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COUNTERPOINT: Industry is handout-free? Who is Bill Black kidding?

The Boat Harbour treatment site near Pictou Landing. It processes waste water from the Northern Pulp mill. (CHRISTIAN LAFORCE / File)

Columnist and ex-Maritime Life CEO Bill Black’s blinkered boosterism for resource intensive/extractive industries is as tiresome as it is predictable (“Let’s stop hugging trees, start embracing industry” Jan. 20). So, too, is his breezy dismissal of the very real environmental impacts of those industries and the concerns of the many (mostly rural) citizens who have to live with the effects of heavy industries in and around their communities.

Mr. Black’s sunny view is that, provided government waves the magic wand of “regulatory oversight,” all is well and eminently manageable with messy things like open-pen finfish aquaculture, clear-cut logging, fracking and open-pit mining.

Whether or not the oversight is effective or the receiving (mostly rural) communities agree to have these extractive projects visited upon them is apparently of little consequence. They should be pushed forward post-haste, according to Black. We should all just get over all this tree-hugging silliness and just get with the program.

RELATED COUNTERPOINT: Employment vs. environment a false choice

To be honest, I think Black is having a bit of fun poking sacred green cows, but to the old-guard imbued with a GDP mindset, it all makes perfect sense, expressed in dollars and cents. But that Black-and-white perspective only works if one discounts the environmental costs and large corporate subsidies to resource industries.

The article repeats long outdated notions that bypass inconvenient truths. To wit: “Trees grow back.” That simplistic slogan conveniently ignores that, although some kind of tree will probably grow back, the complex ecosystem of a healthy, diverse forest will not re-establish itself unless left alone for a very long time.

Repeated short-rotation harvesting, based almost entirely on clearcutting, has badly degraded our forests. Our thin, acidic soils cannot sustain the repeated poundings they receive and still remain productive — resulting in an increasingly degraded and “scrubby” forest, composed mostly of low-value trees, for humans and wildlife.

Another fallacy in the column is the idea that wildlife displaced by abrupt forest removal can simply find “new habitat in the plentiful neighbouring forests.” The simplistic notion that displaced wildlife simply “move over” is a common misconception. Birds and mammals establish territories with sufficient habitat and food. The land only has so much carrying capacity. Displaced wildlife become refugees, forced to compete for available space and resources. Existing residents defend their territories and someone always loses. Wildlife doesn’t move in with the neighbours; it diminishes. It’s death by a thousand (clear)cuts. In addition, species that require older, more complex forest habitats continue to be added to our provincial list of threatened species as the increasingly young fiber forest cannot support them.

Surprisingly, Black’s article also claims that “resource industries do not ask for handouts to create jobs for communities.” Is he kidding? Cooke Aquaculture’s $25-million government loan springs to mind — whatever happened to that money anyway?

The mining industry lobbied hard and got a big break on gas taxes the rest of us have to pay. And how about the massive $124.5-million rescue package the Dexter government provided to Pacific West Corp. so it could buy the Port Hawkesbury mill and control of 1.2 million acres of Crown land for a song?

That was on top of the $31.4 million that taxpayers spent to keep the mill in “hot idle” after its American owners walked away. And don’t forget the back-door subsidy in discounted power rates that all other NSP ratepayers have to make up for. And then there’s the new giant biomass generator that was supposed to save NewPage (but didn’t) and is now in the hands of Nova Scotia Power, generating the most expensive electricity on the provincial grid and propelling the decimation of our hardwood forests. All this was driven by government policy.

No handouts? Over the years, the pulp mills alone have sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer largesse, plus lots of indirect subsidies like exclusive access to vast swaths of Crown lands to clearcut, roadbuilding subsidies and pesticide-spray programs, not to mention a virtual free pass on dangerous levels of air and water pollution.

The Pictou pulp mill is the worst example and a poster child for how big government subsidies are built into the forestry business model. Without regular injections of taxpayer life-support, that 51-year-old mill would have closed long ago. In fact, it never would have opened.

It’s also a case study in how governments get carried away, give away the farm and sell out local citizens and taxpayers who are forced to pick up the hard financial and environmental costs.

For example, because of past government stupidity, provincial taxpayers will be forced to foot the whole bill for the coming cleanup of the toxic nightmare lurking in Boat Harbour. This is another huge corporate subsidy. The cleanup is currently guesstimated at $133 million by consultants and, in the way of these things, will likely be much more.

And on top of all that, there’s the cost of Northern Pulp’s audacious plan to send its toxic effluent directly out into the Northumberland Strait via an underwater pipe and straight into an area that supports a billion-dollar fishery. Setting aside the sheer insanity of that whole idea for the moment and sticking with subsidies, it looks like taxpayers will once again be on the hook to pay for that, too. Even though no one wants it. And how many millions more will that cost us? No handouts? Oh, my.

No, the reality is that we good, kind and generous Nova Scotians pay dearly and regularly to the “too big to fail” resource industries — whether we want to or not. We pay with many hundreds of millions of tax dollars, millions of tonnes of air and water pollution and savaged and degraded landscapes.

As for the magic “regulatory oversight” fairy waving her wand and making everything squeaky clean, see the recent auditor general’s report wherein Nova Scotia gets a seriously failing grade for monitoring and compliance of environmental regulations. Pretending otherwise is to be intentionally naïve.

Raymond Plourde is wilderness co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.

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