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City of St. John’s buries environment, again

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Environmental advocacy has always been a big part of my life. I am a lover of the outdoors and my respect for nature feeds my desire to be a good steward. I have been involved in advocacy groups, as a board member of Northeast Atlantic Coastal Action Program (NAACAP) and Friends and Lovers of the Waterford River (FLOW) — two groups that played an instrumental role in the City of St. John’s development of a harbour clean-up action plan. 

Elected as Councillor at Large in the 2009 St. John’s municipal election, I ran on a platform of environmental stewardship by focusing on issues such as waste control, curbside recycling, water systems and the impacts that present and future development will have on the health of our citizens. 

One issue I lobbied heavily against was the use of non-essential pesticides. Earlier arguments from a few contrarian colleagues on council when I repeatedly stood in chambers to solicit support suggested pesticide use was ‘not our jurisdiction’, and therefore not our problem. Hands wiped.

This was truly one of the most frustrating aspects of sitting on council — watching the buck get passed. After years of environmental lobbying, alongside colleagues from the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (CAPNL) and Municipalities N.L., the provincial government felt enough pressure to enact the legislation that banned the use of non-essential pesticides, province-wide.

It was a long time coming but with great determination, we achieved a healthier urban environment.

In chambers, I lobbied for the clean-up of the American dumpsite in White Hills, which falls under federal government jurisdiction. After the base closed the site was never addressed. For more than 60 years, a variety of toxic substances and general landfill garbage sat untouched. After much lobbying and media coverage, the site was eventually remediated by the feds.

Douglas Ballam, formerly of Nature Conservancy of Canada, asked to meet with Councillor Hickman and myself to make council aware of a wetland stewardship contract between Nature Conservancy and the City of St. John’s. It was completely off everyone’s radar. No one even remembered this legal document. Since this time, the City has revisited this agreement and Council is reminded of the wetland’s significance—to waterfowl, in particular—and of the legal agreement to which we are bound.

Who exactly is minding the business of this and other significant wetlands now?

Council’s lack of concern for the environment was apparent back then…

I felt like a lone voice in chamber, questioning why we didn’t have a vehicle to discuss and act on such impacts on our urban environment. It became increasingly obvious that there were a myriad of environmental issues affecting the city that would never be a point of discussion at our Public Works and Environment Committee due to dominating issues of water, sewer, streets infrastructure, and landfill maintenance.

It was not until I repeatedly addressed the lack of a proper avenue through which to discuss environmental issues that the problem came to light. When I brought it to the attention of the City Manager, I was informed that we actually had an environment committee on the books, but somewhere along the line, management and Council ‘forgot’.

The City of St. John’s Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) was then reinstated. I sat as Chair, and the committee was comprised of a dynamic group of diverse and qualified individuals. Revising the committee’s terms of reference was the first point of action so that the environmental issues St. John’s faces today could be appropriately addressed. It wasn’t long before the EAC was tackling the Synod’s Wetland development issue abutting Penney Crescent. Plowing over wetlands—aside from ignoring wetlands’ inherent natural habitat value—always creates undesirable results with neighbourhood flooding potential downstream.

But alas, nothing lasts forever.

With a whole new round of advisory committee revision recommendations—all recently passed by Council—we will see the blending of the Urban Forest Committee and the Environment Committee. The recent budget talks didn’t even have a category that included environmental issues.

And so it goes.

Check out the new advisory committee review and see if you can’t hear the wind slowly going out of the EAC’s sails.

…and little seems to have changed.

I am particularly interested in the review’s terms of reference section, where its first recommendation is a “cooling off” period for former members of council. Hard not to get a little paranoid.

In an Oct. 9 interview with The Telegram’s Daniel MacEachern, Chair of Finance Committee Councillor Danny Breen responded to my concerns by saying—to use MacEachern’s paraphrase—that environmental considerations are woven through all the categories.

“A lot of (issues) are intertwined through the budgets of various departments,” Breen said.

“For example, the shipping of radioactive materials is taken care of through our planning and development regulations, the electric-car issue (council rejected a pilot project to test electric vehicles earlier this year) is part of a fleet-management review that’s done through Public Works… There is a lot of concern for environmental issues, intertwined through the various departments in the city. If you look at open spaces, the open-space master plan we have, the development of the new Kenmount Terrace Park, the revitalization of Victoria Park — they’re issues that are in our parks area, so they wouldn’t be labeled as environmental issues.” 

Breen’s response seems to indicate environmental issues will, once again, be buried in various departments and unlikely to see the light of day, much like I found the situation when first elected to council six years ago. And now there is an effort underway to revert back to the way things were, and even go so far as to take one committee off the books. There will be no category to adequately discuss environmental issues at budgetary talks.  

Garbage clean-up. Photo by Sheilagh O'Leary.
My son during a St. John’s community garbage clean-up. Photo by Sheilagh O’Leary.

Issues such as the American garbage site on White Hills, cosmetic pesticide use, recycling (implemented) and composting, our forgotten membership with Stewardship Association of NL, protection from neighbourhood flooding due to insensitive development, our forgotten legal agreement to protect Lundrigan’s Marsh, and food security have all now been further diminished, and we have even less of a capacity to address them.

It astounds me that Council still has not passed tree development regulations! We have witnessed some horrendous clear-cutting in new development areas that not only impacts beautification, but has a lasting effect upon water retention in soil. Developers can still remove all existing trees and have no city regulations to ensure new ones are properly planted.

It’s shortsighted, anti-sustainable, and City Council is responsible.

City Council, and the present EAC Chair Councillor Dave Lane, owe an explanation to the people of St. John’s: What committee or vehicle will exist to address important environmental issues moving forward? And when will all this information on advisory committee reconstruction be rolled out for the city’s residents?

Further, what form will this proposed combined Urban Forest Committee/EAC take? What will it be called? And what will its mandate be? We must continue to ask these questions until we get answers.

I recently read an article in the Globe & Mail on how cities are taking true leadership on climate change, with progressive mayors like Gregor Robertson of Vancouver leading the way. The article describes how cities are taking on environmental issues and not waiting for someone else to do it for them. We here on the other coast, however, seem determined to keep burying our garbage.

I know we are consumed with federal and provincial politics at present—and rightly so—but never underestimate the power and impact that municipal government has upon our lives.

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