Miranda Holmes is a former journalist who spent a decade working on toxics and genetic engineering for Greenpeace and other environmental organizations in Canada and the UK. She has also worked on human rights and development issues. She is now an associate editor of the award-winning Watershed Sentinel
Twenty-five years ago, after consensus on the reality and impacts of manmade climate change led to the formation of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, western governments had two choices. They could either stop subsidising fossil fuel industries and invest the savings in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy (e.g. putting solar panels on all public buildings to bring the price down for homeowners) or they could make long, lingering love to Fido.
They chose the latter and now, a quarter of a century later, we are being told by these same governments that our best hope of averting the worst consequences of climate change is to embrace nuclear power.
“Look,” they say, “no carbon dioxide emissions! Isn’t that great?” Well, no, it isn’t. It’s a bit like being told your only two choices are being beaten to a pulp tomorrow or being beaten to a pulp in ten years.
Assume for a moment that it is possible to guarantee there will never be another Chernobyl or Fukushima (and that’s a very large and problematic assumption), you can never produce nuclear energy without producing nuclear waste. This waste – leftover plutonium and uranium, as well as various isotopes – can remain lethally radioactive for an unimaginably long time.
The speed with which radioactivity decreases is measured by its half-life (the time it takes for half the radioactivity to decay). Picking just a few of the isotopes in nuclear waste, the half-life of Strontium-90 is 28 years and the half-life of Plutonium-239 is 24,000 years, while the half-life for Caesium-135 is 2.3 million years and for Iondine-129 is 15.7 million years.
Half a century after realizing quite how dangerous nuclear waste is, there is still no safe way to dispose of it – nor is there ever likely to be.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some ill-conceived suggestions, including dumping it in the oceans and blasting it into space. (In the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, my father-in-law – a renowned nuclear physicist – commented that the tragedy should at least serve as a warning against the latter proposal. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Apparently it might be a good idea to put nuclear waste in orbit around Venus – in case we ever want to retrieve it. I kid you not.)
The waste problem is very bad news for the nuclear energy industry and, like many other industries in the past, it has decided the best thing to do with bad news is to bury it.
As Anna Tilman reports in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, proponents of nuclear power (both industry and government) have decided that Deep Geological Repositories (DGRs) are the “final solution” to the problem of nuclear waste.
The theory behind DGRs is that nuclear waste can be safely stored “forever” deep underground in geologically stable areas.
The reality, as Tilman points out, is that “nothing is immutable, not even rocks. Containers will eventually corrode. Cracks and fissures will develop. Groundwater will seep in. Water and gas contaminated with radionuclides will penetrate the barriers. Chemical and microbial processes and interactions will occur, with unpredictable results. Climate change, glaciations and earthquakes could severely destabilise the repository.”
Ignoring Geology 101, governments (including Canada’s) have been pushing hard for many years to establish DGRs. So far, none have succeeded, although one is currently under construction in Finland. (A documentary about this project, Into Eternity, eloquently makes the case for why this is a bad idea. It should be required viewing for all government leaders.)
Finding an “informed and willing host community” is, not surprisingly, a challenge for Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (a federal agency established in 2002 and run by the nuclear industry), despite the fundamentally flawed consultation process Tilman describes in her article.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that the volume of radioactive waste on the planet already exceeds 345,000 tonnes – 50,000 tonnes in Canada alone.
We’ve created this disaster and, of course, we have to deal with it. (Personally, I would establish secure, monitored, above ground storage facilities paid for by and located in the backyards of every nuclear power industry executive and government supporter.)
What we absolutely, positively do not have to do is add to the problem.
Every year, each of the more than 400 nuclear reactors currently operating in 31 countries adds an average of 30 tonnes to the total volume of nuclear waste.
This is the sign the IAEA thinks will protect thousands of future generations from the dangers of nuclear waste:
This is the sign I think will best protect them:
Read Anna Tilman’s article “Nuclear Fuel Waste in Canada” here.
When Josh Fox received a letter offering him nearly $100,000 for the natural gas extraction rights on his Pennsylvania property, his first reaction was: nice chunk of change. Then he started wondering what was involved in the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process proposed.
Looking for the answer took him on a road trip across the United States during which he interviewed individuals and communities whose lives and livelihoods had been damaged by the poisoning of their groundwater and air by fracking operations. The result was the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland.
Fracking, as Fox discovered, involves blasting huge volumes of water, laced with a cocktail of often carcinogenic or neurotoxic chemicals, into drilled wells to fracture the shale and release captured deposits of oil and gas. Up to 50% of this toxic water stays in the ground (where it can contaminate groundwater), while much of the rest comes back as toxic wastewater (benignly dubbed “produced water”).
Fox didn’t make it to Canada, so he didn’t meet Jessica Ernst, the Alberta scientist who went public after discovering her tap water (which she can set on fire) had been contaminated with methane by Canadian gas giant Encana.
That the process could threaten human health seems inevitable to Dr. Theo Colborn, co-author of Our Stolen Future, who warns: “From the first day the drill bit is inserted into the ground until the well is completed, toxic materials are introduced into the borehole and returned to the surface along with produced water and other extraction liquids… It has been common practice to hold these liquids in open evaporation pits until the wells are shut down, which could be up to 25 years. These pits have rarely been examined to ascertain their chemical contents… Our data reveal that extremely toxic chemicals are found in evaporation pits… These chemicals are being re-injected underground, creating yet another potential source of extremely toxic chemical contamination.” Nice.
The health problems caused by fracking which are highlighted in Gasland, also feature prominently in the new Matt Damon film, Promised Land. Neither tells the full horror story.
As Joyce Nelson details in an article in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, 2012 was a fracking bad year for the shale oil and gas industry. Not only have tales of poisoned drinking and groundwater continued to amass, but a Colorado School of Public Health study has revealed a dramatically increased cancer risk from air contaminants. Meanwhile, a peer-reviewed study directly links livestock illnesses and deaths with air and water pollution from fracking operations.
Then there are the health problems involved in open pit mining for frac-sand (crystalline silica) in Alberta, Saskatchewan and throughout the US. As Nelson reports: “Frac-sandstorms are taking a toll in areas where the wind whips up massive clouds of silica dust that linger for hours, threating workers and nearby residents with silicosis and other lung disorders.”
Then there are the earthquakes. Yes, that’s right. Earthquakes. Nelson points to a Science News report which links the disposal of fracking fluid into wastewater wells with dramatically increased earthquakes and other seismic activity in the US Midwest. An August 2012 report by the BC Oil and Gas Commission concluded that the hydraulic fracturing process itself had caused earthquakes in the Horn River Basin.
And then there is the water issue. The amount of water required for fracking a well can vary from 3.5 million litres to 30 million litres, with wells being refracked up to 18 times. Yes, the volume of water required is huge.
As Nelson reports, BC’s Liberal government is currently considering 20 applications for water licenses to withdraw some trillion litres from various rivers and lakes in the Horn River basin near Fort Nelson. (Encana alone is slated to be given three billion litres a year for its fracking operation.) In June 2011 the province granted (with no public consultation) permits for both Talisman Energy and Cambrian Energy to withdraw 10 million litres of water from the Williston Reservoir every day for 20 years.
If that’s not enough to make you tear your hair out, Nelson’s description of the level of compensation foreign investors can expect out of our tax dollars if future governments wake up and smell the methane may leave you bald.
In Gasland, a farmer with poisoned tap water, told that natural gas is crucial to the government’s energy independence strategy, asks why they can’t build solar panels instead. Good question. Why the frack not?
To read Joyce Nelson’s article “Fracking Farce 2012”, go to www.watershedsentinel.ca/content/fracking-farce-2012. Photo © Gasland, available for viewing on Netflix.
I’ve never been a member of a political party, although I did consider joining the NDP earlier this year, just so I could vote for Nathan Cullen in the leadership contest. Now I’m considering joining the Liberals, just so I can vote for Joyce Murray.
In the rarified air of Parliament Hill, where so many Opposition MPs seem to exist in an alternative reality, these two brave souls have pointed out what any sane Canadian can already see: if we want to escape from Harperland and return to something resembling the Canada most of us know and love, the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens are going to have to co-operate and run candidates strategically in the next federal election.
It is (perhaps) interesting that both these MPs are from the invisible province of British Columbia. I say “invisible” because, in the current debate about the East/West divide, it seems to have escaped the notice of many eastern commentators that there is an entire province to the west of Alberta which, by and large, does not share its eastern neighbour’s rapacious, laissez faire attitude towards the environment.
I can remember a time when American backpackers wore Canadian flag pins to make their appearance in many countries less unwelcome. Other than Israel (where our Foreign Minister’s shamefully vitriolic rejection of the Palestinian people’s statehood aspirations were very welcome indeed), I’m not sure how helpful a maple leaf is these days.
I hate feeling embarrassed about being a Canadian. And on an almost daily basis the number of reasons for embarrassment grows. No sooner had the Harper Tories rejected efforts to supply cheaper generic drugs to desperate countries, then our International Co-operation Minister was boasting about how useful the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) can and should be to Canadian mining companies and other corporations. (Anyone wondering why this is a very bad idea should read Samantha Nutt’s excellent book Damned Nations.)
If I had to pick one reason – and it isn’t easy – it would be the Harper government’s flagrant disdain for science (which, for the Prime Minister and his oil sands cronies, really is an inconvenient truth).
Denying the existence and dire consequences of manmade climate change would almost be less embarrassing than paying lip service to both, then tossing its Kyoto protocol obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions out the window, as this government has done. Then there’s the embarrassment of watching the Harper contingent swanning around this month’s climate change negotiations in Doha attempting to stymie any meaningful action by others. When pundits conclude that Canada could learn from the US on emissions reduction, you know you’re in serious trouble.
Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, following a limited debate, the number of rivers and lakes protected by the Navigable Waters Act was reduced this month from more than 2.5 million to 159.
Protection of Canada’s ocean ecosystems had already been tossed out the window with the decision by the Harper government that the primary remit of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans should be boosting fish farms. This “trade uber alles” mandate was threatened last year when the Cohen enquiry heard from Fred Kibenge of the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island that Infectious Salmon Anaemia virus had been found in samples of BC salmon. Kibenge predicted that he would be attacked by the government and he was right.
Unfortunately, attacking independent scientists, gagging or simply firing vexatious government scientists and gutting existing environmental legislation is not enough for this government. As Dr Darryl Luscombe warns in a recent Watershed Sentinel article, a primary goal of the controversial Bill C-38 is to curb the participation of an informed public in environmental reviews of contentious projects.
Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “To be scientifically literate is to empower yourself to know when someone else is full of bullshit.” Sadly, scientific literacy does not help when your government legislates against it.
And so I appeal to the Liberals and the NDP and the Bloc and the Greens: For the sake of Archimedes and Galileo and Darwin (and all of Canada’s dedicated and currently harassed government and independent scientists), please put partisanship aside and bring back informed, civilised debate.
Not long after the Defend Our Coast rallies, a pollster phones, wanting to know whom I plan to vote for in the provincial election. The first party to unequivocally say NO to tar sands oil in pipelines and tankers through BC land and waters, I tell her.
This causes a bit of confusion, as it clearly isn’t one of the options in front of the caller. So, she asks after some hesitation, the NDP?
Given NDP leader Adrian Dix’s tough talk on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, she might very well think so, but where is he on doubling the capacity of the Kinder Morgan pipeline into Burrard Inlet? The silence is deafening.
Does one conclude that Mr Dix has no intrinsic objection to BC enabling fossil fuel addicts around the world? Because that’s my objection to the pipeline proposals.
Yes, I’m worried – as most people in BC are – about the inevitable environmental devastation oil spills will bring. I’m also concerned about the environmental devastation extracting oil from Alberta’s tar sands has already caused.
According to federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, the damage isn’t just environmental, it is also economic. Back in the spring, he accused the tar sands industry of causing Dutch Disease. And, while Harper & Co spluttered their objections to Mulcair’s claim, the OECD supported his assessment.
Mind you, that was then. It seems Mulcair has had an epiphany. Apparently he has now decided tar sands oil is good for the economy – if it travels east from Alberta, not west.
With the Globe and Mail declaring the Northern Gateway pipeline all but dead and the Obama re-election making the future of the Keystone pipeline less certain, it should come as no surprise to learn – as Joyce Nelson reports at length in Watershed Sentinel – that tar sands mules Enbridge and TransCanada Corp have well-advanced plans for converting existing pipelines to transport diluted bitumen from Alberta to refineries in eastern Canada and New England.
According to Nelson, if these plans – which seem to be attracting little mainstream media attention – go ahead, “more than 1.4 million barrels per day of tar sands crude could be piped through southern Ontario and Quebec – the most populated areas of Canada.”
Which begs the question: Just how crude do Alberta’s exports need to be?
Diluted bitumen is 16 times more likely to leak than conventional crude transported in pipelines and a far greater clean up challenge when spilled, as it was, in the Kalamazoo River.
Appearing on The National recently, fossil fuel dealer Alison Redford smiled patiently and explained to the country that without pipelines through BC to enable Alberta to ship its diluted bitumen to Asia, the province will be condemned to making less than top dollar per barrel from its resources. Really?
If Redford truly wants to maximize the economic benefits from the tar sands, perhaps she should insist, as Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, has suggested, that her province’s oily gunk be upgraded to synthetic crude oil before it’s exported. (Most dealers know you get less for crack than you do for powdered cocaine.)
Neither Enbridge nor TransCanada care whether their package is diluted bitumen or synthetic crude, but everyone along their proposed pipelines should.
Although there are obvious measures we could and should be taking to aid our withdrawal from fossil fuels, as long as Hopalong Harper is in charge, investment in green energy and electric cars is likely to remain even more of a pipe dream in Canada than in many other countries. And, as beneficial as going cold turkey might be for the health of the planet, it is not a viable option.
So, here’s the deal (because apparently someone died and made me king): No new pipelines either heading west or east and henceforth tar sands companies must upgrade their bitumen before it goes anywhere. This won’t help with our fossil fuel addiction or with arresting the impacts of climate change, but at least it might reduce the immediate threat of environmental devastation.
That’s reduce, of course, not eliminate.
It is estimated that over 22,000 women in Canada will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and nearly ten times as many in the United States. Almost a quarter of these people will die. Nobody knows why.
Yes, there are established risk factors, such as early commencement of menstruation, never breastfeeding a child, late onset of menopause, all of which increase a woman’s lifetime production of estrogen. Then there is the inheritance of the long-researched "breast cancer gene". These risks apply to approximately 30% of breast cancer cases, leaving the vast majority unexplained.
Or are they?
For the past two decades, scientists like Devra Davis have been pointing the finger at “foreign” estrogens, contaminants introduced into the body from the environment, which can mimic the action of estrogen or alter hormonal activity.
There are two types. Some, such as those found in soy products, broccoli and cauliflower, occur naturally, are easily degraded and can actually reduce estrogen's effects. (In fact, there is evidence to suggest that women who eat a diet rich in these natural estrogens have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer.)
Synthetic estrogens, on the other hand, are difficult for the body to break down and can amplify the effects of naturally-produced estrogen. These synthetic estrogens – found in certain pesticides, plastics, fuels and drugs – have proliferated ( along with breast cancer) since World War Two.
So, what do we know about these pollutants?
For one thing, their strength magnifies in the food chain as, say, microscopic traces on phytoplankton are consumed by small fish, then larger fish, then mammals. They’re also lipid (fat) soluble, ergo store themselves in fatty tissue, like, oh, you know, breasts.
For another, they can travel thousands of miles from their source before they are brought back to earth by cold climates. As a result, the people of Canada’s Arctic – recently listed by the Blacksmith Institute as one of the top 10 most polluted places on earth – bear the toxic body burden of their industrialized southern neighbours. Tragically, lab tests on the breast milk of some Inuit women suggest it should be treated as hazardous waste.
Which brings me to one of the most shocking statements I’ve ever heard.
It was made by breast cancer activist Judy Brady, who, at a women’s health forum in 1996, pointed out that women, unlike men, had a means of expelling these contaminants from their fatty tissue: through lactation. Yes, Brady said, there is more than one way breastfeeding can reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, but at what cost?
In an article in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, Devra Davis details what is known about the role synthetic chemicals are playing in the current epidemic of breast (and other forms of) cancer.
She also explains how badly we have been betrayed for decades by our governments, saying: “At the 1971 launch of the so-called war on cancer, proof that how and where we live and work affects the chances we may get cancer was basically ignored. Astonishing alliances between naïve or far too clever academics and folks with major economic interests in selling potentially cancerous materials have kept us from figuring out whether or not many modern products affect our chances of developing cancer.”
In the speech Brady gave at that forum, she pointed out that the World Health Organization acknowledged in 1964 that 80% of cancers in industrialized countries were caused by human-produced environmental toxins. In other words, 80% of cancers are preventable.
You’d think women (and men) would be marching in the streets, demanding these carcinogenic chemicals be removed from our environment and our bodies. Actually, back in the early 1980s, activists like Brady were doing just that.
Unfortunately, their demand – that we start preventing breast cancer, instead of throwing billions of dollars at an ever elusive cure – did not sit well with the well-funded cancer research agencies or the drug companies. (Nobody ever got rich saying “eat your broccoli”.)
That women were angry was clear. That something was required to subsume their anger was even clearer.
Enter Zeneca Pharmaceuticals. At the time a wholly-owned subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries – one of the largest manufacturers of the chemicals implicated in the breast cancer epidemic – Zeneca makes tamoxifen, one of the most widely-prescribed breast cancer drugs. (Although some have questioned the efficacy of tamoxifen in actually preventing the development or recurrence of breast cancer tumours, it seems likely that taking it does increase the risk of women developing endometrial cancers.)
In 1984 Zeneca dreamt up and continues to largely control Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM). That pretty-in-pink month, with us again now, exhorts women to run, jump, leap or swim, not for prevention, but for that always just-around-the-corner cure. (Or they could hold a fundraising golf tournament – despite the increased risk of breast cancer from those pesticide-sodden courses.)
In an article explaining why she hates pink, Brady exposes BCAM for what it essentially is: a marketer’s dream come true.
Taking the lead in facilitating this corporate “pink washing” in the US is the Susan G. Komen Foundation. In January 2012 the Komen Foundation entered into a marketing agreement with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF). According to their joint press release, “the two organizations will work with business partners to identify and develop products and programs available in both countries, with proceeds benefiting both organizations and the breast cancer cause.” Any mention of “benefiting” the cause by eliminating the production and discharge of the chemicals that cause breast cancer? Nope.
I have no wish to offend any of the many hopeful individuals who will be running – or doing anything else – during BCAM this October. However, I do believe, as my grandmother used to say, that an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
So, I’ll be doing my own awareness raising: inviting friends round to watch the NFB’s excellent exposé, Pink Ribbons, Inc.
In September 1962 – 50 years ago this month – a book was published which changed the way we looked at the post-World War Two chemical revolution. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – a clarion call about the perils of pesticides – is largely credited with launching the modern day environmental movement.
Soon after its publication, the indiscriminate spraying of DDT on farm fields and suburbs in the US ended, followed in 1972 by an outright ban on its manufacture and use. Forty years later, DDT’s metabolite DDE can be found in the bodies of 95% of Americans.
These chemicals persist.
Rachel Carson wrote about the damage pesticides could do to humans and wildlife in doses as small as one part per million.
In 1996 another ground-breaking book was published. Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn and Peter Myers details the wealth of scientific research highlighting the ability of many supposedly safe manmade chemicals (including still widely used pesticides) to mimic hormones and – in parts per billion – interfere with immune system, cognitive and reproductive development.
Put simply, there is every reason to believe that chemicals in our environment are making us sick, stupid and sterile.
Earlier this year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its annual guide to pesticide residues on domestic and imported produce. The guide highlights the worst of the worst, the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables which shoppers should replace with organic produce wherever possible.
Think all you have to do is wash and peel your fruit and vegetables before you eat them? Guess again. The majority of studies on which the EWG guide is based involved testing samples after they had been washed or peeled.
Most alarming were the number of samples contaminated with organophosphate (OP) insecticides.
A study by Stephen Rauch of BC Children’s Hospital has linked prenatal exposure to these known neurotoxins with lower birth weight and shorter gestation. Rauch notes that these pregnancies began after OPs were restricted for most uses. He also flags other studies linking prenatal exposure to OP insecticides with abnormal reflexes and reduced cognitive abilities.
In a worrying article in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, children’s health expert Bruce Lanphear highlights the research linking exposure to environmental contaminants with increasingly common childhood illnesses and disabilities.
For example, OP insecticides have been strongly linked with dramatic increases in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while the marine anti-fouling chemical tributyltin has been identified as an “obesogen” which can mimic the hormones involved in the development of obesity.
One of the several quotes from Rachel Carson which Lanphear uses in his article is the following: “Thalidomide and pesticides represent our willingness to rush ahead and use something new without knowing what the results are going to be.” Lanphear points out that the substantial and lifelong implications for children of exposure to environmental chemicals are subtle and often unlikely to be recognised.
In the month when the manufacturer of thalidomide finally issued an apology for the damage caused by its drug, Lanphear quotes environmental health expert David Rall, who once remarked: “If thalidomide had caused a ten-point loss of IQ instead of obvious birth defects of the limbs, it would probably still be on the market.”
In an article written for Environmental Health News to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, the distinguished scientist Paul Ehrlich observes: “Many people have the impression that climate disruption is the worst environmental problem humanity faces, and, indeed, its consequences may be catastrophic. But the spread of toxic chemicals from pole to pole may be the dark horse in the race.”
Ehrlich thinks Rachel Carson would be appalled by our lack of progress in stemming the flow of toxic chemicals into our air, water, food and bodies.
Perhaps it’s too late. Perhaps we’re already too sick and stupid. I hope not.
The following statement was made by Miranda Holmes today at the National Energy Board's Joint Review Panel hearings into the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline in Comox, BC.
Many voices have been heard during these hearings, yet one has remained silent: the oily character at the centre of the debate. I think that’s a shame and so I am using my time before the panel to allow this character’s case to be made.
Hi, my name’s Dil Bit. That’s short for Diluted Bitumen, but I feel like I’m amongst friends here, so let’s not be too formal.
I come from the tar sands and, as you know, Alberta totally digs me. Alberta’s so generous she wants to share me with everyone.
If she gets her way, I’ll be passing through British Columbia a lot in the future, so I thought I should introduce myself properly.
As fossil fuels go, I’m a bit unconventional. But, as Alberta’s favourite son Steve will tell you, I’m totally ethical. (And don’t let those jet setting celebrities tell you any different.)
I’m also way better than conventional crude oil.
For instance, my total acid concentrations are up to 20 times higher than conventional crude. My sulphur content is up to 10 times higher and I’m up to 70 times thicker. Pretty impressive, eh?
Yeah, it’s true I can be a bit abrasive. Bits of quartz, pyrite, silicates, sure I carry them around. It’s just the way I’m made.
So conventional crude doesn’t have my grit. So what? No need to point out, like those granola eaters at the Natural Resources Defense Council did, that putting me in a pipeline is “like sandblasting the inside of the pipe.”
I don’t know why the Americans have taken against me, because – like so many of them – I pack some serious heat. Thanks to my true grit and my thickness (I like to think of it as strength), I make pipes hotter than conventional crude - and harder to monitor. In fact, pipelines carrying me are16 times more likely to leak.
See? I told you I was better.
I’m Alberta’s most precious resource. You think she and Steve are going to let just anyone transport me? No way.
For my travels through British Columbia, they’re going to use Enbridge, a fine, upstanding company with an excellent track record. Why, it took Enbridge 10 years to spill half as much oil as the Exxon Valdez. And they didn’t just spill it in one spot – they spread it around.
Regulators in the US thought the three million litres of me Enbridge spilled in Michigan was so funny they compared the company to those great comedy characters the Keystone Kops.
If Enbridge maintains its current success rate it should be able to meet Steve’s federal standards, which allow undetected pipeline leaks of less than 2% of capacity per week.
For the Northern Gateway project that means Enbridge could legally leave 11 million litres of me a week behind on my way to Kitimat without getting into any serious trouble. And why should they? Eleven million litres of me would be more than three times funnier than Michigan, right?
That’s good news for me, because I’ve heard there are some mighty pretty places in northern BC and I think it would be a shame not to get to know them better.
And it’s good news for BC, because your premier’s promising lots of jobs out of oil and gas exports, and cleaning up after me will sure keep people employed.
Sorry if any of the spots I’m going to wreck is one of your favourites, but I’ve got to keep Alberta happy. You know what she’s like.
My partner Mike was a professor with a wealth of knowledge about all things nuclear. Of all the achievements of his long, illustrious career, there was none of which he was more proud than playing a pivotal role in keeping nuclear power out of British Columbia in the 1980s. One of the last things he wrote before his sudden death in March 2011 was a column for our local paper about the fundamental flaws in producing nuclear energy which led, inevitably, to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
Last month, when a 20 metre-long dry dock washed up on the shore of Oregon 15 months after being cast adrift by the Japanese tsunami, I could almost hear Mike asking: What about the invisible fallout from this disaster?
After all, even though it wasn’t reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences until May 2012, within five months of the Fukushima explosion scientists on the US Pacific coast found radioactive contamination levels ten times higher than normal in migrating bluefin tuna.
Airborne radioactive pollution crossed the Pacific much faster than those tuna. An investigation by The Georgia Straight last year revealed efforts by Health Canada to downplay the significance of massive spikes in radiation in BC and across Canada within weeks of the Fukushima nuclear plant explosion.
By the time those radioactive tuna were turning up in California, Health Canada had already removed nine supplementary radiation monitors installed in BC and the Yukon following the Fukushima meltdown. According to their website, this was done because “radioactivity levels across Canada continue to be within normal background levels and there is no cause for concern”.
So, we’re just getting our regular, every day, perfectly safe dose of radiation. Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? Or is it?
When their research was published in May this year, Daniel Madigan, one of the scientists who analysed those tuna, told Reuters: “I wouldn't tell anyone what's safe to eat or not safe. It's become clear that some people feel any amount of radioactivity, in their minds, is bad and they'd like to avoid it. But compared to…what's established as safety limits, it's not a large amount at all.”
Established as safety limits, eh? Established by whom?
As Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility told The Georgia Straight last year: “The government of Canada tends to pooh-pooh the dangers of nuclear power because it is a promoter of nuclear energy and uranium sales.”
Dr. Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of the Chicago School of Public Health, has warned: “The claim that low doses of radiation are harmless has always been just a claim.” Mike and countless other nuclear experts (though not surprisingly none in the nuclear power industry) would agree: there is no risk-free dose of radiation.
As Anna Tilman explains in Watershed Sentinel magazine, ionizing radiation (which all radioactive material coming out of a reactor produces) is powerful enough to initiate and promote cancer. A single radionuclide can cause a lethal cancer, and damage to DNA that may be carried to future generations.
Just how much radiation is in the air you’re breathing? According to Health Canada, not enough for you to worry about.
In case you don’t believe them, you now have a chance to find out for yourself. Watershed Sentinel (in co-operation with the BC Environmental Network and a private donor) has purchased a Geiger counter. The magazine wants to put the Geiger counter on the road, sending it to communities around BC and Alberta to test for hotspots. Results will be mapped and posted on its website. Details about borrowing and operating the Geiger counter are available at sentinelhotspots.ca/hotspots/radiation.
The above cartoon was republished with permission from Stephanie McMillan - to see more of her "Code Green" cartoons, go to www.stephaniemcmillan.org/codegreen.
In the late 1980s, executives at Monsanto were told, “genetic engineering offered the best prospect of preserving the commercial life of Monsanto's most important product, Roundup, in the face of the challenges Monsanto would encounter once the patent expired.”
Monsanto’s guys in lab coats began working wildly to modify as many crops as possible to survive saturation in Roundup (trade name for the herbicide glysophate). Meanwhile, guys in lab coats at corporations like Bayer and Syngenta were splicing bacillus thuringiensis (Bt – a naturally occurring bacterium previously used in organic agriculture) into corn and other crops.
Canada and the US were asleep at the switch. By the time activists in Europe were ripping out field trials of GM crops and the EU was implementing a ban, GM canola, corn and soya were in widespread commercial production in North America. How did this happen? Merda taurorum animas conturbit. (Google it.)
Our regulators bought the biotech industry’s argument of “substantial equivalence”. In other words, if it looks and tastes like its non-GM predecessor, it must be the same thing. Therefore, the industry implied, there could be no environmental or health risks. Great – except the tests used to establish this supposed equivalence dealt only with known toxicants and could not properly address potential allergic reactions and other issues of concern.
In 1999 substantial equivalence was dismissed in Nature as a “pseudo-scientific concept” and “a commercial and political judgement masquerading as if it were scientific. It is, moreover, inherently anti-scientific because it was created primarily to provide an excuse for not requiring biochemical or toxicological tests. It therefore serves to discourage and inhibit potentially informative scientific research.”
By 1999, potential environmental risks associated with GM crops (e.g. cross pollination) identified by the Union of Concerned Scientists were already happening. Ongoing biotech industry claims that there could never be any human health consequences failed to persuade the British Medical Association which, in the same year, recommended a moratorium on the planting of GM organisms. This repeated call, reflected the BMA’s concerns “about the impact GM foodstuffs may have on our long-term health”.
Ten years later, as evidence about human health threats continued to mount, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine issued this warning: “Because GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health, and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health – and are without benefit – the AAEM believes it is imperative to adopt the precautionary principle.”
Chemical and biotech (or, as they prefer to be called, “life science”) companies view the precautionary principle as an annoying impediment to quick profits. Without the precautionary principle, it is left to university and (in Canada increasingly endangered) government scientists to do this research – after the genie is out of the bottle and the damage is already being done.
In 2010, Watershed Sentinel reported that multiple and increasing allergies associated with GM crops have come to light since the guys in lab coats started running amok with Roundup and Bt. Links have also been made with organ failure and infertility.
Now, as Anne Sherrod reports in the current issue, scientists from the University of Caen report that the Bt toxin Cry1Ab from GM plants kills human cells. Previous research from the university documented DNA damage and endocrine disruption caused by exposure to Roundup/glysophate at concentrations currently permitted in food.
Meanwhile, doctors from Sherbrooke Hospital in Quebec have found Cry1Ab in the bloodstream of nearly 80% of women tested. In the absence of any other identifiable exposure route, the doctors speculate that contamination may be the result of consuming beef fed on GM corn.
Nearly 20 years ago, geneticist Steve Jones warned: “The triumph of human ingenuity has not been unalloyed: because living organisms can deal with new challenges by evolving to cope, genetic engineers, unlike those who build bridges, must face the prospect that their new toys will fight back.”
Okay, time to stop worrying about climate change. Turns out we can just change the climate. How? Well, maybe we should just nuke the moon. (Apparently if we can shift its orbit to block more sunlight, oil companies can keep drilling, the politicians in their pockets can keep doing nothing and gas-guzzling SUV drivers can laugh at the doomsday warnings of scientists. I kid you not).
Welcome to the wacky world of geo-engineering where geeks compete to find technical remedies for the fossil-fueled mess we’ve got ourselves into.
As Joyce Nelson reveals in an article in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, funding for geo-quick fixes is pouring in from governments (including Canada’s), from the oil industry (including the tar sands folks) and from billionaires like Bill Gates, Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Sir Richard Branson. (Branson wants everyone to stop worrying about climate change so he can go ahead with plans to launch space tourism. I kid you not).
Too much carbon dioxide in your atmosphere? You could turn off the tap by fast-tracking development of electric cars and investing in clean energy. Or you could fund mad schemes to develop money-making ways to suck up the CO2.
Before reneging completely on Canada’s commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the Harper government and the government of Alberta were relying on – and continue to heavily fund – carbon capture and storage (basically, pumping CO2 underground and hoping for the best). As David Suzuki points out, not all that long ago we thought spraying DDT everywhere was a good idea.
Here are some other bright carbon capture ideas:
- Dump mega-tonnes of limestone into the oceans to change their acidity in order to soak up extra CO2.
- ‘Fertilize’ the oceans with iron to increase phytoplankton which may (or may not) sequester CO2.
- Genetically modify plants to absorb more CO2 or (commercially, of course) manufacture ‘synthetic trees’ to dramatically accelerate an actual tree’s ability to capture carbon.
If none of these work out, we can always try ejecting CO2 from the atmosphere at the Earth’s poles, using the planet’s electromagnetic field and lasers. (I kid you not.)
Alternatively, the geo-engineers reckon we could cool things down by preventing some of that pesky sunshine reaching the planet.
As reported in this week’s New Yorker, geo-engineers think we should be mimicking volcanoes by blasting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. (What might this do to the ozone layer we’re trying to protect? Oh, please don’t ask awkward questions.)
Here are some brilliant ideas for deflecting sunlight:
- Keep the petroleum-based plastics industry busy by covering four million square miles of desert with white plastic.
- Use thousands of ships with turbines to propel salt spray from the oceans into low-lying clouds to whiten them.
- Launch 16 trillion glass disks into space to create a sunshade in orbit 1.5 million kilometres above the planet. Price tag for this sunshade? Four trillion dollars.
Forget for a moment the number of the earth’s problems (and not just the climate-related ones) which could be solved with $4 trillion, and consider this: As Alan Robock of Rutgers University points out in a list of reasons why we should not rush to embrace geo-engineering, blocking or deflecting sunlight would dramatically diminish the capacity of solar power to provide clean energy. (A good reason – as if one was needed – to build solar panels in the desert, rather than covering it in plastic.)
Robock also warns that geo-engineering proposals could permanently turn our sky the red and yellow depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. He wonders what sort of psychological impacts this might have on humanity. So do I.