Public meetings in Swan River, Manitoba later this month, will revisit the explosive issue of pollution controls at a big wood products plant in the Swan Valley.
Just as they were in the mid-'90s, battle lines are drawn between citizens, environmentalists, the US-based Louisiana Pacific Corporation (LP) and the Government of Manitoba. That's because LP wants to permanently shut down the devices which control most toxic emissions from its plant, called "regenerative thermal oxidizers" or RTOs.
LP emissions, as seen from the nearby
(Photos by PinP)
Manitoba's Minister of Conservation, Stan Struthers, quietly gave it permission to do so, temporarily, last January.
Transcripts from the CEC hearings at the time, quote her as saying,"We want clean air, both inside & outside the plant - the best possible emission controls & strict emission guidelines. This is an opportunity, I believe, for Manitoba to be a leader in the country by setting responsible emission standards. Give consideration to recommending RTOs, which the company is required to have in the 'States. RTOs are better equipment & will control more emissions."
Struthers has since instructed the Clean Environment Commission (CEC), an arms-length advisory agency, to determine whether a permanent shutdown is justified.
Whether temporary or permanent, members of the environmental group, "Concerned Citizens of the Valley" are angry. One of them, Margaret Romak, notes that it was only after her group raised alarm bells about the Minister's approval of a temporary closure, that the government moved to get public input through the meetings the CEC will conduct.
Some of the group's members were around to argue the original case for the RTOs and now find themselves having to fight the same fight all over again, 15 years later!
One of them is Ken Sigurdson. In an email to the government this spring, Sigurdon issued this appeal."We already know the reasons for the RTOs. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Don't allow LP to treat the Swan Valley as a 3rd-world country."
The company got its license to harvest trees over a wide area of the boreal forests of west-central Manitoba in 1995. It uses fiber from the trees to make oriented strand board or OSB, a type of construction paneling used in the housing industry. Its original application to set up operations in Manitoba was granted. But it came only after a heated confrontation that saw community members and environmentalists insist, and the CEC recommend, that LP install the RTOs.
A Change of Heart?
This renewed debate may well put at least two prominent members of the present NDP government, on the defensive. In 1994, when she was an NDP opposition critic in the legislature, Rosann Wowchuk publicly supported the case for RTOs.
Wowchuk is now Minister of Agriculture and Deputy Premier in Manitoba's NDP government. The mill at the centre of the debate is in her riding.
As well, the present Minister of Conservation, Stan Struthers, while not an elected member in 1994, was actually active in "Concerned Citizens of the Valley" and even came up with its name!
Faced with this kind of united front, a reluctant company and the Conservative Government of the day, capitulated and the equipment was installed.
Ironically, both Ms. Wowchuk and Mr. Struthers now find themselves influential members of a government that is seriously pondering a reversal of an old decision in which they, themselves, played a significant role!
Dan Soprovich of Concerned Citizens, a wildlife biologist and long-time critic of LP’s operations, has warned for some time the government has been buckling to company lobbying efforts on other issues as well.
He has frequently pointed out before that LP used hopelessly optimistic estimates of how much logging the forest could sustain in order to get its first license. Now, he adds, the present government is allocating the forest to the company based on faulty management assumptions. One is that there will be no losses due to fires or disease!
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He also wonders why the government appears to be about to reverse itself on a ruling it made in the fall of ’07. At that time, the Conservation Director, Tracy Braun rejected LP’s request to be allowed to increase its emissions of benzene. She ruled,
"Based on the fact that benzene is a known carcinogin, it is the
requirement of Manitoba Conservation that benzene
emissions must be reduced or eliminated wherever possible."
Soprovich wonders what has changed since then, to the point where the government is pondering a turn-around on the issue.
RTOs Commonly Used.
RTOs are a complex type of incinerator, commonly used in the OSB industry in North America to control emissions. They or other equipment which do the same job, are actually required at OSB plants in the 'States, but not in Canada.
According to Senes Consultants Ltd of Toronto, hired by the CEC to review the OSB industry in North America, RTOs are effective in controlling the range of nasty pollutants coming from the mill.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which include a wide range of toxic substances;
- hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), including cancer-causing agents;
- phenols, toxic chemical compounds which are fatal in extremely small amounts;
- methyl diphenyl diiscocyananate, (MDI), a toxic resin used in OSB construction;
- other carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde.
- Particulate matter - tiny particles which can be inhaled, causing respiratory and cardiac problems.
LP using scare tactics?
Like so many large corporations, LP doesn't hesitate to cite financial hard times as a reason to get what it wants.
In its application to the government, the company says harsh economic realities are forcing it to cut costs. It notes its sales are slumping thanks to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown in the US, where it sells much of its product. It claims the RTOs cost $3 million dollars a year to operate and some sources say they will soon have to be replaced, at a cost of another $10 million. It calls the RTOs “a burden that will threaten the competitiveness of our operations.” It even warns it may have to shut the plant down, throwing hundreds of staff, contractors and log handlers out of work for an indefinite period if the government rules against it!
It adds, "RTO elimination will not result in a significant impact to the surrounding environment and community health. It provides a win for the community by enhancing the long term viability of the plant and therefore the continued prosperity of the communities in and around the valley."
But many critics are not buying this "poverty plea."
In a letter to the local paper, Concerned Citizens writes, this (economic argument) “contradicts reports about LP on the internet.” It says the corporation plans to expand business in the UK, Australian and Japan “as part of a concerted campaign to grow market share and capitalize on the retreat from the market by one of its competitors, Weyerhaeuser."
In another email to the government, Stephanie Fulford of Nature Manitoba states, "It is a dangerous precedent for the environment of Manitoba, to base any decision on a temporary economic situation."
Another comes from Leah Moffatt, who describes herself as "A concerned citizen of Canada and Manitoba." She writes, "Economic hard times are affecting every one of us in today's society. But this doesn't mean we should allow any company or person to forgo their social and environmental responsibility."
And Susanne McRea of the Boreal Action Network says, while the economic downturn may be real, "to compromise human health in favour of the profits of a multinational corporation is not acceptable."
LP claims emissions are already being limited thanks to cutbacks in production and operational improvements. Yet at the same time, it acknowledges there will be "an increase of certain emissions" inherent in its application.
The company claims the plant will emit almost 12 thousand tonnes less greenhouse gas per year without the RTOs. They burn natural gas, which would no longer be needed. The consultants study also takes note of this fact, but concludes, the main source of greenhouse gases in the industry is the waste wood it burns to produce heat needed to make the actual product. And that will still be required.
Is government obstructing democracy?
Concerned Citizens have taken strong exception with the fact Struthers has chosen to hold an “investigation” or “public meetings,” rather than a full-fledged hearing on the issue. They argue that true hearings would allow members of the public, including ordinary citizens whose health might be impacted by the final decision, to cross-examine anyone who makes a submission, including the government, the company or even themselves. But this will not be the case. They charge that Struthers is deliberately "stifling the voice of the people" by the process he has chosen.
Are pollutants being accurately measured?
An official in the Conservation Department, Ryan Coulter, said some time ago, since the start of the temporary shutdown, there had been no significant increase in air pollution levels.
But an internal government email in March, casts doubt on the accuracy of the system the company has used all these years to measure those levels.
Dave Bezak of the Conservation Department writes, “LP's monitoring of outdoor ambient air quality is too infrequent to capture an air sample that might be impacted by facility emissions." Translation? Testing is not done often enough to get true readings!
Soprovich believes basic science should also
dictate that such testing be done in numerous places. Yet there are only two monitoring stations; one to the west of the mill and the other to the north. Since prevailing winds are from the north and the west, he concludes, the entire monitoring system has been exposed as a "useless public relations exercise."
This illustration shows prevailing
winds at the nearby Swan River airport.
Its almost as if the company placed the stations in places you’d pick if you didn’t want the emissions detected, he remarks!
The public meetings before the CEC will be held on July 28th, 29th and, if needed, the 30th in Swan River. There are rumours there may be a meeting in Winnipeg, as well. But this cannot be confirmed.
Meanwhile, those now-famous RTOs remain shut down and silent.
COMMENT: Hi Larry;
"As in mostly all scenarios the Corporates are allowed to waltz to their own music! I am of the opinion that these two ministers should be replaced; an Online Petition is in order for the blunders they pulled. Sounds radical, but that is the only choice. The Public has to be made aware of what Governments are doing to the Environment and the People. Where there is silence, there is consent !"
"What a great article!" - Brian and Maria