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Schindler’s Pissed

Freshwater science pioneer David Schindler fires back about tar sands development, closing the Experimental Lakes Area, and why researchers should speak out.

DAVID SCHINDLER is one of Canada’s most influential environmental scientists, both at home and abroad. Between 1968 and 1989, he directed the Experimental Lakes Area research facility in Ontario, leading experiments on freshwater ecosystems that advanced our understanding of the effects of nutrient enrichment, acid rain and climate change. An Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of many awards, Schindler is now a Killam Memorial professor of ecology at the University of Alberta.

DAVID SCHINDLER is one of Canada’s most influential environmental scientists, both at home and abroad. Between 1968 and 1989, he directed the Experimental Lakes Area research facility in Ontario, leading experiments on freshwater ecosystems that advanced our understanding of the effects of nutrient enrichment, acid rain and climate change. An Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of many awards, Schindler is now a Killam Memorial professor of ecology at the University of Alberta. He and his colleagues have tracked contaminants from tar sands developments, underlining the need for effective monitoring of industry. Schindler has also been a leading environmental advocate, opposing recent efforts to weaken the Fisheries Act and other federal legislation and asserting the importance of basing decisions on sound scientific knowledge. Environmental historian Stephen Bocking interviewed Schindler in April of this year, before the summer of scientific discontent.

Stephen Bocking: How do you feel about the future of environmental protection in Canada?

David Schindler: I would say it’s more under attack now than it’s ever been. When I moved to Canada [from the US] in the mid-1960s, it was probably the best it had been. Shortly after that, habitat provisions were added to the Fisheries Act, and back in those days we had government science organizations that were proactive and communicated with the public, not kept behind closed doors, reporting only to politicians as their private tools.

I’m referring to the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, which answered to senior scientists, not a bureaucrat. Compare that with today, when they’re removing the habitat provisions, despite the fact that 80 per cent of all species in decline are in decline because their habitat is under attack. I think pea-brained is the only term that fits.

Environmental assessments are now going to be done by the provinces, very few of which have any science capacity, or the National Energy Board, or the atomic energy equivalent. None of those organizations have significant ecological or fisheries expertise, so habitat protection and the ecosystems in general are under attack in the name of industrial development.

SB: With scientific capacity and monitoring being eroded, which environmental changes do you think won’t be dealt with properly?
: One thing that is certainly eroded is fish habitat protection. The DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] has announced that it is cutting the number of stations with habitat protection units from 63 to 14. People see things every day that affect fish habitat and don’t realize what’s happening.

Before habitats were protected, a road building company would go out and they’d throw the smallest culvert they could into a stream and cover it with dirt. It silted up the downstream environment and nobody looked at whether it was spawning habitat or otherwise used by fish. Often the end of the culvert was hanging, so that it would cut off fish migration upstream. I’ve seen individual cases in Alberta where one hanging culvert cut off 60 per cent of the habitat for bull trout, a red-listed species.

Simple acts like that are going to go by the wayside to focus on big projects. Yet those small projects are important. They don’t hold up the approval of the big projects very much. I know that well because my daughter did that kind of assessment for DFO for several years. With few exceptions, there’s been pretty good relations between the fisheries people who do those assessments and the companies that are trying to design road crossings, because nobody really wants to destroy habitat or species.

I think the federal government and oil sands companies are anxious to get things like this Northern Gateway pipeline through. There are hundreds of individual streams and road crossings there, so by removing these habitat rules, there are no regulations to break by putting in bad stream crossings. I don’t see how that can bode very well for the many salmon and trout streams that’ll be crossed.

SB: What would be an appropriate process for assessing the impact of something like Northern Gateway, and how should it be done?
: There probably should not even be a process for that pipeline. We already have two pipelines to the coast, one to Vancouver and one to Prince Rupert. Why, having already put one corridor in for each of those, do we need yet a third? If we need it, why not run an additional pipeline down one of the existing corridors? Both end up in areas less vulnerable than the sound at Kitimat, which is a long, narrow fjord.

SB: Why do you think there is interest in a third corridor?
: I think it’s because companies are reluctant to share their corridors with their competitors. But, to me, that’s the sort of thing that a government that has any strength should be able to overcome and say, ‘You’re putting it in that common corridor, and that’s it, period.’

SB: Can you explain some of your concerns about the direct environmental impacts of Alberta’s oil sands development?
: Well, I would say there’s a whole suite of them, probably too many for me to remember. But, I would say greenhouse gas emissions, for me, ranks well down the list.

SB: Down the list?
DS: Down the list. Greenhouse gas emissions are the one problemthat most people are concerned about, but if you look at the extraction-to-wheels figures, it’s not that much higher than a lot of other oil. [GHG emissions are 23 per cent higher in the tar sands, according to The Pembina Institute.]

Of greater concern are the huge pits that are being left in the ground and the inadequacy of restoration that’s going on. We have a huge reclamation deficit. As the Royal Society report pointed out [Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry, December 2010], we’re putting aside less than 10 per cent of what it’s likely to cost to restore that area. So taxpayers are on the hook for this. It won’t be our generation of taxpayers, because with current policies they’re putting off restoration for almost two generations. But our grandchildren are not going to be very happy with us.

Close behind that is the disregard for treaty rights. That whole area’s covered by provisions of Treaty 8 of 1899. The promises that were made are well documented – [the treaty] would support native people living a subsistence lifestyle ’til the sun quits shining and the rivers quit flowing, which, I guess, cynically, is what they’re trying to do up there with industrial development. It gives you a creepy feeling to be part of a society that has this little regard for native people. It’s downright racist.

Right now there’s really not a problem with water quality, which I’ve investigated pretty thoroughly. The big concern is the monitoring, which is so poor that we cannot tell if things are increasing at a rate that will be a threat in the future. When projects are taking around a decade from planning to completion, with an investment of a couple of billion dollars, you have to know in the early design stages of that plan what has to be done to protect the environment. The current mentality is, “Well, when we start getting exceedances [the amount by which something, especially a pollutant, exceeds a permissible measurement], then we’ll figure out what we need to do to fix them.” We know that the least expensive way to avoid pollution is to prevent it in the first place, not to try and clean it up after it happens.

Then there are social problems. People downstream are still trying to make at least a partially subsistence living, and probably the most threatened thing is their source of protein. And it isn’t just because the food is polluted; we really don’t know if it’s polluted, because nobody’s looked. The government has taken the position that the oil sands are not putting anything in the river – which we now know is untrue [see “Damage Control,” page 18] – therefore none of the problems that these people are claiming can be caused by oil sands. I think that is now slowly turning around; there are planned health studies. We already know that there are fish with tumors and other abnormalities in the river, and even if they’re not contaminated to a degree that would harm human health, I don’t think people will eat them. They certainly wouldn’t sell in a Safeway store. I don’t know why we would expect native people to eat fish with big tumors and hematomas and two tails and all of the other deformities that we’re seeing in that system.

And then there’s Fort McMurray, which has the worst growing pains I’ve ever seen. When I first went there it was seven or eight thousand people, and now it’s at least tenfold that, with little hidden bush camps all over the place. They admit they can’t even get a complete census. Every doctor in the hospital is exhausted, and the papers have been full of stories about the poorly constructed buildings that have had to be evacuated. It’s just a crazy way to develop any sort of industry, in my view. Housing prices are high, and the highway connecting the city to the outside world is known as the “highway of death.”

SB: Some people would argue that the oil sands are an example of a fundamentally unsustainable industry. Do you think there is a place for the oil sands if Canada genuinely embraces sustainability?
: I think there is, but my development of it would be very slow. I would put a lot more emphasis on reclamation and set some big reserves aside, so that we wouldn’t have species like woodland caribou in the area going extinct in 20 or 30 years. I’d tell those companies, “Once you have reclaimed your mined area to the state where it can support these iconic species, then we’ll give you a new chunk of land to exploit,” not just give it all to them for cheap prices – and to hell with the boreal flora and fauna.

I think that if they were given that challenge, companies would really do it. Companies are falling all over themselves to get a share in the profits now; they know it’s a fire sale going on and they want to be there. Companies are greedy.

SB: How will the Harper government’s plan to close the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in Ontario impact the average Canadian citizen?
: It is hard to say what Canadians will miss if the ELA is closed. Probably the best answer is to look back: If there had been no ELA, we would probably be controlling several elements in sewage at great expense – not doing a good job on any – and wondering why our lakes turn green. Instead, we have relatively inexpensive control of one nutrient, phosphorus, and where we have controlled it well enough, lakes have recovered. Lots of lakes are still green, but the answers now lie with weak-willed regulators, not with science.

Similarly, with acid rain, we would probably believe that most of our lakes were not in jeopardy. We would not know that 50 per cent of the species were disappearing, and we would still have sulphur oxides pouring out of smelters and coal-fired power plants. In both of these cases, the whole-ecosystem approach at ELA exposed significant flaws in the conclusions of smaller-scale experiments. With no ELA, it is these smaller scales that we must fall back to as guides to water policy.

While they have not yet visibly affected national policy, the [more recent] reservoir, endocrine disruptor and mercury experiments at ELA should eventually have similar impacts. If used effectively, the experimental lakes should continue to yield reliable information about emerging problems.

SB: You’ve been both a very productive scientist and a contributor to public debate. Is it enough for scientists to do good research, or do they need to speak publicly about what their results might mean for policy?
: I think the latter. If you’re doing stuff that’s of no importance to policy, I’d say fine, put it on the shelves in the ivory tower library. But if what you’re doing has policy implications it ought to be known, and ministers ought to be healthy enough to consider it. And it certainly wouldn’t offend me if a minister said, “Yeah, we’ve read that study and it was well done, but we’re not going to follow the recommendations and here’s why.” What I really object to is them trying to say, “That’s not good science and we don’t agree with that and this scientist over here says something else,” pointing to some industry hack or some two-bit program. I’d like to see the whole debate become much more open and healthy. I certainly wouldn’t want scientists setting policy – I think it would be a disaster – but I think science should be done and well-considered before policy is made, and it should be a part of the decision.

SB: I can understand that when interest groups attack scientists publicly, it can have a chilling effect.
: I think it does. It certainly doesn’t make you feel good when you get attacked. Probably the worst case I know of is what happened with climate change. I’ve never seen a field where there are so many people with no knowledge on whether the climate is changing who consider themselves to be instant experts. You can’t suggest there’s climate change resulting from human activity without all of these creeps coming out of the woodwork and telling you, “There’s people who disagree with you, and it isn’t decided, and look at Climategate and how horrible that was,” on and on and on. A lot of people out there simply don’t get it, because they don’t understand how science works. The politicians are one thing to deal with, but you also have to deal with the lunatic fringe.

SB: Are you optimistic or otherwise about the prospects of Canada taking action on climate change?
: I think it’s going to be after some major catastrophe. I think something like a total crop failure in the West, or the Great Lakes dropping low enough that it cuts off all shipping, or something like that.

Depends on who’s in government, too. It’s interesting that my experience – in almost 50 years now of dealing with it – is that Conservatives never seek the advice of scientists. Liberals are pretty good about seeking advice, though they often ignore it. The NDP are very good at seeking advice, but we have no idea how well they would use it because they have not been in power.

On several occasions, Jack Layton just phoned up and asked, if he came by, if we could talk about climate for an hour. And I know he did that with other people, too. And just a few months ago, Thomas Mulcair did the same thing. I’d never heard of him, he hadn’t been elected leader yet. But he was curious, he knew it was an important issue and he wanted to talk about climate and the oil sands. The provincial NDP are the same way. In Manitoba’s case, they have an excellent record, with the protection of the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg and proposed action to control phosphorus inputs.

Politicians who at least try to understand the scientific dimensions of problems get high marks from me. At least they’re curious enough to want to know what’s going on; whether they pay attention or not afterward is another thing. But I suspect that if we were to have an NDP government, we’d see some action on environmental issues fairly fast right now. I guess that’s no more remote a hope than the US having a black president, which seemed impossible five years ago.

Read the extended interview with David Schindler, including discussion of his early research at the ELA

Get involved in the campaign to preserve the ELA at saveela.org.

The following issue of Alternatives also features a report on why the ELA is so vital to Canadian scientists, policy makers and citizens – and information is nine-tenths of your boot in Harper’s ass. (Full disclosure: This statistic has not been scientifically derived. But it sure was fun to write.)

Stephen Bocking, a regular contributor to Alternatives, is professor at and chair of the Environmental and Resource Science/Studies Program at Trent University and author of A\J’s EcoLogic blog.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @BockingStephen or read his blog: Environment, History and Science.