The tears of a cloud” isn’t just a pretty metaphor for how rivers begin, it’s also the name of the lake which is seen as the source of the Hudson River. Those tears from clouds are the beginning, the source, of every river and stream that meanders back to it’s birthplace, the sea. When those rivers and streams become polluted then the whole of the ecosystem, humans included, will fail.
Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring described the age we live in as “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” Back in 1962 she identified the impact which water pollution by big business has, as well as, mapping the journey of chemicals through our watercourses and the infinite mutations (including becoming radioactive) that those chemicals can undergo. She wasn’t being alarmist. Here was a scientist showing the truth, the whole truth, and not the propaganda that the companies who made those chemicals wanted the public to believe. She showed that there was a cause for concern and that it was never just a local problem. To paraphrase Ms. Carson “water travels.”
At the time of writing a number of communities in Nova Scotia are fighting to protect their local water system from government sanctioned pollution. The Shubenacadie river is one which most people outside of the area will have probably never heard of. It’s not some famous river like the Thames, the Hudson, or the Ganges. But to those who live along it’s banks it is important. It’s a place where memories have been made, traditions maintained, family histories added to. The family picnic, the walk with a beau who became a husband, time spent alone when an eagle soared and the world came back into balance. Tiny, unimportant things perhaps when viewed against the world stage, but to the individual more valuable and precious than a writer can find words for. The true problem is that industry and governments don’t care about what’s precious to the individual because shareholders are demanding, and national attention is diverted because “local” tends to be viewed as unimportant.
In the case of the Shubenacadie river a gas company, Alton Gas subsidiary of Alta-Gas, wants to create a storage facility. The plan is a simple one. They intend to dissolve underground salt deposits and use the resulting caverns to store their gas. On the face of it this would seem a good idea. Jobs are created, gas supplies ensured, but there is an inconvenient truth which is being played down. To create space for the gas there is an awful lot of salt which needs to be disposed of. The official solution is simple. The brine produced will be pumped into the local river systems and flushed out to sea, and this is set to begin in a little less than two weeks. The inconvenient truth is that there can be no real guarantees for the ecosystem that will have to act as a gutter for their plans.
Ecosystems are fragile. We tend to think of them in terms of the cute and the noble animals. Threaten the habitat of a polar bear, an otter, or an eagle and you’ll find huge numbers of people running up with placards demanding change. Tell them that the river weed that fish feed on is going to die and you can hear the crickets singing as their eyes glaze over. But without the plants there are no fish, without the fish there is no food for the eagle you saw as noble or the otter you thought was cute. The salt pumped into the Shubenacadie may be safe for the higher beings, including humans, but damage any part of the web and the whole thing is in danger of collapsing. Any elevation in salinity has the potential to damage the plant life within the river. This is fact. The single celled plants and animals which form the base of every food chain are the most vulnerable to this change in salinity. Remove them and slowly you will see the higher life forms die off as in turn their food sources begin to starve. Fish stocks, insect populations, birds, mammals, slowly the system collapses just by removing the algae from the equation.
If this sounds alarmist it’s meant to. The truth of the matter is that no gas or oil company has ever achieved their objective without massive pollution. There has been no drilling operation, no storage facility, no pipeline which hasn’t leaked its poisons into the soil or water. Ever since man first decided to extract coal, oil and gas from the earth it’s been acceptable to destroy other peoples back yards in the process. We have always talked in terms of “acceptable risks” and “acceptable levels”. Parts per million has become a salve to the public. Nobody seems to stop and ask whether even one part per million is too much. In nature small changes can lead to big problems down the line. A good example would be from medicine. In the early days antibiotics were hailed as the saviour of mankind in it’s fight against disease. Fifty years later we see mutations that are drug resistant and our arsenal is having to become more and more toxic to fight them. Nature is all about the adaption and nobody can predict the effect of manipulating the chemistry of river systems today, just as they couldn’t predict the superbugs that the agricultural and medical industries have created. We may hope for the best but nature can have other ideas.
But behind the environmental damage which Alton is about to unleash there is a deeper shame which all of us must accept as our personal truth. It is always the weakest and the forgotten people who are the ones that truly suffer the most. They are the ones who discover the truth of parts per million. The ones who see their environment and homes turned into toxic wastelands. Of course the rest of us view this as acceptable losses because we have our heat and electricity so we are fine. This world view that somehow others can be allowed to suffer so long as we have what we want is one we have been creating for centuries. It’s based on the ideology that this world is merely a resource to be used up and relies on the old Roman technique of giving the masses their beer and circuses so that they don’t look too hard at what the elite are doing. Threaten to take away their iPad and the masses will usually fall into line.
Since Europeans began to look outside the door of their hut they have viewed this world as a very large piggy bank. Timber, coal, oil, precious stones and metals, everything that the world had, was seen as theirs for the taking, no matter the cost to the environment or to the people who happened to be on the land. A quick flick through a history book will show the environmental damage caused by Rome’s need for resources. Whole regions were turned to desert by the Romans through deforestation of cedar of Lebanon. The desire for meat that was flavored with silphium led to overgrazing . Seriously. Large sections of North Africa were turned into desert because the Romans wanted their meat flavored with a plant. The same is true for the British Empire. These two models have been followed by the Canadian and American empires. Resources are there to be used, money is to be made, an elite is to be kept comfortable and the little people are expendable. Replace the word “little” with “indigenous” and you’re really onto a winner. We have been taught to be selfish because if we aren’t then our goodies get taken away.
So it is with the Alton project. While the good people of Halifax sit waiting for the central heating to kick in with a sure and steady supply of gas, there are people who are looking at the loss of something beautiful that is the foundation of their heritage. They stand to lose ancient rights, their histories, because a family somewhere else wants to crank up the thermostat. It is the Mi’kmaq Nation who are are the front of the fight to stop a river being brutalized. They do it because it’s the right thing to do and because they understand just how much they have been forced to lose already to keep other people comfortable and ignorant. It may take years for the effects of salting the river to be seen but to the Mi’kmaq upstream it will be too late. Their fishing, their potable water will be gone before folks start seeing fish dying downriver. It is the apathy of Empire and there are no consequences for those in town.
All the peoples of Nova Scotia, and by extension Canada must bear the shame of their apathy for others. The average family won’t feel the effects of what happens in this “little local problem” and will remain convinced that it was for the greater good. The selfishness of the person in Halifax who benefits is palpable. They are grateful for the warmth but not for those who are being asked to sacrifice their homes for the project. After all a colony of eagles is an acceptable loss in the face of having to put an extra blanket on the bed. We need to charge our iPad and leave the lights burning when we leave the room, we don’t really need the eels which have been a food source for other people for centuries. So the Alton project must go ahead and the salt must be dumped into the river. Those are the acceptable realities because we don’t want to think about being part of a wider world.
The Mi’kmaq Nation, like every First Nation, has born the brunt of this thinking. Alton Gas is just a continuation of the erosion of rights and lives that are selfishly considered less important. It is time for everyone, colonist or First Nation to stand behind the people of the Shubenacadie and say “no more”. It is time for the people of this continent to stand and question which side of history they will stand on. They must ask whether the web of life their grandchildren will know is worth sacrificing for the sake of a lightbulb burning in an unused room, or more importantly whether other families matter too?
The Shubenacadie river will always flow. The question will be whether it is salty like tears, and sterile like tears too.
For more information and to join the fight to prevent this disaster please head to Facebook and like the page Stop Alton Gas!
© Peter C. Simms and Child of the Thames, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Peter C. Simms and Child of the Thames with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.