I was reminded this week of a scene in the movie Erin Brockovich, the story of how a feisty legal clerk from a small law firm helps to secure one of the biggest class action settlements in legal history. The wells in Hinkley, California had been contaminated with hexavalent chromium by the Pacific Gas and Electric company. Their lawyer, Ms. Sanchez, had been downplaying the severity of the community’s medical concerns. As their meeting progressed, she was about to drink a glass of water when Brockovich told her, “By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley.” Ms. Sanchez declined.
I kept wishing that Erin Brockovich had been there at the table with Brian Kynoch, president of Imperial Metals, as he proclaimed that the water downstream of the Mount Polley tailings pond spill “already almost meets drinking water standards.” I wish that same water could be served up at a roundtable of all the industrial CEO’s who are extracting and profiting from Canada’s natural resources. To all of the Ministers of the Environment. To our municipal leaders as they meet with developers. And especially to the Federal Caucus and the PMO.
I’d like to tell them: “It’s almost drinking water quality. We had it specially brought in for you folks from Hazeltine Creek.” Ah, perchance to dream.
We could just as easily have brought in water for those folks from Lake Erie where 400,000 people in the City of Toledo were held hostage by blue-green algae blooming in the effluent of agricultural fertilizer and manure run-off into a warming Great Lake. Or anywhere downstream from the industrial tar sands development along the Athabasca River watershed. Or the Kalamazoo River where the Enbridge pipeline burst. The list goes on.
It usually takes that perfect storm of circumstances to wake us up. Whether it is a record salmon run threatened by a toxic spill, or the drinking water of the city of Toledo, we suddenly sit up and take notice for a few days, at least until some celebrity’s death takes it off the front pages.
Sometimes people are just greedy stupid. Others would argue that our Canadian environmental regulations have been so severely gutted by “Our Government™” over the last nine years that something similar could easily occur with Keystone XL or Northern Gateway or Enbridge Pipeline 9. The people whose watersheds are adjacent to those projects know it all too well. And they don’t usually make up the 1% of the population who approves and profits from those projects.
In the twenty-first century, we have suddenly realized that we are all downwind and downstream of everything that happens on this planet. These disasters remind us daily that the environment is everything that surrounds us, everything with which we interact, everything that we are. To paraphrase a former political campaign manager, “It’s the environment, stupid.”
It is time to wake up, to get the full attention of our elected representatives and industrial leaders, and to demand that the quality of our water, air, and land is protected before a major ecosystem collapse changes the happy ending we are promising our children.
There was no fairy tell ending for the town of Hinkley, currently a ghost town in the making, and I doubt there will be a Hollywood ending for the salmon heading to Hazeltine Creek.
In the end, we are all swimming upstream just hoping to get home safely.