How are Canada's municipalities fighting resource extraction?

Photo: flickr/Toshiyuki IMAI

Canadians are concerned about the impact of resource extraction on land and the irreversible destruction of precious ecosystems. Rural towns across the country are dealing with these issues of land use. 

In January 2013, Gaspé, Quebec Oil company Petrolia was suspended from drilling due to potential risk to drinking water supply. Fast forward to 2014 and you have a year-long legal battle between the municipality and Petrolia. The chronological articles show a heated legal battle that resulted in the permission for Petrolia to drill even if citizen group Ensemble pour l'avenir durable du Grand Gaspé [Together for a sustainable future of Grand Gaspé] still fervently opposed and questioned the decision.

This case raises a serious question: What power do municipalities have when it comes to resource extraction and environmental protection?

Action against asphalt

Citizens in Prescott Russell, Alfred Plantagenet and Jessup's Falls, Ontario, drawing issue with the construction of an asphalt plant has resulted in a two-year long collision between citizen groups and the municipality and PB Paving and Landscaping Ltd., who was to manage the plant, asking the file to go "on hold" until more research is completed.

Community action group NZAP (NO to Zoning for Asphalt Plant) is against the re-zoning of rural land to permit the establishment of this plant in their region. The fear being water contamination. 

"Our goal is to keep the escarpment pristine for the many residents […] so we can keep growing food uncontaminated by heavy industry," states Suzanne Bohay from NZAP. She says the forest and land must be protected, "for the sake of not only the landowners who get their water from the water table flowing below the land in question, but for the whole ecosystem all the way down to the Ottawa River."

A full list of potential side effects of the asphalt plant can be found here.

Recently, scientists from the Ministry of Natural Resources visited the site and confirmed that karst -- unstable bedrock that increases the potential for water contamination -- was present. 

"The Ontario government [has] stated that if this does go to the Ontario Municipal Board then the local government has missed the point," states Bohay. "It has been a struggle to get the local government on board to help protect the environment in our area. That we can already count our struggle in term of years is by no means unusual, but it does affect the residents' confidence in their local government. The residents however, have repeatedly come out in great numbers to show their dissatisfaction with this proposed plant."

The next step is a hydrogeological report from the proponent done by a third party. It must demonstrate the asphalt plant's operations will not contaminate water and abide by provincial environmental standards. NZAP worries that the "significant woodlands that are designated as ANSI [Area of Natural Scientific Interest] should [have] two levels of protection but local government is not pushing the matter." In fact, when talking about the collaboration between all stakeholders, Bohay says, "There just does not seem to be accountability locally."

Mayor Jean-Yves Lalonde notes that no decision concerning the asphalt plant project has been taken so far because "the promoters have asked that their file be place[d] 'on hold' and it will likely not be reactivated before the Official Plan is adopted."

It's a balancing act for local government. "Our economy depends on companies investing on our lands but still, we need to know and respect the environment and the [Ontario] government is there to guide us in the right direction," says Lalonde.

When asked if it's difficult for rural townships to defend environmental interests in the face of companies looking to extract resources from the land, Lalonde was pragmatic and optimistic. He said, "It's difficult for a company to do whatever they want."

"The provincial ministries of environment and natural resources have brought forward some restrains and some criteria to do whatever they can to protect the environment," he states. "Nothing is perfect but there is more that has been done in the last ten years than ever before, at least we are going in the right direction and we hope it continues like that."

B.C. battles pipelines

On the other coast of Canada, the City of Burnaby is trying to stop Kinder Morgan from destroying its protected land on Burnaby Mountain with the Trans Mountain pipeline. The case is a complicated one.

Kinder Morgan received a ruling from the National Energy Board (NEB) in August that said it does not need permission to conduct survey work on city land. However, after trees were removed during work on the pipeline, the city filed a lawsuit asking for an injuction that will prevent Kinder Morgan from doing any work that could disurpt the land.

"This is one more battle in a long war between us and Kinder Morgan and their desire to put a pipeline through our city," Mayor Derek Corrigan told the CBC.

"Generally, the ability of other levels of government -- provinces and municipalities -- to frustrate a federal undertaking is limited," said Jason Unger of the Edmonton-based Environmental Law Centre to the CBC.

The NEB will be holding hearings in July 2015 about the Trans Mountain expansion.

It seems obvious that no perfect solution exists but let us hope that the outcomes of the asphalt plant at Alfred-Plantagenet and the oil pipeline in Burnaby don't mirror the case of Gaspé vs. Petrolia, where the municipality and Petrolia seem satisfied with the results while citizens were left baffled and uncomprehending.

As for the environment, including land and wildlife, voiceless and without agency -- it inevitably ends up the biggest loser of all.

Sanita Fejzic is an Ottawa-based literary author and freelance writer. She freelances for a number of newspapers, magazines and blogs including rabble.ca, The Ottawa Magazine and Apt 613. She was also the author of "The Beaver Tales" blog for Xtra newspaper as well as the Ottawa correspondent for 2B, Être and Entre Elles magazines. Sanita's first novella, To Be Matthew Moore, was shortlisted for the 2014 Ken Klonsky Contest, and she has published her poetry and short stories in various literary magazines including The Continuist, Guerilla, Byword and The Newer York.

Photo: flickr/Toshiyuki IMAI

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