BY Jim Harding Ph. D.
We didn’t hear a lot about Earth Day in Saskatchewan this year. There is a reason why.
I had the honour of speaking at a Multi-Faith/Multicultural event at the Natural History Museum which awarded art created by Saskatchewan students on the theme “caring for the planet”. Regina’s Community Radio station also did an interview on how the environmental movement was doing. CUPE and the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) promoted Earth Day.
But we didn’t hear anything from the government.
WE’RE DEAD LAST
There’s a huge elephant in the room. It was there throughout the provincial election, but even the NDP opposition refused to speak of it. It’s probably time we faced the music; Saskatchewan is at the bottom of the heap when it comes to caring for and protecting the earth.
Yes it’s true.
We like to think of ourselves with our rural background and open spaces as being close to nature. Many residents even harbor some kind of identity about liking to spend time in recreation in “natural settings”. But the indicators are clear; we’re abusing the earth and we don’t stand up well in Canadian or global terms.
The Conference Board of Canada ranked Saskatchewan “dead last” in its just released 2016 Environmental Report Card. We were dead last among the provinces and “among all 26 jurisdictions” surveyed. The Conference Board talked frankly of how the resource-driven economic growth about which the Sask Party brags comes “with a hefty environmental price tag”. We got a “D” on 8 of their 10 indicators.
As they said:
“Saskatchewan relies heavily on fossil fuels for generating electricity, and so earns a “D” on low-emitting electricity production. The province also does poorly on the air pollution indicators, earning a “D” grade on SOx emissions and “D–” grades on NOx, VOC, and PM10 emissions. Saskatchewan earns “D–“ grades on the remaining climate change indicators because primary industries compose a large proportion of Saskatchewan’s economy, resulting in a high energy intensity and a high GHG emission rate.”
And these are just the tip of the iceberg. If we look honestly at a wider range of indicators we find our ecological footprint is among the most destructive on the earth. And that’s probably why we don’t like to acknowledge Earth Day
Saskatchewan extracts around one-quarter of the uranium on the earth. We have been a main source since the nuclear arms race began in the 1950s. We are a major supplier for nuclear power plants worldwide, including those at Fukushima, Japan. From mining and milling, to refining and enriching, to nuclear plant and weapon wastes, there’s a huge radiological footprint.
There’s no other jurisdiction that has contributed as much to the accumulating global radioactivity which starts with mining uranium. Much of this radioactivity remains at “home”, and it’s mostly “out of sight and out of mind”, though the awakening northerners don’t see it this way.
It’s hard to find accurate figures on the build-up of uranium tailings here. This is not something the government wants to be on the tip of the tongue of our students and youth, who do care and worry for the environment.
But by 2008 there were at least 43 million tonnes of uranium tailings left at the nine mines that have been closed or are still operating. That means that by 2008 43 tonnes of radioactive tailings have accumulated for each of us alive now. And they continue to amass and will be radioactive for thousands of generations.
Both NDP and Sask Party governments have bragged about the royalties and jobs from uranium mining, this is largely spin. After the uranium boom the north remains where it was before – still the second poorest region in Canada.
But our province is No. 1 in the world when it comes to the accumulation of toxic uranium tailings.
Not only is the northern environment being abused; with the expansion of industrial agriculture (mining the soil) we’ve become the biggest users of toxic chemicals. This, too, is an elephant in the room; it’s not yet discussed on coffee row, though it should be.
Our chemical footprint is huge, certainly the highest in Canada. In 1997 Saskatchewan used at least 18 million kg of pesticides, 36% of the whole country. We are only 8% of the population. From 2001-2003, partial records which excluded some agricultural and all domestic pesticides, showed us using 7 to 10 million kg of these toxic chemicals.
If we assume we use at least 15 million kg a year that would leave a pesticide footprint of 15 kg for each man, woman and child in Saskatchewan. That’s a lot of chemicals going into the environment year after year, to find their way into watersheds, food chains and the web of live. And that’s just pesticides!
Mining the soil and resource extraction has degraded prairie habitats; unbeknownst to many residents the prairies are the most transformed eco-region in all Canada. We’ve already lost 80% of our native prairie and 50% of our wetlands. With deregulation and off-loading by the Sask Party government, and the passivity of the public, the ecological carnage will continue. The Harper government off-loaded nearly 2 million acres of PFRA community pastures to the province. With its disposal of crown land, without public consultation or environmental assessment, things do not look good.
On a per capita basis we are No. 1 in Canada for habitat destruction.
The Conference Board rightly gave Saskatchewan a “D” for GHG emissions and lack of action on climate change. But they didn’t give the figures. Our carbon footprint is outrageously and embarrassingly huge.
Canada has a large footprint; over 20 metric tonnes (mt) per person per year. This is much higher than Europe which has gone down to 12 mt because it has embraced renewable energy.
But Saskatchewan is off the scale. In 2000 our per capita emission was 61 mt per person. By 2005 we had caught up to Alberta and by 2011 we had surpassed Alberta, now having the highest carbon footprint in the country of 68 mt for each of us per year.
This was more than 3 times the Canadian average and nearly 6 times the average for the industrialized world. Again we are No. 1 for this ecological abuse.
The Conference Board has some work to do before its next Environmental Report.
In 2016 it gave Saskatchewan top grades for water protection, saying “The province doesn’t use much water and provides adequate treatment for most of the wastewater collected, and so earns “A” grades on the water withdrawals and wastewater treatment indicators.” I’m not sure what it means by “adequate” but this grade will not go over well in the Qu’Appelle River Valley, where Regina sewage still flows. Meanwhile the government stands ready to greatly industrialize the use of surface and aquifer water for potash solution mines.
With our huge radioactive, chemical, carbon and habitat footprints, water quality will inevitably deteriorate. And avoiding Earth Day won’t make any of this ecological abuse stop or disappear.