Subscribe and save!
magazine / so05 / indepth


The Ottawa Valley

Canadian Geographic feature
Agricultural city
Rural evolution
    Farmers’ Markets
Urban preservation
    “Treatise of an urban farmer”
Top 10 adventures
    Down in the Valley
Toxic solution
Ghost towns
Burying the past

The knowledge toolbox
Cartographer’s table
Just the facts
From the CG vault
Many small-operation sawmills in the Valley, such as this Pembroke cedar shingle operation, have chosen to close rather than pay the Ontario Ministry of the Environment’s new fees.

Toxic solution
Sawyers lumber under new environmental policies.
Story by Ben Singer

External links:
• The Ontario Ministry of the Environment

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.



"It’s fairly clear-cut that this material is a product. Therefore, it shouldn’t be under the scrutiny of the environmental protection act."
- Tim Schwan,
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.


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 Burns.


"The ’dilution is the solution to pollution’ argument is no longer accepted in environmental science. "
- Sheldon Duff,
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.”

Search our sites: ,

Canadian Geographic Magazine | Can Geo Education | Mapping & Cartography | Canadian Geographic Photo Club | Kids | Canadian Contests | Canadian Lesson Plans

Royal Canadian Geographical Society | Canadian Geographic Education | Canadian Geographic Challenge | Canadian Award for Environmental Innovation

Subscribe | Customer Care / Login | Renew | Give a Gift | Pay a Bill | Digital Edition | Back Issues | Calendars | Special Publications

Jobs | Internships | Submission Guidelines

© 2016 Canadian Geographic Enterprises