By Bronwen Ledger
News – 01-JUN-99Engineering
In the early 1980s I worked for a portly accountant on Toronto's Bay Street who specialized in giving tax advice to mining executives. He'd always listen kindly but was amused when I ranted on about t...
In the early 1980s I worked for a portly accountant on Toronto’s Bay Street who specialized in giving tax advice to mining executives. He’d always listen kindly but was amused when I ranted on about the importance of preserving the environment. One day he decided it was time I learned the hard truth about what really went on in mining country and told me a story about one of his favourite clients. The man, a hardy old timer, ran a small northern mine and delighted in fooling government inspectors when they came to call. He knew the tailings pond was contaminated but he’d stock it with fish the day before, take the inspector out for a stroll around it, and ask how could it possibly be poisoned when it supported such a lively aquatic population. I don’t know if the story was true or not, but I suspect that it wasn’t that hard in those days to persuade officials to turn a blind eye to such cavalier activity.
We have come a long way since then. As the public’s interest in health and the environment grows and their tolerance of contamination decreases, so the nature of engineering has changed. Often a project will start and end with environmental considerations. Consulting engineers are heavily involved in assessing site conditions (see story page 36). They are also venturing out with new technologies that deal more kindly with the earth. In this issue we look at how two firms have been testing promising new approaches to water treatment (pages 42 and 46).
When governments have put money into infrastructure, there has been progress. Quebec recently found that water quality in the St. Lawrence River has improved dramatically thanks to a $7 billion clean-up program. In 1997, 97 per cent of the people along the St. Lawrence River near Montreal were served by wastewater treatment plants, compared to only 33 per cent in 1990 when the program began.
On the other hand, things are not moving fast enough. Some provinces are even moving backwards. The Ontario government received an appalling report card on almost all fronts from the Environmental Commissioner in 1998. After the province cut its environment ministry budget by half, fines levied against polluters have dropped to levels not seen since 1987.
The federal government has tabled a new Environmental Protection Act, but it has been six years coming and does not include action on the hormone-disrupting chemicals. And as the Kyoto Protocol deadline looms closer, the government has funded a few real projects like an electric vehicle program in Montreal, but otherwise efforts are still largely mired in consultations. It certainly will not be easy to find agreement among the provinces and different sectors on how we can achieve what amounts to CO2 reductions of 25% by 2008 as long as everyone insists that we do it without economic sacrifice.
Surely, as one of the richest countries, and the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita in the world, we have some room in which to manoeuvre to improve our performance. But as long as we are willing to dither and dodge around taking strong environmental action, we come closer to being caught like those fish in that polluted pond.Bronwen Ledger