfoundland.
The Main River is in the northwest part of the island province, not far from the borders of the spectacular Gros Morne National Park. The river actually originates at the eastern edge of the park, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Canoeists have long been enthusiasts of the Main. Its twists through the untouched wilderness have made it a favorite, and it has been nominated for Canadian Heritage River status. The Main River watershed drains an area of 264 square kilometers, and provides habitat for the endangered Newfoundland pine martin, as well as black bear, moose, woodland caribou, and many other species.
Lately, ecologists have been in a state of excitement over some amazing discoveries along the Main. A Jesuit priest and scientific researcher, Father John McCarthy, has discovered a previously unknown ecosystem of ancient old-growth boreal forest. For those of you who don’t know your forest from the trees, the boreal covers a huge area of the planet’s northern reaches up to the tree line. It is also known as the taiga, stretching in great grey-green masses across Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Russia. The boreal forest contributes substantially to global carbon balances, holding millions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. It provides habitat for a multitude of species. What the forest isn’t known for is long-lived trees. Typically its black spruce and balsam fir live 100 years or so. Foresters start calling the old dears “decadent” at 80 years. It is a fire-driven ecosystem, meaning that trees often burn and patches of very old trees are rarely found. What Father McCarthy discovered is unique in the world — old-growth boreal with trees verified at 285 years of age. The spruce and fir in wet valleys and pockets have been spared insect or fire damage.
But no sooner could we celebrate the remarkable news of the discovery than Kruger, operating Corner Brook Pulp and Paper, has moved in with access logging roads and diabolical feller bunchers to clear-cut the old growth. Feller bunchers are mechanical harvesters, each machine replacing a dozen loggers. With halogen lighting, they clear-cut 24 hours a day. As public concern rises about the Main, the feller bunchers are moving full blast. We’ve been working to save the Main for months now. Today’s call was from our new forest campaigner (hired yesterday — remember I mentioned job interviews!), soon to move to Ottawa from Newfoundland. Martin is heading out with Father McCarthy tomorrow to see what’s left and what can be saved. I’m trying to get a meeting with the Minister for Canadian Heritage, the Hon. Sheila Copps, who is in charge of our parks system, to ask her to start negotiations with Newfoundland to save the forest and the Main River watershed, and add them, existing clear-cuts and all, to Gros Morne.
Readers interested in raising your voice on this issue, please click here!
The rest of my day was a mixture of climate change strategy for the upcoming international negotiations this fall, COP-6; planning a press conference for Monday to condemn the useless draft federal legislation to protect endangered species; plus trying to figure out which bills we could pay now and which creditors we could put off until next month.
So, as you read this, know that the merciless feller bunchers’ teeth and claws are moving through a unique place on this planet. Bristol Foster, an ecologist friend in British Columbia says, “With wilderness conservation, every victory is temporary; every defeat permanent.” We can’t afford to lose. If the Main goes, there will be no other chance to study this amazing old-growth forest. Initial insect surveys have already identified species previously unknown to science. Destroying living systems we don’t understand is like the barbarians burning down the libraries.
So, the least we can do is stop offering them a light for their torches.
Friday, 11 Aug 2000
It seems that all week the news flashes have been coming from the East Coast. The Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia, the Main River in Newfoundland, an industrial pig factory in New Brunswick, and today the urgent alerts came from Atlantic Canada again. Fisherman’s wife and activist Mary Gorman got hold of the terms of reference for an “environmental assessment” for oil and gas development in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Let me back up and fill you in on why it is beyond nuts for anyone to want to develop oil and gas there.
For readers in the United States, picture Maine and keep going east into the Atlantic. The province of Nova Scotia extends out and cradles above it a little province called Prince Edward Island (PEI) — home to Anne of Green Gables. Anyway, that northern shore of Nova Scotia and all of PEI are in the body of water below where the mighty St. Lawrence River dumps into the sea. The relatively narrow and shallow area between Nova Scotia and PEI is called the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is rich in marine life — whales, dolphins, fish, crab, lobster, sea birds. The fishery in the southern Gulf supports 20,000 fishers in a $1 billion per year industry. Nevertheless, with no consultation and no environmental assessment, an area of 600,000 acres of sea bed extending from the coast of Cape Breton Island 20 miles into the southern Gulf has been permitted for oil and gas exploration. The coastline along this permitted area abuts some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. The Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the Margaree River, a Heritage River and a productive salmon river, would be impacted. The views from the Cabot Trail could include oil rigs. And an island set aside as a bird sanctuary is smack dab in the area of prospective oil and gas development
. If there were ever an oil spill in this relatively enclosed body of water, the oil would have nowhere to go but the miles of shoreline of the three abutting provinces — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI.
It is astonishing that development permits could be granted in such a rich and significant marine region without any assessment. It’s thanks to a law called the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board Act, which was intended to give industry quick approvals. It requires no environmental assessments.
But local opposition to this drilling plan has been mounting. Every fishermen’s organization, every First Nations Group (including the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs), tourism organizations, and local clergy from all three provinces have banded together with Sierra Club of Canada and other environmental groups in the Save our Seas and Shores coalition. We oppose any activity in the southern Gulf, as well as another shoreline drilling permit on eastern Cape Breton. (We’ve discovered that Atlantic Canada is the only place in the industrialized world with shoreline permits!) Even the seismic exploration process could damage fish at every stage of their lifespan, thus compromising the fishery. Whales are particularly vulnerable to damage from the massive blasts from air guns, as they are dependent on sonar for navigation.
So the government announced a delay in the testing in the southern Gulf and promised an environmental review. Today, Mary Gorman emailed me the terms of reference she uncovered. The study is to determine “the manner in which exploration, development and production should be conducted.” No part of the mandate is to determine if exploration should happen at all. The assumption is that oil and gas production will proceed as soon as they appease us with a little study.
Of course, the planet needs more oil and gas like it needs a hole in the head. (Actually, that’s a particularly apt simile because both are suicidal.) The known reserves of oil and gas around the world, if pumped up and burned, would push global warming into the sort of runaway greenhouse effect that would put life on the planet in jeopardy. Threatening a sustainable local activity like the fishery in order to pump up more pollution is insane. But when has the relative sanity of an enterprise stayed the hand of the greedy?
The rest of my day was more fun. A local bike shop, Sportables, gave us eight bicycles for our canvassers! I was overwhelmed. So we went over and had a little hand-over ceremony. Then I had to finalize our press release on endangered species for Monday, do an interview about corporate influence over environmental policy in Canada, and have a staff meeting. Plans are well underway for Canada-U.S. negotiations on trans-boundary smog, and as the session will be on a lake, we had a long discussion at our meeting about whether we could hold a banner between two canoes.<
Well, I better get this little rant to our friends at Grist. It’s been nice sharing my days with you!