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Belledune is a small community in Northern New Brunswick that is home to just over two thousand people. It will soon also be home to 100 000 tonnes of toxic soil from Manville, New Jersey. This picturesque hamlet on the shores of the Bay of Chaleur is becoming known to some as a "sacrifice zone."
After Bennett Environmental Inc. was refused by governments in Ontario, British Columbia and Massachusetts, their proposal to operate a 'thermal oxidizer'–called a toxic waste incinerator by their opponents–was quietly accepted by the province of New Brunswick.
David Coon, Policy Director for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB), believes the approval process in New Brunswick was deeply flawed. "It allowed the project to go forward without a full public environmental impact assessment and reversed a long-standing public policy in the province of prohibiting the importation of hazardous waste without public discussion," said Coon.
Lacking a full environmental impact assessment or broad public consultation, it is difficult to know what the environmental and health impacts of annually treating 100 000 tonnes of contaminated soil might be. What the citizens of Belledune do know, however, is that the Bennett facility in St. Ambroise, Quebec, has raised the dioxin levels around the plant and that the Ontario Ministry of the Environment shelved plans for a similar plant in Kirkland Lake due to questions raised about the quality of Bennett's environmental study.
Gaétan Dugas' family has been in the oyster business on the Bay of Chaleur for the past 230 years. He is concerned about how pollution from the plant may affect his business and the region's fisheries, aquaculture and tourism industries. "It is the worst thing that could happen to the local economy," he says.
The Mayor of Belledune, Nick Duivenvoorden, disagrees. He believes that the plant will not only have a positive economic impact by creating twenty-five jobs in the community, but will also have a positive environmental impact, "Bennett is treating something that is not only useless but is a hazardous substance, and if they can turn that into something useful, I can't help but think the good outweighs the bad." According to Duivenvoorden, toxic soil treated by the plant will be safe enough to be used to grow crops for use in animal grain. "Bennett is on the leading edge of environmental technology. If there's a process that can treat that [toxic waste], how can you says it's environmentally bad?"
Whatever the environmental impacts of the Bennett plant are, they will be in an addition to the pollution that already exists in the region. Along with a sawmill, power plant, and gypsum processing facility, Belledune is also home to one of the world's largest lead and zinc smelters. Not surprisingly, air, water and soil pollution are problems in this remote community.
A recent CCNB study found unacceptable levels of lead in 24 locations where children may come in contact with soil, such as playgrounds and bus stops. According to a CCNB May 4th press release, fourteen of these sites exceed the lead level, which is supposed to trigger immediate action on the part of the Department of Environment and Local Government. In addition, six locations in the vicinity of the lead smelter and Renviro Park have lead levels exceeding 1000 ppm, well over the national safety guidelines for industrial sites.
Soil contamination has resulted in some residents tearing up their vegetable gardens, a source of food which they had always assumed to be healthy. The lead smelter has also been a part of a bizarre scenario where Noranda (the smelter's operator) buys cadmium-contaminated lobsters from local fishermen at market prices. These lobsters are then burnt by Noranda to prevent consumption.
The environmental degradation in the region angers local resident Florian Levesque, "Just check out the level of pollution in the Belledune area and look at the toxic load they want to add….I don't want to live in a sacrifice zone."
"Sacrifice zones are communities identified as possible locations for industries that other communities have refused to accept," explains Mary Ann Coleman, Coordinator for the New Brunswick Environmental Network. "Sacrifice zones lack political clout, money and resources. Often marginalized, they are deemed an expendable environmental cost to maintain North American culture…Belledune fits the profile of a sacrifice zone."
Many area residents are determined not to become a dumping ground for the waste created by another community's wealth. Opposition to the Bennett plant has included demonstrations, information sessions, press conferences, court challenges, a benefit concert and petitions signed by over 40 000 people.
For one group, opposition to the plant has not come without a cost. Bennett has filed a lawsuit against the Conservation Council of New Brunswick for "false and defamatory statements" made by their representatives.
A press statement released by the Friends For The Legal Defence of the Conservation Council details some of the comments included in Bennett's Statement of Claim. Included is a response made by David Coon to a Telegraph Journal reporter in August 2003, "…Coon stated that toxic pollutants are released from incinerators that treat hazardous waste and that these end up as contaminants in the environment. In its Statement of Claim, Bennett alleges that the statement was false and defamatory of their company, and maliciously stated."
Jean Arnold, Director of the Falls Brook Centre in Knowlesville New Brunswick, suggests that the suit brought against the CCNB may be a "SLAPP suit". SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation," and has become a part of many activists' vocabulary in the recent years. SLAPPs are typically used by industry to silence individuals and organizations that are speaking up against a corporate policy, proposal, or project. "They are an affront to our civil liberties and to the right of environmental organizations to speak out on environmental issues," said Arnold.
Mayor Duivenvoorden believes that the CCNB may be speaking out of turn, "Environmental watchdogs are great, but they need to be motivated by more than passion and emotion…you must have accurate and precise data to back up what you're saying."
Whether or not the CCNB has the data to back up their statements will come out in court in the coming months. In the meantime, efforts to stop the plant continue. There are several processes that could change the fate of the Bennett facility which has been built but is not yet operating. One of these is a case brought before the Provincial Assessment and planning Appeal Board by the Belledune Citizens Committee. If their appeal is successful, it could suspend the operation of the plant indefinitely.
Although permission was given to Bennett to build the facility, the provincial government has not yet issued a permit to operate.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.