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Thursday 31 March 2011

We're all small in the big picture.

It's funny how a change in scale signifies such a change in perspective. Here in NL, we can certainly see the stark differences between a quiet small town like Tilt Cove (Population 5) and a more urban town like Clarenville(population 5274). They are governed by the exact same legislation but they are very different. Of the 276 municipalities in NL only 6.5%(18 municipalities) have a population over 4000, and over half (145) have a population under 500. So when we talk about the differences between rural and urban in the NL picture we can usually draw clear lines between the two, and we know that the urban communities in NL are few and far between.

If we step back a little further and look at the National scene, our numbers begin to look a little different. If you look at the top 100 municipalities in Canada by population, NL has one entry, ST. John's. No other town or city even comes close to making it on the list.

If we look at percentage of population growth in communities in Canada we do have one entry in the top twenty, Paradise, with growth of 31% from 2001 to 2006. Compare that with the top twenty communities in population decline over the same period and we have 3 entries, Labrador City, Stephenville, and Marystown. Not to be outdone by us in the East, BC has 5 entries on that list.

So what does it all mean for rural NL? Well we are in the midst of a federal election, and candidates and parties will be telling people what they want to hear to try and garner as much support as possible. Unfortunately the federal government is the most removed from the people and those parties, and people must struggle to keep a real handle on the needs of all Canadians. Just remember that when one of them says "we will support rural Canada" they are very likely talking about places that have enough people to show up on a map of Canada, and unfortunately in NL, those places are very few, and far between.

Monday 28 March 2011

Welcome to the Waste-Land

Over at The Telegram they have been digging into the Provincial Waste Management Strategy and have filled Access to information requests to ferret out some details on what's really been happening since the strategy was released back in 2002. There is little doubt that the long process will result in a better approach to waste management for NL, but can it be done better?

The Plan
When the NL Waste Management Strategy was released in 2002 it contained some very ambitious goals. The key focus was to close out the over 200 small waste sites in the province and instead create 3 mega-sites where modern waste management technology could help minimize our environmental impact. The 3 sites would be located in the Eastern, Central and Western areas of the Island. They didn't quite know what to do with Labrador, and not too much seems to have changed in 9 years.

The Problems
1. The Plan is quite a bit behind schedule. Not unexpected for a Government strategy but still worth noting that while we are in the process of closing landfill sites there are still more then there should be according to the plan. The final incinerator shut down in 2010 as noted in this CBC story, two years behind schedule. Then there's the phase out of unlined landfill sites by 2010 and the full province wide waste management system by 2010. Not exactly.

2. Administrative issues. There have been significant resignations in the East(can't find an online source), the West and even with firms contracted to do some of the work as noted here in The Telegram.

3. Municipalities will be responsible for implementing the final product but some of the municipal reps are still pretty unhappy about the way it's been rolling out. And in some cases strong-arm tactics were used.

4. We are trucking thousands of tones of garbage over hundreds of kilometers to bury it in the ground. How is this environmentally friendly? Besides the composting, which is minimal, and the recycling that is growing, we are still just burying garbage. And now we're trucking that garbage and burning fuel, and paying money to do so. It is just a start but we have to incorporate new technology to better recycle and reuse our waste.

5. Cost and Enforcement. This issue will likely be the one that becomes a large issues as time goes on. Because of the shipping noted in number 4, there will be storage and transfer stations located all over the Island and no more local dump sites. That will mean increased costs. How much will depend on where you live but it is widely accepted that the cost will go up. (And frankly it should, we pay nearly nothing currently) But the real problem is that if you want to take your own trash to the dump, or if you live in an area with no garbage collection you will still be expected to pay for a dumping service when you drop your trash at a transfer site. We already have an issue with people (read idiots) dumping trash in the woods instead of taking it to a waste site and it's still free. What will happen when there is a cost to use the transfer site? Most feel that without enforcement the pristine wilderness will become one big dumping ground. There has been no official position on enforcement.

While these are significant issues that must be overcome they are not insurmountable. But the solutions will need to be flexible and innovative as opposed to rigid and recycled.(good for trash bad for ideas) There is little doubt that we need a viable waste management solution for the entire province, and it will certainly cost more the what we currently use. But the key should be to use a variety of approaches that make sense at the local level as opposed to shipping garbage from Bonavista to St. John's. The NL Waste management Strategy was designed with a top-down approach that was never intended to be flexible at the local level. Because of that the Government has taken a hard-nosed approach that does not allow for open discussion on solutions for rural NL.

My family home has a small trash area behind it that was used by our family for many years. It contained some bottles and cans and very little else. It was reclaimed by nature in a very short time, partly because we were not nearly as wasteful then as we are now. I can't help but wonder if it will ever be possible to reclaim (not just bury) a site as large as Robin Hood Bay. I hope so.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

If you were to read the latest joint press release from Municipal Affairs and Environment and Conservation you might just get the impression that the drinking water situation is well in hand. After all, we've been training operators for over ten years now. Surely, that is a significant accomplishment and our drinking water woes are behind us. Right? Not exactly.

While training water system operators is a great thing, and needs to be continued, there are significant issues that are severely glossed over by Minister Ross Wiseman's comment that it is "...a challenging responsibility for communities..." After a read through, something might strike you as a little odd. That would be the section regarding the award for "The 2011 Volunteer operator of the year." That was then followed up by Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien's comment regarding the operators, saying that "...a number of whom are volunteers." So the minister openly admits that volunteers are ding the required work instead of paid staff. Now we should all be thankful for the work of volunteers, especially in rural NL. But, drinking water safety is not only a huge responsibility but a public health and safety issue. So why don't communities have enough funding to pay operators for their water system? How about the over 200 communities currently under a boil order as discussed here?

The other issue is buried a little deeper. Lets say that all towns could hire a fully trained and qualified staff person to operate their water systems. Would we still have multiple 20 year old boil orders? Of course we would. The reason we have so many is not due to a lack of training but due to a lack of funding for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades over time. You can train everyone you want but without the funding some people will still have e-coli in their tapwater.

I have to agree with The Sir Robert Bond Papers on this one. Training is a great thing, but we need serious action if we are to make all the potable water in NL safe to drink.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Deep Roots

From the official NL Tourism website:

"Newfoundland and Labrador is known for its friendly people. Real and genuine, warm and welcoming, fun-loving and funny to the core, the people here are also known for their natural creativity, unique language, and knack for storytelling. Perhaps that's why, according to Macleans magazine, Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the Top 10 Friendliest Cultures in the World!"

What would happen to NL if we lost our language, storytelling, traditional activities or our unique culture? If you look closely at many of the key aspects of our culture that make us "unique" you'll see that it is routed in our rural heritage. Our songs and stories are based around fishing, forestry, farming and hunting activities. Our humility and our humor stem from our connection to the necessity of manual tasks as part of our everyday lives. The very acts of singing and storytelling are rich and deep because they were used to pass traditional knowledge and to help pass the time and keep spirits high. While our cultural activities are thankfully still vibrant in our urban areas, there is a disconnect with the basis for those activities.

I once had the pleasure of listening to Rex Murphy give a keynote speech on "rural" and in his usual style he described the sense of place and the connection to nature that comes from living in rural areas. He spoke about how the struggle of living so close to the land tends to breed people who are strong, intelligent and genuine. While he was speaking in the wider scope, he certainly included his home province in the analysis.

As a province we certainly realize the tourism potential of our unique culture and heritage. You just need to watch any of the NL tourism ads. As a province we love the ads but I don't think we really appreciate just how important the rural side of the equation really is. There are those who do understand, and they tend to be the folks who live in rural areas. Traditional activities are difficult to maintain in an age when every product is designed to remove the direct interaction with nature and traditional activities. Luckily we have people who are unwilling to let us forget our traditional ways. People like Elizabeth Penashue consider it an imperative to pass traditions onto the next generation. Check out her Blog and see the photos of her recent spring snowshoe walk.

So the next time you stroll along George Street and hear some great traditional music overflowing onto the cobblestones, remember that the music you're listening to was likely written about activities and a lifestyle that cannot exist in urban areas. We recognize the importance of our culture and our heritage but we need to recognize that the roots of our culture run deep and wide across the rural and remote areas of Newfoundland and Labrador, and those roots need attention.

Saturday 19 March 2011

Out of Balance

In many eastern philosophies the idea of balance is a very important concept and is often represented by the yin and yang symbol. It is a very common symbol comprised of a circle which is half white, half black and has a small dot of the opposite colour in each half. The idea is that all things contain yin and yang in varying degrees and when there's too much of one or the other the balance is off and there is turmoil. The idea carries over into many common themes such as light and dark, good and evil, but what about rural and urban?

It is occasionally argued by urbanites that providing services to rural areas is simply a drain on the economy and is not worth the effort. These folks often do not understand the entire system and are simply looking at one small aspect of a much larger equation. The initial idea is based in truth, it costs more money to provide services in rural areas. People are spread around and even simple transportation is an issue. Look at healthcare in NL as one example. It cost more money to recruit and maintain staff, buildings and equipment per capita in rural areas because the facilities are serving far fewer people then they are in the North East Avalon. The argument can be extrapolated to most services provided by any government and in fact is often used in this province when it comes to basic services like roads and ferries, healthcare, education and many other forms of financial transfers to local communities.

This can create an imbalance. Especially in some areas where residents rightfully argue that the resource revenue coming out of an area should be justification enough for government investment.
This has been discussed and lauded from many residents of Labrador for many years. And they make a good point. With the multiple mining operations and hydro generation alone the region contributes more then it's fair share to the provincial coffers but yet has a very poor transportation system to show for it. (This I can attest to from much first had experience!) So is there an imbalance between the rural and urban parts of NL? I believe there is, and it's getting worse.

Leaving the system to maintain itself there is a natural symbiotic balance that develops where the rural areas provide goods and services that urban areas use and vice versa. It is a constant flow of people, goods, services and ideas that keep the system functioning. However as soon as one side of the relationship looses sight of the value of the other half and begin to reduce their role in the partnership then things begin to fall out of balance.

Lets take the North East Avalon region as a case study to explore this a little further. The City of St. John's is the large urban leader in the region, and therefore has a great deal of influence and is home to the vast majority of services and service jobs. Dennis O'Keefe, the current mayor has argued that amalgamation for the region is both inevitable and ideal as stated here at the new online version of The Independent. One idea behind this debate is that residents of the surrounding area are using the infrastructure and services paid for by the City and that's not fair to residents to have to bare that burden. That is complete nonsense. Were is not for the residents of surrounding communities coming into St. John's to access shopping, education, healthcare and other services then the City would not have the required demand to house those services. If you were to poll the folks shopping at the Stavanger Drive Wal-Mart on any given day what percentage would actually live in the city of St. John's? And would there be three Wal-Marts in St. John's if it were not for those "outsiders" shopping there? Is the Mayor willing to forgo those business tax dollars to cut back on road repair costs? I doubt it. It's a symbiotic relationship that must be respected.

As a provence we have fallen out of balance because we seem to have forgotten the benefits of our mutual relationship between rural and urban. Urban areas provide shopping, education, healthcare, transportation, while rural provides recreation, lower cost lifestyles, natural resources, and of course food! As much as the "past the overpass" debate will always continue in NL we must recognize that we need rural areas to survive just as we need urban areas. One of the key aspects of yin and yang is that one cannot exist without the other. We cannot have good without evil, day without night, and we certainly cannot have urban without rural.

Saturday 12 March 2011

When Policy Fails the Public Good

In this weekend's edition(March 12) of The Telegram, Randy Simms argues that the inability of the current Canadian Parliament to act on regular citizens behalf has led to voter and general citizen apathy.(His column is unfortunately not available for free on the web) He is absolutely correct but it's much worse then he indicates when it comes to rural citizens like those in Charlottetown.

The issue is about access to the surrounding environment through Terra Nova National Park, via snowmobile. On the surface one might think that the integrity of a National Park should trump all. However a deeper investigation reveals a much more complex issue. Here are a couple of facts to consider before making up your mind.

1. The residents are seeking one access path through the park so that they can drive snowmobiles to the area on the other side of Terra Nova. They don't want to drive all over the Park and by all accounts understand and respect the ecological integrity of the area. (this point may be in dispute by some but I have not seen evidence, only rhetoric to that end)

2. They have been making this argument to Park administration for many years and have indicated at past public consultations that it is an issues they want resolved. It's not new.

3. It's hardly unprecedented to allow snowmobiles in a National Park. On the island portion of NL we have two beautiful National Parks. Terra Nova, where no access in or through the park is possible via snowmobile, and Gros Morne, where the enclave communities not only have access to the backcountry through the park but there are huge areas open to public snowmobiling and a number of tourism businesses based around that very activity. Any agency attempting to argue against an access route based on ecological integrity has already made themselves the fool.

4. Have a look here for the specific resources for "residents" of Gros Morne regarding snowmobiling. And if you're not a resident then click here to find out that Parks Canada wishes "... you a safe and enjoyable snowmobiling experience".

Strong policy development is critical to all levels of government. But there's a signofocant difference in good policy development and practical policy application. This appears to be a case where the policy seems to make sense, despite differences with other National Parks, but yet it fails the people of Charlottetown on a practical level. Martin Luther King Jr. once said "One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law." I think that this may indee be one of those cases.

And to those flying the environmental flag Let me be clear. I am an environmentalist, and I firmly believe in the importance of preserving our natural heritage, but not at the expense of our cultural heritage.

Monday 7 March 2011


Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador is currently holding meetings with municipalities around NL to discuss a discussion paper that they have prepared on the idea of regional government. For full details on the initiative click here and have a read through the documents for yourself.

The basic idea is that over the last 50 or 60 years the province has attempted to initiate some forms of regionalization with various levels of success due to many, many factors. We are currently at a point where it is time to start looking at the idea seriously and determine how it might come into play to help our small communities continue to deliver essential services without having to over tax the residents involved.

The papers speak for themselves and are intended as a starting point for discussion and they are not intended to offer specific solutions. The response from municipalities appears to be favorable so far, but there are lots of issues to discuss and a great deal of work still needs to be done. This story in The Western Star is an example of the current reception.

Other provinces have gone through or proposed similar initiatives but the most similar to our situation is currently in New Brunswick where there is a Government report titled "Building Stronger Local Governments and Regions" and it lays out very specific actions designed to build the strongest and most sustainable communities possible in NS. Of course the Gov of NS is not exactly rushing to implement the plan because it means significant change and would require them to push through some difficult legislation. I do hope they make it work.

What I really hope is that the MNL initiative leads to a similar study of the NL municipal system. We seriously need municipal reform that includes regional options. It won't be simple and it will require serious determination by the NL Government. During my time working in the municipal sector in NL I can honestly say that were it not for the efforts of MNL there would be very little action in terms of looking for a sustainable model of local government. Heres hoping that the towns in NL can see the real benefits of starting that discussion before it's too late.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Meanwhile back at the outhouse...

Municipal water and wastewater infrastructure is not exactly the topic of general dinner conversation in many homes in NL, rural or otherwise. But it should be. As if the drinking water issue discussed here weren't enough there's the other side of the issue: sewer.

To understand the issue we have to start at the beginning. Currently in NL when municipalities want to install or upgrade infrastructure the main source of funding works on a cost shared basis as described in this press release in 2008. So the vast majority of rural municipalities qualify for a 90/10 arrangement whereby they only have to contribute 10% of the total project cost. While that is an exceptional deal it is still a considerable challenge when infrastructure projects generally run into the multi-million dollar range, making even that 10% a difficult task. Not too long ago the situation was much more challenging with communities required to invest 50% of a projects cost. This is part of the reason why we have a serious issue with crumbling infrastructure in NL. Basically it costs so much and rural communities can't generate their portion of the investment.

Consider for a moment how many rural communities really need, or needed water and sewer infrastructure? Of course people wanted it because it was the newest and most modern thing to prove we were shedding our "poor" outport past. The common consensus in municipal circles is that the vast majority of towns are not charging enough in taxes to pay for both the initial loans for construction and the ongoing maintenance of aging systems. So the infrastructure is crumbling and the initial loans are still outstanding in some cases.

Now for the really bad news.

Specifically when it comes to sewer systems in rural NL we keep it pretty simple. We collect sewage, use pipes and lift stations to pump it to the coastline where we dump it into the ocean, generally untreated. Of course as simple as that system is, many rural systems are still failing on a regular basis due to a general lack of maintenance. While there is some debate as to how damaging this effluent is to the ocean environment, Environment Canada has decided that any untreated effluent dumped into the ocean is too much(if only they felt the same way about foreign overfishing) and new effluent regulations will be phased in over the coming years across the country. So take our inadequate and crumbling infrastructure and add the cost of sewer treatment into the mix and rural NL is going to take a hit.

Estimates for NL alone have been as high as $2.5 billion to upgrade to secondary treatment for over 660 sewer outfalls in NL. The Feds have indicated that this will happen and the Province have indicated that they will need Federal dollars to make it happen, and that it will take decades to complete. The specifics have not yet been released but no matter what the final agreement, consider how willing are those two levels of government going to be, to invest in small rural communities where populations are shrinking and they have not real source of local funding? Keep in mind that even for small communities the cost for sewer treatment will likely be in the millions of dollars range. For the City of St. John's alone the project ran $60 million over budget as noted in this CBC story.

Whatever the solution, there will need to be significant investment from all partners, but it must be in new and innovative ways that will allow our smaller communities to maintain a certain standard of living without continually digging themselves deeper and deeper in debt. And we had better start thinking about those solutions soon, because... things are piling up.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

6 Year Thirst

Today is like many days. You wake up early, you brush your teeth and you get a shower. You make breakfast with tea and a tall glass of cold water to start your day right. On your way to work you turn on the radio in the car to get caught up on the news of the day when you hear that your home is in an area under a boil water advisory due to lack of chlorination, high coliform counts and the presence of E.Coli bacteria. Your mind flashes back to your shower, your breakfast and your big glass of water and one word stabs its way into your mind, Walkerton.

Now back to reality in NL right? Actually, that scenario is highly possible in this province due to a disturbingly high amount of boil orders as seen here. The 5 page list include over 200 communities that have enacted a boil order for drinking water. Sound disturbing yet? What about if the average boil order on that list has been in place since 2005? That's a long time to have to boil water. Could you boil every mouthful of drinking water for 6 years? Not me. If you look really closely you'll notice that some of the boil orders were established quite a bit longer then just 6 years ago. Dates including 2000, 1997 and even 1991 are included in the list. That's 20 years with no potable water. Disturbed now? If not then there's one last date to consider. January 1,1984. That's the date the community of Portugal Cove South enacted a boil order that has yet to be lifted. 27 years. The fact that there are no protests or burning effigies is a testament to either our collective patience and faith, or to our resignation to apathy.

A recent report released by the C.D. Howe Institute indicates that Canada's drinking water is vulnerable. Talk about yesterdays news. The story is covered by CBC here, and report highlights the special dangers for rural communities. The story quotes the report as saying "Those assigned to provide drinking water need to be afforded the training, intellectual support and compensation that is commensurate with their taking responsibility, through their actions or inactions, for the health of an entire community." Let me reassure you, that is a fact not lost on the mayors and councillors who maintain the pump-houses and chlorination injection systems in rural communities around NL. As usual, the resources just aren't available. One service that is currently being utilized in some areas is the PWDU or Potable Water Dispensing Unit. It's kind of like a small water treatment center where people can come and get safe drinking water on a small scale. It is helping for the areas that have them, but again they are not free.

How we ended up with million dollar water and sewer systems in areas that never needed them is a story for another day. As is the discussion around sewer systems themselves. For now we need to consider that for rural NL to survive, or more specifically the residents of rural NL, we need to get working on a reasonable solution to our drinking water crisis. And yes it's a crisis. Just ask the people who have been boiling their drinking water for over 20 years.