Signs of environmental problems everywhere

First published:
August 14, 2002

Environment Canada announced July was one of the hottest, driest on record. The high temperatures and humidity were almost unbearable. Ontario Hydro pleaded with people to reduce the amount of energy being consumed as many people sought refuge with the help of air conditioning.

But this is only one of a number of signs that should be raising concern both locally and globally.

Then nobody should be particularly surprised to read about the throngs of people who didn’t bother to heed warnings from the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit when it closed local beaches across Northumberland County.

Notices were prominently posted telling swimmers about high levels of bacteria. Anne Alexander, the health unit’s director of environmental health, said bathers were taking a big chance. Ear and eye infections, stomach infections, diarrhea and vomiting are all symptoms related to swimming in bad water. Rashes can also appear and any open wounds can be infected. It may take up to two days before these things appear, she said. Since nobody tracks these subsequent illnesses, we will not know the result of the risk people took.

No doubt, driven by the intense heat over a long holiday weekend, the temptation is great. The health unit has no recourse. Nobody can be fined or throw off the beach. But there is an underlying sentiment behind these actions.

People don’t care.

Environmental issues like contaminated beaches don’t seem to penetrate the average person’s conscience. Sure some people might stay away, but the pictures in the newspapers tell a different story.

One would think after the Walkerton tragedy people would take these kinds of issues more seriously. However, no one is going to die. At least not right away. But people can get sick. Really sick.

It should not take a major crisis like Walkerton to get the public’s attention. The apathy towards the environment is growing.  When Northumberland County council was looking to close landfills and builds its resource recovery plan north of Grafton nearly a decade ago, the pages of this newspaper were filled with stories and letters. There was plenty of debate and everyone was very concerned.

Today, there is little talk. There was a story recently commending the county for its waste plans. Former recycling co-ordinator Mary Little uses Northumberland as an example when she talks to recyclers and municipal leaders around the world about our methods. But there is little political impetus to create a compost facility or expand our current programs to be more inclusive. Again, lots of apathy exists.

Which brings us to the recent Premiers conference, where Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was pushing his counterparts to pressure the federal government not to ratify the Kyoto protocol, a comprehensive plan for global environmental clean up. It includes many aspects, but most importantly air quality. Klein is worried, if Canada signs on, the oil and gas industry in his province will be hurt.

As we have withstood the heat over the past month, it is nothing compared to the drought facing Western Canada. Farmers are saying it is the worst since the days of the dust bowl back in the late 1920s and 30s. Many blame global warming.

Thankfully, not everyone agreed with Klein. Manitoba Premier Gary Doer and Nanuvut Premier Paul Okalik were the most vocal. Ontario Premier Ernie Eves didn’t say much, which is a good sign. This was a significant change in the government’s position. Former Premier Mike Harris often championed Mr. Klein’s efforts on issues.

A failure by the federal government to push forward on the Kyoto Protocol should be of concern to all of us. Big business is placing a lot of pressure on politicians not to ratify the agreement.

The environmental evidence is mounting. The drought in Western Canada is due to the effects of global warming. So are the unseasonable temperatures in the Arctic region. The smog and bad air warning in Ontario are related. The incredible heat waves we are experiencing come back to this, too.

Which brings back to our beaches. Yes, it feels good to go swimming on a super hot day. But we can’t be apathetic any more.

First our municipal leaders need to address the water quality. There is not a peep from any county or township or town politicians when a beach is closed. These are signs of serious environmental issues. The county needs to address this immediately, since the problems, such as run off in local rivers and creeks, often involve many municipalities and not just one.

Next, we should be letting Northumberland MPP Doug Galt know how important it is to fund health units and water testing programs. But money should also be going to the health units to provide some leadership in co-ordinating clean up efforts and improvements. These institutions can do more and apply pressure on municipalities to deal with environmental issues like water pollution.

Finally, Northumberland MP Paul Macklin should know how important the Kyoto Protocol is to residents in the county. Big business should not set environmental policy, Canadians should. Let him know how you feel.

We cannot ignore the signs. Close beaches, smog warning, heat waves, drought are like dominos. As each one falls another is pushed over. There are no quick fixes when it comes to the environment. Let’s not wait until a crisis arrives and there is nothing for us to do.

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