Category: The Environment

Tar Ponds transition nears completion

2013-07-17 Tar Ponds View to Northwest copy

Capping and containment of the last sections of the former Sydney Tar Ponds nears completion. Looking northwest from the top of the old Sysco slag heap, this image, taken Wednesday evening, shows the mouth of the newly restored Muggah Creek. What appears to be black soil at the side of the stream is actually plastic sheeting, part of the engineered containment system for the stabilized and solidified coal byproducts below.

2013-07-17 Tar Ponds Southwest view copy

From the same vantage point, the view to the southwest shows the Ferry Street bridge in the distance. Containment and capping of solidified wastes in the north Tar Pond, on the far side of the bridge, is largely complete except for sodding, planting, and site enhancements.

The monkey will soon be off Sydney’s back.

Charting the rise in natural catastrophes

The number of “significant” natural catastrophes in North America causing more than $1 billion in losses of more than 50 deaths, 1950-2012:

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Number of natural catastrophes in North America, 1980-2011:

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For the climate change skeptics in the audience, these charts come not the Ecology Action Centre, the Natural Resources Defence Council, or the Pembina Institute, but from Munich Re, a $265-billion company that is one of the world’s leading reinsurance brokers. (A reinsurer is an outfit that re-sells insurance liabilities when the risk becomes too great for a single retail firm, so it is on the front lines when catastrophic events loom.)

Bear in mind, this is what has already happened, when the sea level rise and ocean warming forecast by climate scientists has barely begun.

Both charts originated in Severe weather in North America: Perils · Risks · Insurance, a 260-page report Munich Re produced on the rise in major natural events. Perhaps because our coastlines are so built up, the rise is occurring faster in North American than in other parts of the world. The top chart is reproduced in a 44-page report of a forum hosted by the Washington DC-baseed Urban Land Institute: Risk & Resilience in Coastal Regions: A ULI Global Policy and Practice Forum Report [PDF]. The bottom chart appears in a 12-page executive summary [PDF] Munich Re’s report, the full version of which is available from the company for $100.

Take a walk along the shoreline of any city in Atlantic Canada. The Gabarus Sea Wall ain’t the only thing we need to be worried about.

H/T: Richard Stephenson

Public service announcement: Marshy Hope season opens

Marshy Hope April 2013

New Brunswick can have its Magnetic Hill, but for my money, when it comes to gravity defiance, nothing beats Uphill Brook at Marshy Hope in Pictou County.

Motorists travelling the TransCanada 104 between New Glasgow and Antigonish take note that the next few weeks, when melting snow fills Nova Scotia’s streams but foliage has not yet sprouted on our perennial shrubs, mark the best season for observing this physics-defying natural phenomenon.

Sir Isaac Newton, the inventor of gravity, went to his grave without offering any explanation for it.

From the turn at the bottom of the valley that is Marshy Hope, Uphill Brook runs uphill for about 200 yards (182.88 meters) before disappearing through a culvert under the highway. The spectacle is best appreciated from an eastbound vehicle.

Illness spread by word of mouth


Do wind farms make some people sick? Or do false claims of a connection between wind farms and illness make people sick?

The question arises because opponents of wind farms often contend they cause illness, but scientific studies have consistently found little or no evidence to support such a connection. [This report by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is typical.*]

Now a team of public health researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia has collected every known public complaint of wind farm-induced illness in that country (those filed with the wind companies themselves, those filed with three government commissions, and those collected by an independent council that monitors media reports), and cross-tabulated them against the location, size, startup date, and number of people living within five kilometres of all 41 Australian wind farms.

The results are instructive.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the wind farms, including half of those with large (greater than 1MW) turbines, have never been subject to a single complaint.
  • Kangaroo_crossingThe state of Western Australia, with 13 wind farms, including three with large turbines, has never had a single complaint of turbine-related illness.
  • Of the estimated 32,677 people living within five kilometres of an Australian wind farm, only 120 have ever complained of turbine-related illness — a rate of 1 in 272.
  • Although almost 70% of Australia’s wind farms went into operation before 2009, 82% of the complaints occurred after that date, when wind-farm opponents began to promote warnings about alleged health effects.

The researchers noted:

As anti-wind farm interest groups began to stress health problems in their advocacy, and to target new wind farm developments, complaints grew. Significantly though, no older farms with non-complaining residents appear to have been targeted by opponents. The dominant opposition model appears to be to foment health anxiety among residents in the planning and construction phases. Health complaints can then appear soon after power generation commences. Residents are encouraged to interpret common health problems like high blood pressure and sleeping difficulties as being caused by turbines.

Their conclusion:

In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor, the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are “communicated diseases” with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.

Nocebo was a new one on me. Wikipedia defines it as, “the harmful, unpleasant, or undesirable effects a subject manifests after receiving an inert dummy drug or placebo. Nocebo responses are not chemically generated and are due only to the subject’s pessimistic belief and expectation that the inert drug will produce negative consequences.”

Download the full report here [pdf].

H/T: Stephen Manley

* For other examples, see footnotes 3 to 20 in the University of Sydney study.


The largest glacier calving every filmed

Chasing Ice, a new film from director Jeff Orlowski, follows photographer James Balog’s attempt to catalog the climate change-induced melting of the north polar icecap, using time lapse photography. This scene, the film’s climax, shows the spectacular breakup of a Manhattan-sized chunk of ice from Greenland’s Ilulissat Glacier.

To appreciate the images, click the gear at the lower right edge of the film, and pick the highest resolution your monitor will support. Then view the clip full screen. The trailer for Chasing Ice is here.

H/T: Melanie McGrath

Bottled water ban feedback — Walden Pond division


Contrarian’s friend Gus writes:

In my younger days I used to live in Concord, where the Contrarian spirit runs deep (and perhaps was born). Bronson Alcott, who would not wear wool because it was stolen from sheep, would have recruited Louisa May to the cause. I remain interested in the bruising local politics of these places – it would have been fun to listen to the arguments about P.E.T. bottles at town meeting. Since half the town are M.I.T professors, the lines would have been sharply drawn. The other half, Harvard professors, would have spoken at length and contributed nothing to the discussion. Doris Kearns Goodwin would have told what Lincoln would have done.

Solid waste always figures high in budgetary priorities. Part of the charm of living in a New England town in the days before recycling was the obligatory trip to the dump on Saturday. A dump sticker being required, it was by nature an exclusive activity. In the days before gated communities, it was a social event of significance. Tales were swapped, acquaintances renewed and business transacted. The father of one of my friends would time his visits to coincide with the arrival of the town doctor, so he could get free medical advice. Teens took their dates to the dump to shoot rats (gun culture!).

The Concord dump is immediately adjacent to Walden Pond State Reservation and would be worth a visit, except it is now closed to the public. Concord presently has a fee-based curbside pickup program, and the trash probably goes directly to a regional incinerator/recycle center. As an aside, it would be an interesting project to map the location of the dump in every Massachusetts town. You would find that the dump is typically hard up against the boundary of the neighboring town which is the traditional sports rival. In this case, it is the town of Lincoln. The Lincoln dump is practically in the town of Bedford. There is a hierarchy.

I remember the first appearance of Poland Spring bottled water (in the 1980s?) and being puzzled about the economics of the business. So you pay a dollar for a bottle of something from Maine that the bottler gets for free. You can also get the same stuff for free, right in the kitchen. Why would you pay? Then Perrier got popular, then Dasani. I do believe that water will soon be a scarce resource, so the hint that the controversy in Concord might be about the privatization of water was intriguing. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be, since every other bottled or canned water-based liquid has escaped banishment. Coke, Gatorade and Canada Dry are certainly more than 99% water.

Anyone who pays a dollar for water is committing at least two of the seven sins and will be held to account. It is a folly at least as grievous as putting nitrogen in your tires for $5 each. The free air at the Irving station is 78% nitrogen, and the science of nitrogen inflation is right up there with creationism. Anyone who takes the lessons of The Gods Must Be Crazy to heart will understand.

For convenience, the safety of unbreakability, the ability to freeze the contents for transport to the beach (global warming must be really advanced in Boulardrie) and the status accruing to branded water consumers, Contrarian is permitted to continue his present pattern of use of P.E.T. bottles.

For failing to correctly identify the principal errors in the sale of bottled water – waste and extravagance – the town of Concord is hereby sentenced to recite the sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson.


When eco-trivia overwhelms real threats to the planet

mac-water-bottle-poster-2-webWith so many real and pressing environmental crises threatening to harm Planet Earth, why are so many well-meaning environmentalists so easily diverted into foolhardy projects like the campaign to ban plastic water bottles?

On January 1, the Town of Concord, Massachusetts, prohibited the sale of “non-sparkling, unflavored drinking water in single-serving polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles of 1 liter (34 ounces) or less.” To be clear, it’s still OK to sell small, plastic bottles of Coke, Red Bull, colored sugar-water, and carbonated water, and it’s OK to sell Just Plain Water in 40-oz plastic bottles or gallon jugs.

In an approving report on the ban, the Globe and Mail zeroed in an oft-repeated environmental trope that appears to have its origin in a June, 2007, editorial in the New York Times.

The recommended eight glasses of water a day, at U.S. tap rates, equals about 49 cents a year. The same amount of bottled water costs about $1,400, according to the tap water activist group Ban the Bottle.


  • The recommendation for drinking eight glasses of water per day is quackery, debunked at and many other places.
  • No bottled water defender recommends that people consume water exclusively from bottles, merely that it’s a convenient way to drink water in some circumstances — such as in a car or on a beach, where municipal water taps tend to be scarce.
  • The proposition that bottled water use lowers public support for municipal water supplies (which are all but ubiquitous in North American towns and cities) suffers from an absence of evidence.
  • The Concord, MA, ban wisely omits emergencies when municipal supplies are contaminated or unavailable—unusual, but hardly unheard of events.

For his part, Contrarian drinks many glasses of tap water, but from time to time, he prefers the convenience of a recyclable plastic bottle, whether newly purchased with water inside, or refilled with tap water from his non-municipal bore hole. Sometimes he freezes water in bottles to take to the beach on hot summer days.

When one of these bottles has served its purpose, Contrarian carefully places it in the recycle bin, thereby contributing revenue his rural municipality can use to maintain water systems in places other than Boularderie Island.

He would like the Globe and Mail and the Town of Concord to get off his case.

H/T: JP (who might disagree).

From NASA: 131 years of rising global temperatures in 26 Seconds

“Nine of the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since the year 2000,” reports NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The first years of the new millennium experienced “sustained higher temperatures than in any decade during the 20th century.”

Goddard, which monitors global surface temperatures, compiled the findings into an animation showing global temperature trends since 1885.



The animated map charts differences from the average temperature recorded during a baseline period of 1951-1980. Dark Red zones are two degrees Celsius warmer than the baseline; dark blue are two degrees colder. You can download a copy of the animation here.

The average incremental change is not great — less than a Celsius degree in total — but the upward trend is, shall we say, hard to deny:


Download a much larger version here.

Preview of the cleaned-up Tar Ponds

The Sydney Tar Ponds cleanup is proceeding apace. The final section of the North Pond is now undergoing solidification and stabilization, a process that increases the bearing capacity of the sediments, and reduces their (already low) water solubility. Capping has been completed in the South Pond and large sections of the North Pond. Seeding and sodding are underway.

Here’s how the South Pond looks from soon-to-be-reopened Ferry Street:

Here’s the North Pond, viewed from the Ferry Street Bridge, with the former Sysco crane, now operated by Provincial Energy Ventures, in the background, and Muggah Creek meandering gracefully through the property:

When it reopens on about August 11, the bridge will enable motorists travelling downdown from the area around the Mayflower Mall to avoid Welton and Prince Streets. It is sure to be a popular route. Unfortunately, in what will immediately be obvious as a planning mistake, the connection will dump traffic onto a narrow, residential portion of George Street, putting unwanted pressure on tiny Napean St., as motorists make their way through Sydney’s oldest residential neighborhood to Charlotte St. and The Esplanade.

A better solution would have been to move the crossing one street over, to Dorchester, a broad commercial thoroughfare with direct access to the wide section of George, as well as to Charlotte and The Esplanade.

The 200-meter length of Ferry Street that will receive all this traffic is currently a mess of potholes and rotten asphalt. For reasons known only to themselves, CBRM planners did not take advantage of the three years the bridge was closed to carry out a modest paving job. That work will now either delay the bridge reopening, or create a mess after traffic arrives.

With its bike and pedestrian lane, the reconstructed bridge will serve as a lynchpin in an impressive series of interconnected walking trails, stretching from Whitney Pier to the north and the Coke Ovens to the east, potentially connecting them to an extended version of the harbor boardwalk, and thence to Wentworth Park, and — again potentially — Rotary Park, Membertou, and the Regional Hospital.

How much of this potential will be realized will depend in part on the project’s modest future site use plan, and the cooperation of the Regional Municipality, which has been oddly hostile to walking trails.

The net result will be a transformative asset for Sydney, marking the end of a 30-year nightmare of destructive debate and negative self-marketing.

Has Neal Livingston lost his %$@& mind?

A couple of years ago, a friend and I travelled to Inverness for a celebration honoring the wonderful author and columnist, Frank MacDonald. On the off-chance alcohol might be consumed, we sought lodging at one of the town’s two motels. Our choices were Grim and Grimmer.

Inverness had many charms — spectacular setting, fascinating history, unique culture, magnificent beach — but no economic engine since its coal mines shut down in the 1960s. Boarded up storefronts and seedy hand-painted signs for the few surviving businesses offered silent testimony to the community’s entrenched gloom.

Into this sad civic concoction came Ben Cowan-Dewer and Allie Barclay, a Toronto couple determined to achieve a dream that had eluded Inverness for decades: building a top-notch golf course on the coal-ravaged landscape that separated the down-at-the-heels village from its glorious beach.

In 2008, they moved their family down from Toronto, leaving behind Barclay’s career in finance. They found golf-savvy investors and crackerjack course architects. They assembled 14 parcels of land from various owners. In the depths of the deepest recession since the 1930s, they raised “tens of millions of dollars” to reshape the mine site and build an 18-hole links-style golf course that is winning rave reviews. Canadian Golfer calls Cabot Links, “the best course built in Canada in the last 50 years.” On Canada Day, the New York Times devoted the front page of its Sunday sports section to an article extolling the course as, “a resort-quality, high-end layout designed to be a true links golf course, a boutique category of oceanside golf architecture exceedingly rare outside the British Isles.” The Globe and Mail’s Jane Tabor was equally effusive, as was the Toronto Star.

The course now employs 125 Invernessers — a staggering total in a village of 1,800 souls. If they ever throw another party for Frank MacDonald, out-of-town guests will be able to stay at the architecturally smart, 48-room luxury hotel that overlooks the course. The Robin Donut chain has opened the town’s first drive-through. There’s talk of another hotel, and Cowan-Dewar promises a second 18-hole seaside course, Cabot Cliffs, if the first course attracts 15,000 rounds this season. For the first time in decades, Inverness might just have a future.

This is all terribly upsetting to Neal Livingston. The media-savvy environmental gadfly has been a constant thorn in the side of Cowan-Dewar and Barclay. Last year, he claimed  the developers had reneged on an agreement to maintain a path from the highway to the far end of the town beach, although the parties to that agreement confirm that they worked out a satisfactory alternative path.

Last month, as the course was poised to open amidst a tidal wave of media accolades the likes of which Inverness has never seen, Livingston found another way to pee on the party. He issued a press release berating Nova Scotia’s Minister of Environment for being slow to act on his complaint that the course had damaged the beach.

In fact, officials of the Department of Natural Resources were quick to investigate — and reject — Livingston’s initial claim, although their investigation turned up a different issue: possible encroachment on real estate technically designated as part of the protected beach. You can see the devastating results for yourself in the photo above. (Kidding!)

As part of the links design, Cabot uses natural grasses and native vegetation. It is the least environmentally intrusive golf design possible. It replaces toxic coal mine tailings that had marred the landscape for decades, uncomplained-about by Livingston’s Margaree Environmental Association.

Here’s how golf journalist Robert Thompson viewed the contretemps:

The fascinating thing about the whole debate by a group of people opposed to any advancement in the town of Inverness is that they seem to ignore what they’ve gotten. The so-called “developer,” Cowan-Dewar, is hardly a developer in any traditional sense. Yes, there’s a golf course and a hotel, but this isn’t a huge residential development. And the project uses natural grasses throughout and has done its best to impose as little on the land as it can — its that sort of course. To top it off… the site was largely a remediated mine — and the boardwalk already runs along a sandy dune for several kilometres. I’m not sure how the golf course could do any more damage — or cross the boardwalk…

That’s exactly what a functioning democracy is all about. It’s about some individual opposed to a project making complaints time and again, having them shot down and finding new things to complain about. It is about an individual wasting government time and taxpayer dollars on complaints without merit.

What I find striking is that Livingston could maintain a seasonal residence in nearby Mabou for decades and yet remain indifferent to the desire of those whose ancestors settled this beautiful land in the 19th Century to make a living there in the 21st. Has lost his mind? Probably not, but he appears to have lost all sense of perspective, compassion, and common sense.

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