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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Retro Review: Poisoning Paradise

In the late 90s, I wrote a freelance review of the documentary Poisoning Paradise: A Native View of the Swan Hills Waste Treatment Centre. I don't recall if it was ever published, nor who I was writing it for...funny how these details slip away with age.

In 1996, Edmonton filmmakers Barb Allard and Kelly Reinhardt presented Poisoning Paradise, a disturbing and compelling vision of the battle between the Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council, led by Chief James Badger, and Chem-Security and Bovar Inc., managers of the controversial Swan Hills Special Waste Treatment Centre. Two years later, the film is still worth a look, especially given recent developments. Is the Centre a key element of a more environmentally friendly way of doing business, or does it create more pollution than it eliminates?

Allard and Reinhardt’s film follows the story of the waste treatment plant and the First Nations people who are most affected by it, from its beginnings in 1980 to the announcement of the Northern River Basin Study, the first baseline environmental impact study using traditional Native know-how to be recognized and implemented by the Alberta government.

The film is unsentimental, but still manages to evoke a sense of the frustration and loss the peoples of the region are feeling as they are trapped between two monoliths: ChemSecurity and the provincial government. The natives feel that the Waste Treatment Centre has affected their way of life - for the worse. “Let me walk in beauty,” one Native pleads, recalling a lost lifestyle, while others tell ominous tales of trapping game that turns out to be rotting from the inside out. “Companies take things out of the ground…but they don’t put anything back. When everything’s gone, we’re going to end up with…what?” The balance between man and nature is upset; the equilibrium is thrown off. Badger wants the plant closed; with no spin-off jobs or positive economic impacts for the region coming from the plant, there are no benefits to offset the pollution of the land. But getting rid of toxic waste is environmentally responsible, isn’t it? Why would First Nations people, traditionally viewed as being environmentally conscious, be opposed to the plant?

Disposing of toxic waste is obviously an idea that most people can support, but the way that the Swan Hills facility does it is to burn the waste-which some scientists say can actually produce substances more toxic than those which were burned in the first place. Chilling testimony from Toxic Watch, an Edmonton environmental watchdog, offers scientific data to support the anecdotal evidence of the First Nations tribespeople. (One group not mentioned in the film, ToxicAlert, alleges that burning hazardous waste can actually result in a net gain of toxic materials-as much as 43%!)

To make matters worse, ChemSecurity proposed an expansion in 1989-even though demand in Alberta was not high enough to support even the then-current size of the operation. This proposal to expand seems explainable only if the intent was to import toxic materials from other provinces-something the government denied would happen when the plant was originally proposed. And, indeed, a second proposal for expansion included the intent to import hazardous materials. Obviously, the peoples of the Lesser Slave Lake region didn’t want more toxic waste polluting the area, so they attempted to block the expansion through the National Resources Conservation Board. Their attempt, predictably, was unsuccessful, and the expansion was complete by 1992.

To add insult to injury, the operation isn’t even a good deal for taxpayers; since the government guaranteed ChemSecurity a high rate of return through 1996, the operation is estimated to cost the government some 540 million dollars. After 1996, the company was on its own, and hasn’t shown much of a profit since. The filmmakers muse aloud, wondering if Bovar will abandon the plant when their commitment to stay operational expires at the end of 1998. If that happens, Alberta taxpayers will be left holding the proverbial bag, while Bovar and Chem-Security suffer nothing but poor public relations-if typical Albertans are even conscious of these goings-on. The film does end on a high note, with the announcement of the Northern River Basin study, but the story doesn’t end there…

In April of 1998, Chem-Security and Bovar pleaded guilty to three charges of violating provincial environmental regulations, in relation to leaks of PCBs, dioxins, and furans into the atmosphere in October of 1996. In return for the guilty plea, the province dropped three other charges, all of which alleged that Bovar failed to report other spills and to warn residents of the danger. While this may seem like something of a victory, out-of-court settlements like this may send the message that the province does not take violations of Alberta’s environmental protection laws seriously enough to defend them to the full.

Today, the Swan Hills Special Waste Treatment Centre continues to burn tens of thousands of tons of hazardous materials, including shipments from Quebec that began to arrive in July of 1998. The aboriginal peoples scored a victory, though, when Bovar and the LSLIRC made an out-of-court settlement: Bovar has agreed to pay $ 100 000. 00 per annum to set up and maintain an environmental monitoring panel that will be run by the band’s elders council. Continual legal challenges and fear of poor public relations seem to have pressured Bovar into making some concessions...

Finally, two independent native trappers from the Lesser Slave Lakes region have managed to get a appeal of the decision to grant the plant their “environmentally safe” license and their right to import toxic wastes-an ironic turn of events, since Bovar made the out-of-court settlement so that the LSLIRC would drop an identical appeal. The hearing is set up for the Fall of 1998; the story isn’t over yet.

In short, Ballard and Reinhardt’s film is an excellent introduction to an issue that is of vital importance to all of us, not just to an isolated band of First Peoples.

As it turns out, Bovar wound up getting out of the waste treatment business back in 2000 and handing control back to the provincial government; the operation had become unprofitable. It wasn't a great deal for Alberta taxpayers either, costing over $440 million taxpayer bucks between 1987 and 2000. Just as the film imagined, the public was left holding a very noxious bag.

Currently a company called EarthTech is operating the plant, under a ten-year contract with the government. According to their very slick website, the Swan Hills treatment plant is a model of environmental friendliness. My Google-fu hasn't been strong enough to determine if the plant's reputation has improved since the early aughts, nor if it's still costing the government buckets and buckets of cash to operate. One wonders if EarthTech has finally made the site profitable, or if we're still subsidizing the plant to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Of course, if it's actually helping the environment, I'm all for spending the cash. But given its history...

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