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Expired · 26th July 2010
Ray Grigg
Perhaps the secret and unspoken wish of many local environmentalists has always been that the Elk Falls pulp mill would end its operations so the Campbell River area could be free of the pollution emanating from such an industrial monstrosity.

Of course, the gratification of this wish has always been tempered by the realization that the mill was a prime employer in the region, bringing huge economic benefit to local families and businesses. Its taxes financed schools, municipal services and recreation facilities. Its monolithic presence even set the cultural tone of the community. With the opening of the mill in 1952, Campbell River became a pulp-mill town dominated by this single industry. And it smelled like a pulp-mill town, too.

Hydrogen sulphide odours wafted throughout the region regularly. Forgiving people dismissively called it "the smell of money". But, with the rise of environmental consciousness in the 1970s, this tolerance began to fray. Emissions into air and water became the subject of health concerns, with contentions that the area suffered a higher than normal incidence of respiratory disease and cancer. People complained about the noise and the dump of ash on nearby Painter Barclay subdivision. Smoggy, smelly hazes bathed scenic Discovery Passage, downtown Campbell River, the west side of Quadra and Cape Mudge. At one time, living outside the reach of the pulp mill stench was a measure of privileged residency. The burning in boilers of saltwater soaked hog fuel boilers produced dioxins and furans, perhaps the most toxic materials on the planet. As a result of this contamination from mill effluent, clamming and crabbing were closed in Discovery Passage.

In a perverse way, the plumes of airborne effluent churning skyward from the mill and the coloured liquids spewing into the sea from its pipes helped to create a local environmental movement. Emissions from the mill were partly responsible for the Reach For Unbleached group and its acclaimed magazine, the Watershed Sentinel. Existing and former employees of the mill joined with other concerned citizens to combat the mill's meagre pollution standards. A Campbell River Sierra Club was formed, then dissolved, and then constituted later on Quadra Island, partly in response to the mill's presence. The Campbell River Environmental Council (now Committee) was similarly organized to address concerns about the mill's pollution. Increasing environmental awareness spread in many other directions: to wild salmon and estuary rehabilitation, park protection, stream management, watershed watches, methane drilling, salmon farming operations.... All this matured as the mill matured.

The struggle to reduce the mill's various forms of pollution defeated some environmentalists, seasoned others, made the community more conscious, and generally convinced the Elk Falls pulp mill to be more conscientious about its practices. The mill was enticed or forced to reduce its smelly emissions and cut its production of dioxins and furans. Sound baffling, filters and scrubbers partially solved some problems. Millions were invested by corporate owners to make the mill more compliant with tightening standards.

Sometimes, however, solutions created new problems. Burning coal in its boilers to create enough heat to reduce the dioxin and furan production, for example, added emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead to the atmosphere. Coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, also released tonnes of sequestered CO2 to the planet's carbon cycle, contributing to global warming.

Other problems inherent in a bleach-based pulp mill could not be avoided. Occasional chlorine gas leaks kept employees and the community on edge. One such chlorine gas escape could have had extremely serious consequences had the wind been blowing southward toward the Campbell River townsite; the cloud of gas dissipated northward toward Seymour Narrows and areas largely unpopulated. This threat of disaster reduced nearby development and investment, perhaps contributing to the decision of a company to end ambitious plans for a golf course and destination resort to the north of the mill.

Shifting ownership of the mill from corporation to corporation created both economic uncertainty and a difficult target for environmentalists. Generally, however, over the course of decades, the mill reduced its pollution, produced cleaner energy and became more efficient. Credit for this progress was probably a combination of environmental pressure, the mill's gestures of good intentions, provincial regulations which too often seemed to err in the interest of pulp mills and a growing public intolerance for pollution. Together we have come some distance in 58 years.

The future technically begins with the mill's official closure on September 10, 2010. Will it be revived before then? Will it be dismantled and sold in pieces? Does the property have other industrial uses? Rehabilitating the site may be expensive if it has accumulated a toxic stew of chemicals during its decades of use.

Since 1952, Campbell River grew and its economy diversified until it evolved from a pulp mill town to a city with a pulp mill. Unless a miracle occurs, it will soon be a city without a pulp mill. During these years, the city has become more sophisticated and cultured. So the demise of the mill presents a rare opportunity for transition, an unusual pause in the momentum of habit that invites imagination and re-invention.

Campbell River will prosper if it entices commerce that is more environmentally benign than anything like the Elk Falls pulp mill. Perhaps the community sobered by regret and confident with optimism will learn from experience and find a cleaner future. Surely the natural beauty and the scenic blessings of this unique place of rivers, mountains, forests, lakes, islands and ocean deserves better than a pulp mill. This, of course, is what local environmentalists have always known.