Sawyers lumber under new environmental policies.
Story by Ben Singer
Sawdust and controversy seem to go hand in hand in the Ottawa Valley.
In the late 19th Century, sawmills dumped massive amounts of wood
waste into the Ottawa River and its tributaries, which obstructed
navigation and eventually led to federal laws against the practice.
Today, there are still concerns about sawdust, but not due to
dumping. Government scientists are worried about the effects of
leachate — rainwater that seeps through piles of wood residuals
found at many mills — on surface or groundwaters. The Ontario
Ministry of the Environment (MOE) has attempted to regulate how
sawmills deal with wood residuals, and the result has been a major
conflict between government and mill owners.
COST OF COMPLIANCE
|"It’s fairly clear-cut that
this material is a product. Therefore, it shouldn’t be
under the scrutiny of the environmental protection act."
Wood Producers Association of Ontario
Since 2001, in accordance to new environmental standards regarding
sawdust leachates, MOE has inspected 43 sawmills in eastern Ontario’s
Renfrew and Lanark counties. They passed 11 mills and ordered the
rest to assess their environmental practices and perform regular
water testing, at their own cost.
Small sawmill owners complained the assessments — which
can cost from $5,000 to over $60,000 — were too expensive,
and several refused to comply. Two mills were prosecuted and found
guilty of non-compliance, fined and ordered to complete their assessments
by a provincial court in June. At least one owner blames the Ministry
for scaring away business and forcing him to close his mill.
As a result, nearly 70 small mills formed the Wood Producers Association
of Ontario (WPAO) to battle the regulations by picketing inspections,
meeting with ministry officials and making legal challenges.
Tim Schwan runs a modest sawmill and cedar shingle operation outside
of Pembroke, Ontario, and is a director of the WPAO. Although his
mill passed the MOE’s inspection, he has taken the role of
advocate for small mills seriously. He estimates his efforts to
organize “independent minded people” around the province
have cost his business $300,000 over the past two years.
Earl Saar closed his mill near Pembroke after he was inspected
and ordered to conduct a site assessment by MOE in 2002. Saar,
74, whose father bought the sawmill in 1945, conducted his own
water tests, but could not afford to hire the consultant, which
the ministry requires. Hearing quotes of $8,000, Saar simply decided
not to comply.
Soon log suppliers began to stay away for fear their material
would be seized if Saar were fined, and today his bright blue buildings
are empty, and the saws silent.
“I haven’t turned a wheel here for two years, so I’ve
been putting the machinery up for sale,” he says, adding
that he has given up his dream that two of his sons and one grandson
would continue to operate the mill once he retired.
The district manager acknowledges that the initial approach to
the mostly family-owned sawmills in the valley could have been
planned better. “In hindsight, we recognize some additional
time on education and outreach would have been helpful,” says
Burns, adding that in the last year officers have focused more
on those aspects with some success.
BY-PRODUCT OR WASTE?
Saar, Schwan and other mill owners question the validity of regulating
wood by-products as a “waste.” WPAO’s lawyers
are filing an application with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice
to change the definition of wood residuals from “waste” to “product,” exempting
it from some regulations.
At his home near Pembroke, Schwan shows off bags of products made
from wood residuals: briquettes and pellets for heating, chips
for paths, and even a “wood flour” used in car parts.
“It’s fairly clear-cut that this material is a product.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be under the scrutiny of the environmental
protection act,” he says.
But Burns points out that although exemptions exist for reuse
in the EPA, labelling wood residuals as “waste” allows
the Ministry to better control a potential hazard. “We definitely
know that uncontrolled and poor waste management techniques can
cause environmental impacts. Therefore, we need some controls,” says
SCIENCE OF SAWDUST
|"The ’dilution is the solution to pollution’ argument is no longer accepted in environmental science. "
University of British Columbia
Questions about the science behind the environmental hazard remain
for sawmill operators who compare wood residuals to dead trees
in a forest. WPAO technical advisor and retired federal forestry
scientist Willard Fogal has reviewed some of the studies cited
by the ministry, but says most lack standardized methodology or
evidence of a direct impact on wildlife. Fogal says the studies
don’t take into account large drainage areas, “so the
amount of material that is getting into the water from the site
in relation to the total drainage area is miniscule.”
Other scientists have a different view. Sheldon Duff, a professor
of chemical and biological engineering at the University of British
Columbia, says the “dilution is the solution to pollution” argument
is no longer accepted in environmental science. Duff says the decomposition
of a tree in a forest is similar to the impact of sawdust, but
the difference is of scale. Sawmills may be storing thousands of
cubic metres of wood residues in one place, “so essentially
it’s a concentration issue,” says Duff.
Duff explains that water-borne bacteria digest organic material
in leachate, but use up much of the available oxygen. This high “biological
oxygen demand” can suffocate fish and other organisms.
But of larger concern, says Duff, are substances such as lignins
and fatty acids that protect trees from predators while they are
alive, but can leach into water and poison wildlife. “Those
types of things remain in the tree and, as the tree decays, they
slowly get broken down,” says Duff. “But when you’re
processing a whole large volume of wood and large concentrations
of these materials get out into the runoff, they cause toxicity
and are toxic to a broad range of organisms.”
Mill owner Schwan is not convinced of the science, but concedes
he would do what it took to protect the environment if he felt
it was needed. “We rely on (the environment) too,” says
Schwan. “Maybe more so than the next guy down the road, because
we’re also relying on the environment for our living.”