Polluting Cape Breton has got to stop

Many of us wrongly believe that the environment will recover on its own

By Jim Guy
Cape Breton Post Political Insights
Thurs., Sept. 8, 2004

We know that Cape Breton has earned world-wide distinction for just being a lovely island. But unless we start changing our ways, Cape Breton stands to lose its reputation as one of the most beautiful green areas on the planet. It will not take much to lose our reputation in a competitive world of tourism seeking recognition for natural beauty. People will quickly contrast our assumption that we are a "masterpiece" with the realities of littered and polluted beaches, a poorly maintained road system and a neglected environment.

How "beautiful" can we be to the rest of the world if we allow our landscape to be randomly quarried without considering the environmental and visual consequences? How beautiful will we be regarded if we continue to contaminate our underground water ecology? How much less of a "masterpiece" will we be to ourselves and to those who visit us if we continue to pipe our sewage untreated into our resourceful coastal waters?

As an island community it's time to take stock of the natural qualities we are credited with possessing and to protect them as assets with the force of law. We need to have a co-ordinated effort on the part of all three levels of government to sustain the image we portray of ourselves as a unique cultural and environmental experience.

Do we have enough government regulations in place to monitor our land use so that we do not destroy the beauty of the island for the sake of rubble and gravel? What about the aquifer, the delicate underground water system running through our island? Do we have effective regulations in place to protect this precious resource from the pollution we release at the ground level? Or do we need another disaster like the Tar Ponds before we become concerned and exercised by an unregulated industrial catastrophe?

Many of us wrongly believe that our natural environment will simply absorb and recover from the toxic stresses we so casually impose on it. Because we might not see the sewage pouring into the Cape Breton coastline we ask no questions about the fate of our beaches until we are forced to close them because of high faecal contamination.

These are the very beaches that bring visitors to our island every year. They are the front-line attraction we offer to tourists for free. Yet these beaches can be negatively affected for generations because we pipe human waste into our Bras d'Or lakes and our coastal Atlantic ocean. Can we afford to allow this destructive and ignorant behaviour to continue?

There is a sometimes quoted phrase in the world of corporate sarcasm that goes something like this: "None of us is as dumb as all of us," when it comes to our delicate island environment no other phrase could better describe our collective intelligence. What we are prohibited from doing to our beaches as individuals we seem to excel in doing as communities. We already know the devastating consequences of killing beaches with human and chemical pollutants. Sewage-infested waters will surely destroy our valuable commercial and sports fisheries. It will damage the tourist, recreational and aesthetic resources so valuable to Cape Breton and indeed to all of Nova Scotia.

Sewage wastes from two outfalls at Dominion beach exceed thousands of gallons per day that would not be permitted by many other Canadian and U.S. coastal communities. By itself the sewage flow into Dominion beach alone exceeds the capacity of most local rivers and lakes for dilution and neutralization.

Undesirable algae choke out other necessary marine vegetation, creating bad odours and enabling the formation of a breeding ground for disease-bearing bacteria. Fishers who ply the lucrative waters off the coast of Dominion and Glace Bay complain about the affects of sewage on their shellfish catches. Seafood is one of the biggest industries in all of Nova Scotia, generating over a $1 billion dollars in annual sales, with much of the product landed off the Cape Breton coast.

But the tourist and other related local industries suffer the consequences of polluting our local waters because they experience a significant drop in the number of visitors and in sales. The word gets out fast and furious. Americans, for example will gladly pay a $60 beach-pass fee in Cape Cod just to make sure that the waters they are swimming in are clean and supervised. But beaches that are free and polluted will quickly drive them away from Cape Breton.

The Cape Breton tourist industry requires costly sophisticated marketing to portray our island as beautifull in a highly competitive region of the country. We are beautiful but other places just around the corner are beautiful as well.

One of the most negative factors afffecting tourism for Cape Breton is a perceived contradiction between the promotion of the island as a "masterpiece" and the actualities of a spoiled environment. In an economy already reeling from population decline and sustained economic hardship, damaging our natural resources is the last thing we want to do to ourselves.

The solution is complex and costly. A sewage treatment facility will cost in the range of $30 million, involving a cost-sharing agreement among three governments. Both the province and the CBRM are cash-strapped for a project of this magnitude.

The federal government is in the best position to provide the lion's-share of funding necessary to build this kind of facility for the island and Nova Scotia. With the help of the federal government, the Municipality of Annapolis County tackled a similar sewage-waste scenario occurring at the Bay of Fundy. As a community they took effective action and moved to reverse the pollution impact of sewage at Bear River, Nova Scotia. Their solar waste water treatment system has been highly successful, even becoming a tourist attraction for the area.

We can't afford not to act on a matter of such importance to the economy and to the reputation of the island. In this century our prosperity on Cape Breton will not come from an industrial or technologically-based economy. It will flow from how we protect our natural endowments, our beaches, the forest, the purity of our water.

(Jim Guy is a professor of political science at the University College of Cape Breton. His column and those of his colleagues, Andrew Molloy, Brian Howe, Darrell Kyte and David Johnson appear weekly on this page. We welcome your comments on this column or any other material appearing in the Post. You can write c/o Letters to the Editon Cape Breton Post, 255 George St., PO Box 1500, Sydney N. S. BIP 6K6; Fax to (902) 562-7077 or e-mail to letters@cbpost.com)