North America is home to a vast and mostly pristine wilderness – one which unfortunately has been threatened by some regions’ polluting and highly destructive industrial activity. The coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated the threat, as Canada and the US have decided to roll back environmental regulations to significant public outrage.
Still, even as these events are unfolding, two highly controversial industrial projects are coming to an end, igniting hope that the environment may see some relief. A Nova Scotian mill, owned by paper and pulp manufacturer Paper Excellence, is finally entering pre-bankruptcy proceedings after dumping toxic effluent in a local lagoon for decades. Meanwhile on the other side of the continent in Alaska, investors are pulling out of the widely-opposed Bristol Bay mine.
End of paper mill offers breathing space for local ecosystem
The Boat Harbour paper mill, owned by Northern Pulp—a subsidiary of global paper manufacturer Paper Excellence—has been responsible for far-reaching water pollution by steadily discharging 85 million liters of effluent per day into the local ecosystem, with great adverse effects on the river estuary’s marine life, as well as the indigenous communities living in the area.
The mill, however, has fallen on hard times, not least because of the pollution it has caused. Following the closure of the Boat Harbour effluent treatment center – plagued by environmental complaints since it opened – the company is projected to lose $214 million in revenue while owing Nova Scotia another $85 million. Local governments are already on the hook for the $217 million bill to clean up the harbour by 2025. All told, Northern Pulp owes a total of $309 million to its creditors.
In a bid to pull itself out of trouble, the firm promised to undergo a new environmental assessment for its proposed effluent treatment plant, which would allow the paper mill to resume operations. With the Provincial Environment Minister Gordon Wilson expressing concern over the potential risks to air, water, human and wildlife health, the province promised to defer all payments on the NP loan until the process was complete. To exert extra pressure, provincial officials warned that if NP ended its participation in the environmental assessment process for the proposed effluent treatment facility, the province would resume demands for interest and principal payments.
However, on June 8, Northern Pulp was doing exactly that: the company announced that it was pausing its participation in the environmental assessment process due to costs, while also filing a petition with British Columbia Supreme Court for voluntary creditor protection. Without this protection, Northern Pulp insisted, the company would “face immediate and multiple challenges to their continued viability and project that they will run out of cash and access to any further capital in late July 2020.”
End of the line for Alaska’s pebble mine
The fact that Northern Pulp is facing its formal end is certainly good news for the environment, especially in the wake of the pandemic, as sustainability in polluting and extractive industries is becoming more important. Indeed, the OECD’s sustainable post-Covid-19 recovery plan insists that policies “need to trigger investment and behavioural changes that will reduce the likelihood of future shocks and increase society’s resilience to them when they do occur.”
Fortunately, investors are starting to take the hint. Another notable case is Morgan Stanley’s decision to pull its investments from the highly controversial Bristol Bay mine in Alaska. It’s a decision that local residents are undoubtedly behind: some 80% of the Bristol Bay population oppose the project, not least due to the threat the mine poses to Alaska’s $1.5 billion fishing industry.
Serious concerns about the anticipated environmental and social impact of the Bristol Bay mine project are well-founded. The current proposal includes a mile-long mining pit, one mile wide and 2000 meters deep. The mine would destroy nearly 3,500 acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds, and decimate 81 miles of salmon streams. That’s not to mention the thousands more acres that would be dewatered, fragmented, and made to choke under the dust from the nearby mine.
Constructing the mine would also destroy one of North America’s richest and most unique remaining stretches of wilderness, home to the best bear-viewing spots on Earth, as well as one of the world’s largest and most pristine habitats for all five Pacific salmon species. Even limited development threatens to decimate local wildlife populations, from carrion flies to grizzly bears, while straddling the area’s watersheds.
“People have the general viewpoint that Alaska’s so big that there’s no way we could really screw it up,” says Daniel Schindler, a local scientist. The same attitude in the Pacific Northwest, however, opened the doors to damming and development; the region’s annual salmon runs have been reduced to barely a trickle. The region’s public coffers now foot a salmon life support bill amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Meanwhile, the financial viability of the Bristol Bay project has also been cast into doubt. An independent analysis by Rio Tinto environmental chief Richard Borden, for example, estimates a loss of $3 billion if allowed to go ahead. If the financial strife of the Pictou County paper mill is anything to go by, merely from a financing perspective the Bristol Bay mine should be laughed out of the bank.
Time for action
The fact that these major projects are falling out of favour is only good news for North America’s environmental wealth. But if sustainability truly is a national policy, Canada and the US need to urgently reinstate tougher environmental regulations. Otherwise, the progress made will be all for naught.
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