New Internationalist

Toxic Tides And Toilet Wastes

Issue 234

new internationalist
issue 234 - August 1992

[image, unknown]

Toxic tides and toilet wastes
On-the-spot reports from British Columbia, Manila and
Sydney on the slow poisoning of the coastal seas.

I live on Gabriola, one of British Columbia's Gulf Islands. The island is heavily wooded and largely undeveloped. The people are friendly and easygoing. And we're close enough to the city of Nanaimo for convenience, far enough away for privacy. But not everything is perfect - as I remember each time the wind blows from the south-west.

That's when the rotten-egg stench reminds me that I live in the plume of Macmillan Bloedel's Harmac pulp mill - a toxic cloud of noxious gases pouring from the belly of the region's largest employer. 'It's the smell of money,' old-timers used to say in pulp towns like Nanaimo. Today it's the smell of cancer. On quiet nights I can hear the mill in the distance, its metallic clanking and dull mechanical rumble. Shining across the calm waters of Northumberland Channel, it looks almost pretty - but the twinkling coloured lights hide an ugly reality.

Georgia Strait stretches 220 kilometres between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia (BC) mainland. It's ringed by almost two million human inhabitants and includes hundreds of islands, shores and tidal passages. Fresh water and nutrients pour in from the Fraser River, where a rich estuary provides a wintering ground for birds from three continents.

Home to 1,100 species ranging from seaweeds and molluscs to whales and sea lions, the Strait was always a sumptuous larder for the native Salish people. In this century it has supported a vital fishing industry - including the prized sockeye salmon. And more recently this inland sea has formed the backbone of the area's tourist industry.

Now, as the magnificent coastal forests of British Columbia are felled to feed the world's paper appetite and sensitive estuaries are paved over to build shopping centres, the Strait's rich but fragile ecology is in danger of collapse. Long used as a garbage dump (almost five million litres of toxic waste per minute flows into the Strait) this area of the Pacific is rapidly reaching its saturation point. At least 650 kilometres of BC's coastline have been closed to shellfishing because of sewage contamination.

But the pulp mills have been the worst offenders - with the quiet assistance of the provincial government, which has rarely enforced its already weak regulations. Mills are occasionally fined for spills, but not for daily infractions. They spew tons of dioxins, furans and other organochlorines (by-products of the chlorine bleaching process) into the Strait every day. Dioxins (identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as 'by far the most toxic chemical known') have been linked to cancers, genetic damage and immune-system suppression.

Still, many industry leaders refuse to acknowledge there is a problem. Ian Donald, former head of Fletcher Challenge Canada, maintains there is no proof that chlorine bleaching is bad for the environment. 'People aren't dropping dead in the streets,' he told one journalist. 'If they were, we'd have to act.'

Yet the mills are having a devastating impact on people's lives and livelihoods. Commercial shellfish growers describe pollution from the mills as a 'creeping Chemobyl'. But no-one has been hit as hard as BC's native people, who have traditionally depended on shellfish for both work and food - many native communities are now unable to eat or sell their catch. Chief Gene Louie of the Sliammon people, just north of the Powell River pulp mill, says one-sixth of his community is out of work. 'They take all the profits from our country and leave us poisoned beaches.'

A change may be in the works. The province's Environment Minister recently announced his intention to cut organochlorine discharge significantly and ban it completely by 2002. But it remains to be seen if BC's new government can rein in the powerful pulp industry. After all, these are the same executives who, two years ago, were able to overturn a provincial Cabinet decision to limit organochlorine discharges with a casual phone call to the then-Premier of the province.

by Laurie MacBride

For further information contact: Save Georgia Strait Alliance, Box 122, Gabriola Island, BC, VOR 1XO.
Tel: 604 2474670. Fax: 604 2474655.

Garbage covers the sand along Manila Bay.
WAYNE ELLWOOD

Down by the bay
Long before you see the Pasig River you can smell it; the black water releases a foul stench which hangs like an invisible cloud in the heavy Manila air. The river cuts a dark swathe through the heart of the Philippines' congested capital, eventually dumping its load of plastic, wood, animal carcasses, faeces and dissolved chemicals into Manila Bay.

'I remember my grandfather telling stories of rich fishing in the Pasig,' muses Joe Ordonez, Chief Biologist at the Philippine Fisheries Bureau. 'It was clean, you could wash your clothes in it.' Today the river is biologically dead. According to the Environment Ministry the level of dissolved oxygen at the mouth of the river, and for six kilometres upstream, is zero.

The Pasig - like the other rivers that drain into Manila Bay - is little more than a conduit for channelling toxic wastes to the sea. Gladys Hingco, a researcher with the Tambuyog Development Centre, has written a comprehensive report on the state of Manila Bay. She says there are 100 industries along the Pasig that discharge their waste directly into the river.

'The Philippines has one of the most comprehensive environment laws in the region,' she notes. 'But in practice there is no monitoring and no enforcement - industries can do what they please.'

And they do - despite growing protests from those who depend on Manila Bay for their livelihood. Groups like the Alliance of Fisherfolk to Save the Fisheries in Navotas (just outside Manila) have demonstrated outside polluting factories. But according to the Alliance's Eden Pascual, 'we get no response from government agencies; in fact most of our protests are met by police and tear gas'.

Many people who live along Manila Bay are already suffering from the poisons being dumped into the sea. Concentrations of heavy metals in fish from the Bay are 10 to 16 times the safe levels set by the World Health Organization (WHO) - these metals can damage the kidney and liver and cause congenital diseases in babies.

The other critical problem is human sewage, almost all of which is flushed, untreated, directly into the Bay. More than 85 per cent of the households in the Manila area have no sewage treatment. As a result pathogenic bacteria swarm in the warm waters of Manila Bay: the faecal-coliform count comes in at an astounding 11,000 times the WHO limit. Yet this water is used routinely for bathing and washing.

In small communities like Saint Roque, near Navotas, dozens of children gingerly pick their way across a garbage-strewn strand to cool off in the sea. Nearby, one-room wooden houses are perched on stilts over the beach; toilet wastes drop directly into the waters below.

Romeo Capang, a member of the Saint Roque Fishworkers' Co-operative, is meticulously repairing a nylon hand net, stitching quickly and effortlessly. 'My children are often sick,' says Romeo, 'sometimes with sore stomachs or bad ears. Look at my son Rodelio. He is 11, but he is so small, like a seven-year-old.'

Poor fisherfolk like Romeo Capang are among those worst hit by the despoliation of Manila Bay. In a good month he can make $40, barely enough to buy rice for his family twice a day. The 200,000 Filipinos along the Bay who depend on fishing for a living earn less than one-seventh of the government-defined poverty level.

'If there are no fish, there is no money, shrugs Romeo. 'In the Philippines it seems if you're rich you get richer, if you're poor, you get poorer.'

by Wayne Ellwood

Dirty surf
The surfer, bronzed and athletic, turns his head to the still-rising sun and nods in approval, In Australia tide and air pressure have produced some classic waves. But as he connects his leg rope there is one more check to be made. How bad is the sewage today? Faecal coliform contamination has turned the Sydney coastline into a toxic playground. And sewage dumped into the sea has created a deadly home for a wide range of marine life.

According to Wollongong University's Sharon Beder contamination is widespread. Pilot studies of oysters show accumulated levels of chlordane, copper, arsenic and selenium above National Health and Medical Research Council limits. Fully 66 per cent of cod failed to pass government standards for mercury, while 63 per cent of crabs and 30 per cent of prawns failed both the copper and cadmium standards.

A government-established pollution monitoring body is supposed to warn Sydney's beachgoers on the dangers of taking a dip. But the group's 50-per-cent failure rate in predicting harmful pollution has not exactly won public confidence. Respiratory problems as well as ear, nose and throat infections are now common for regular swimmers.

The state government has chosen a range of 'new' technologies to solve Sydney's sewage problems which do little to improve the primary sewage treatment now in place. These include dissolved air flotation, chemically assisted sedimentation and magnetite. The latter two are especially poor at removing toxic materials and grease. In general, these technologies are 20-30 per cent less effective than secondary treatment. All three use chemicals which may themselves be pollutants.

In addition, hundreds of tons of heavy metals are being discharged into the ocean. One of Sydney's sewage-treatment plants alone receives more than 400 tons a year, including six tons of arsenic, 47 tons of chromium, 26 tons of lead, and a ton each of cadmium and mercury.

The presence of organochlorines is also worryingly high. For example, the giant chemical company ICI is still permitted to dump hexachlorobenzene into the sewers. 'Less toxic' compounds like these can still be discharged after negotiation with government officials. And if a problem still remains, then they can just pay a fine - a very affordable $40 per kilogram. A small price to pay for a clear conscience - but much too high a cost for Sydney's ever filthier ocean.

by George Fisher

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