KAMLOOPS — Few things are more unsettling than the words ‘coloured discharge’ or ‘sludgy brown cloud’ when attached to the state of a natural body of water, such as a river or a lake, which people use for various activities, including fishing and swimming (humans and dogs).
I guess everyone who has lived in Kamloops for a while has made peace with the occasional bad smell from the pulp mill. When we moved here in 2012, we were told that it is much better than it used to be. I have been reminding myself of that on particularly stinky days, while also wondering what exactly is it that we breathe in. Scientific curiosity, if you will.
Back to the brown sludge that was (this time) noticed by a local fisherman, Derek Molter, when he fished in the Thompson River near the Mission Flats Road. It makes me think of the ‘if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, did it still happen?’. In other words, how long has this been going on for and how much do we know about it safety-wise. Yes, it made me think of the many days of swimming in the lake with a bunch of friends during the last summer.
Whether this effluent is being released in the river daily or every few days, is of little importance. To be fair, the mill effluent release from Domtar is in accordance with the environmental standards set by the Ministry of Environment.
Yet while the environmental standards can point one way, the ultimate test is, as always, analyzing the composition of the sludge, and verifying the safety of each component against what we know, including the threshold for concentrations. In this case, one would also have to consider the possible environmental consequences of having the sludge nearing the shoreline and being so close to the surface due to low water levels. The company did not have an answer about this aspect.
In some cases, it doesn’t take much. More so when the concentration is maintained at a certain level due to regular dumping of effluent; treated as it is.
Knowing what comes down the pipe, so to speak, is the reason we demand labels on our food. So we can decide what to eat and what to say ‘no thanks’ to. The waters we play in, and many fish in, should be no different.
Which takes me to the next big stop on the water safety journey. The latest spat between the B.C. and Alberta government regarding the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain pipeline project. It’s likely not going to be solved any time soon, based on the latest.
While the back and forth between premiers continues, there is a startling question that cannot be ignored (a question posed in many ways and from many angles by those who oppose the project): what about the coastal waters that are at risk of a spill? That is, if we are for now, ignoring the possibility that there could be smaller (hopefully) spills of diluted bitumen along the way. As tankers will transport between 80,000 and 120,000 tonnes of diluted bitumen through the winding waterways that connect the port with the ocean - and there will be over 1,700 tankers compared to the 250 now - the risk of a spill is realistic.
Hence the complex issue: yes, most of us are still using gas-powered vehicles, and even the most eco-conscious of us are at least occasionally using stuff made from petroleum products. At the same time, we are past the time when we ought to put an end to burning fossil fuels and move towards getting our energy from renewable sources, which Canada can do, according to many scientists.
But… we are not there yet. If there is a pipeline to be built (though better alternatives should be considered), the least we can do is ask that the risks are mitigated to the point of not hurting the environment and the people who depend on it, because once that happens, there is no backtracking. And as it stands right now, our provincial government does not believe we have a world-class marine oil spill response in place, hence their position. Let’s remember the Exxon Valdez disaster that even after two decades is still affecting communities up in Alaska (that was 44,000 tonnes of oil). Or the impact of Nathan E. Stewart tugboat and barge spill on the B.C. coast in 2016 (110,000 litres of diesel fuel and 2,000 litres of lubricants, heavy oils, and other pollutants).
The issue of the local marine life, and endangered resident orcas, is also an acute one. There can be no trial and error on that front, as our oceans are already not at their healthiest. We are, as the wise among us say, only as healthy as our oceans are.
The only difference, for now, between the two stories, is that one spill is visible, and it elicits a strong response, making us question the safety of the process and its consequences to our health, while in the latter, the mess is a hypothetical one, and rather downplayed by those who want to see the project happen. The common denominator is the same though. A healthy environment is vital, and that includes healthy, clean waters. We cannot afford to compromise on that.