I cart still remember the first time I saw Cree country. I was flying into Chibougamau on my way to Mistissini. My task was to study the effects that Hydro, forestry and mining had in the community. I saw the long stretches of black spruce, interrupted only by small lakes that dotted the countryside. I had never seen anything more beautiful.
Then, like an icy breeze on a warm day, I noticed the large patches of land, all white and ridden with underbrush. There were no lakes, no trees, no reason for these large patches of barren ground. As much as I didn’t want to believe it,
I knew this scene was the result of clearcutting. On the road to Mistissini I saw those areas again, this time much closer. We passed logging road after logging road. Each one led to a patch of barren, clearcut land, littered with the brush left by loggers, and you could see where their skidders had scarred the land.
The scene disturbed me. Not simply because the trees had been cut, but because I knew the other damage that could be done by a forestry operation, especially on the delicate balance of the ecology of the North.
Beyond the clearcutting, the forestry industry and the pulp and paper industry which it supplies are also responsible for the pollution of the air, rivers and lakes. The effect of clearcutting on the wildlife habitat has become painfully obvious to the trappers and hunters in Waswanipi and other areas where forestry is quickly expanding. Paul Dixon detailed these effects in his article, “A New Beginning,” in the August 12 issue of The Nation. He cited a decline in many animal populations and the difficulties that both the Cree and the animals have because of the forestry operations. Unfortunally, I have to say this may be only the tip of the iceberg.
There are three widely used and highly damaging harvesting practices used in forestry operations—namely clear-cutting, high-grading and diameter-limit cutting. Most forestry operations in Quebec use the most damaging of all—clearcutting. Clearcutting is sometimes considered a type of forest management in the northeastern United States. However, you must understand what is meant by “forestry management” from a logging point of view. Loggers do not manage the forest in the manner that Cree manage a hunting territory. Forestry operations manage a forest so they can cut as much as possible, while continuing to grow back trees as quickly as possible. All so they can cut them down again. Clearcutting as a management tool means they can plant a higher quality tree, usually only one species is replanted and bio-diversity is lost. This type of forestry management does not place a high value on animal populations or habitat destruction. The primary goal is cut down more trees.
Clearcutting as a forestry management tool relies on a long growing season. In the South, areas grow back quickly enough that erosion isn’t a great danger and it is even possible to make this type of operation feasible. This would not seem to be the case in Northern Quebec as there are no long growing seasons. Even when clearcut areas are repleted, they will not mature in a feasible amount of time for the Crees, the animals, or the loggers. Once an area was clearcut, the damage might well be permanent. Even with regrowth, by the time the new trees mature, you may have no animal population left in the area.
Clearcutting is considered one of the most environmentally damaging of the forestry practices because of the large potential for erosion. In addition, the equipment used in forestry such as skidders can also leave the land vulnerable to erosion. These erosions can complicate regrowth capacity.
Erosion also damages local water quality. If the silt from the erosion finds it way into nearby lakes and streams, which is inevitable in this particular area, the silt can dam the rivers and lakes so that the water becomes stagnet. It can also cover the nutrient-rich river or lake bottom, compromising the biological cycles that keep water fresh and fish alive.
Most of the damaging effects of clearcutting can be mitigated by simply applying a forestry management technique known as silviculture. Silviculture has more benefits than just the purpose of growing trees faster. Silviculture is selectively cutting to clear out the dead trees and those which may cause disease in other trees. By marking the trees in a stand, only those which are prime pulpwood will be harvested. This practice will alleviate erosion problems and leave the stand with enough trees to support some wildlife. This does not fully address the problem of regrowth.
In fact, this is a problem which cannot be fixed. The only method to effect regrowth is to stop logging in the area. Forestry operations are profit-oriented and may not look at long-term solutions easily.
The second half of forestry operations are the pulp and paper mills. Unfortunately, the environmental damage does not stop with the silence of the logger’s saw. The most common pulp and paper operation uses the Kraft process to refine lumber. The process consists of four processes. The first two parts process the lumber and the last two are internal recycling and waste water treatment.
Wood preparation is the first step. The purpose is to debark the tree, chip it into uniform pieces and soak it in its first dose of chemical, called the white liquor. This is followed by the bleaching process which uses chlorine gas and carbon dioxide to increase the brightness of the paper. The chemical recovery stage recycles the chemicals left over from the bleaching process and returns them to the start of the operation. Finally, there is the waste water treatment section. This process does remove some of the suspended solids and a few of the disolved solids, but it does not return the wastewater to its original form.
The Kraft process pollutes the water. The effluent from the waste water treatment facility can change the pH rating of the
water. Most rivers have a rating of 5 to 7. Anything higher or lower can be lethal to fish and other wildlife that rely on the water. Raw efluent from the waste water treatment facility can be as high as 11 and as low as 3 to 4. Both ends of the range are fatal to fish.
The change in the pH levels, however, is not the most harmful effect of the mill effluent. The wood preparation process is responsible for increasing the total number of suspended solids (TSS) in the water effluent, and it is responsible for increasing the total biological oxygen demand (BOD) in the water. The chlorines used in the bleaching process also contribute to BOD of the effluent. The danger with suspended solids (TSS) is that many of them are toxic and cannot be remove during the water treatment process. Worse, though, is the effect of increasing the BOD of the effluent. There is always a certain amount of oxygen disolved in the water. If a waste water has a
high BOD, then it removes oxegen from the water. This lowers the amount available for aquatic life. Fish require a BOD of approximately 4 to 5 parts per million (ppm) in order to survive.
The concentration near pulp and paper mills using the Kraft process can be as low as 1 or 3 ppm of dissolved oxygen, suffocating the fish in the area. Furthermore, some of the chemicals released with the mill effluent may also be toxic, specifically dioxins and furans. These are chlorine compounds which cannot be removed by conventional waste water treatment facilities. Furthermore, mill effluent can also change the colour of the water. This is not only an ugly sight, but it also decreases the amount of light that can penetrate to the bottom, thus damaging the biological life there.
Pulp and paper mills are responsible for both air and water pollution. The air pollution is more obvious to the public because of the characteristic odour always present in a mill town. Mills will also release particals into the air, which can decrease visibility in the area. Most important of all the air pollutants is chloroform. This is a chemical which can be toxic and has been identified as a cancer-causing agent. Once this chemical is created, it cannot be destroyed.
There are some technologies which can lessen some of these effects. For exam pie, steps can taken to eliminate the air pollution from particals. There are also processes which can reduce the amount of chlorine used in the bleaching process. This would reduce the effects of BOD, toxic effluent and some of the TTS.
The problem would not completely solved, however. Once the mill is up and running, the air and water will not be as clean it once was. In some cases, the pollution of these two mediums has proven fatal to biological life. One must look carefully at the processes that a mill is or will be using and determine acceptable standards at a community level. Your environment is your choice.
This article has been adapted from a report by Karyn for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.