ChinaDialogue, “Eco Pirate” and Great Bear Lake

Today we talk to Isabel Hilton, of ChinaDialogue, a bilingual website about the environment in Chinese and English, to find out more about what kinds of environmental issues and actions are going on and being talked about in China. Then we hit the high seas with a Green Screen review of the film “Eco Pirate,” about Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd. And, in this week’s science short, we visit Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, to find out more about trout, lake diversity and global warming. And, don’t forget the news and this week’s installment of “What’s Happening!”, a segment about upcoming environmental events.

Download this week’s show.

A screen shot of the website, "China Dialogue".

This week, we speak to Isabel Hilton, who is the editor of China Dialogue, a bilingual website about the environment, in English and Chinese.

China Dialogue

China is brought up a lot as a bogeyman in environmental issues. What we don’t often hear about in Canada is what environmental issues are important within China, what people there think about them, and what action they’re taking. Isabel Hilton is the founder and editor of ChinaDialogue, a website that tries to fill that gap. They’re totally unique in tackling coverage of environmental issues that affect China side by side in English and Chinese. Which issues do they dive into, and which are too hot to handle? How has the experience challenged Isabel Hilton herself? Terra Informa’s Chris Chang-Yen Phillips reached her in London to find out.

More on this story:
China Dialogue, The Browser, Isabel Hilton on China’s overseas food footprint

And, from our archives:

Movie Review: Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson

Today David Kaczan brings us a Green Screen Review of Eco-Pirate. This enviro-documentary from Vancouver’s Trish Dolman focuses on Paul Watson, founder and leader of the controversial ocean-going activist group, Sea Shepherd. Is it green screen gold or garbage? To help you decide, here’s our critical take.

Science Short

In this week’s Science Short Rebekah brings us an interview with PhD student Louise Chavarie about her research on Lake Trout in Canada’s biggest freshwater lake. Great Bear Lake is the largest lake that’s fully within our borders and the 7th largest in the world. It’s situated in the Northwest Territories, where it straddles the Arctic Circle. Louise and Rebekah discuss the contribution of lake trout to the diversity of the lake, and the dangers the lake faces in light of a warming arctic.

What’s Happening!

This week on What’s Happening! There is a fundraising dinner and food drive for the 3rd Annual Unis’tot’en Action Camp against proposed and approved mining and pipeline projects in Wet’suwet’en territory, near Smithers, BC.

News Headlines

Canada has been ranked eleventh out of twelve in an international energy efficiency study conducted by the non-profit, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).
More on this story: PR Newswire, CBC, ACEEE

A pilot project started by the city of Kamloops has a herd of 440 goats being used as weed control.
More on this story: National Post, CTV, JARQ

A study released this week focused on the potential of Iron fertilization to sink CO2.
More on this story: Nature, Google, Live Science

An iceberg roughly 120 square kilometers, or about twice the size of Manhattan, broke off of the Petermann glacier earlier this week.
More on this story: Tree Hugger, Guardian, National Post

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Living Batteries & Urban Coyotes

This week on Terra Informa, we hear about the changing Arctic, how to make a body into a battery, and what coyotes are up to in Canada’s cities. We bring you an exclusive interview with renowned Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier on how changes in the Arctic are affecting Inuit people. Then we talk to researchers trying to harness the battery potential of living bacteria — and people. Plus, a Science Short on the Edmonton Urban Coyote Project.

Download this week’s episode.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, wearing glasses in front of a banner that reads "Energy"

This week’s guest Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Photo credit: Robert J Galbraith

Sheila Watt-Cloutier
Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a Canadian activist, teacher, and advocate for indigenous rights. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work drawing attention to the human rights impacts of climate change. With a focus on solutions, Watt-Cloutier discusses the realities of the Arctic, where Inuit today face profound challenges to their environment, their economy, their health and their cultural well-being. Because her Inuit culture faces the most extreme challenges of globalization, Watt-Cloutier speaks from firsthand experience — and couples that with her extensive experiences as a global leader. Today Marcus Peterson brings us an exclusive interview with Sheila Watt-Cloutier.

Living Batteries
Tired of having to charge your cell phone everyday? Scientists are now working on biofuel batteries that can run off glucose produced by bacteria — or your own body. Brett Tegart brings us more on the story.

Urban Coyotes
Urban coyotes are a growing issue across North America.  In the last two decade urban populations have sprung up in cities including Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.  Now city residents are having to learn how to coexist alongside these opportunistic carnivores.  The Edmonton Urban Coyote Project is a multi-faceted study of coyotes based out of the University of Alberta. Their goal is to collect information on the movement, habitat selection and diet of coyotes, as well as the knowledge and perceptions of residents. Maureen Murray is a masters student working on the project and today she tells us about their work.

News Headlines

Highway construction threatens drinking water
Residents of Wakefield, Quebec, near Ottawa, are fearful they may lose a key source of drinking water. Construction crews working to expand a provincial highway are in the process of excavating a sand formation that has been identified as a source of the town’s spring. Quebec’s Ministry of the Environment ordered a halt to the work in May, and has since issued two violation notices to the construction company, but throughout the week a steady stream of trucks continued to remove material from the site. Locals are now calling on the Ministry of Transportation, which hired the company, to step in and put a stop to the excavation before it’s too late.

Read more: Ottawa Citizen, CBC, The Lowdown Online

Australia to protect 40% of marine waters
Right in time for the United Nation’s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development next week, the Australian government announced that they plan on protecting a world-record breaking 40% of their territorial waters. By more than doubling the number of marine reserves from 27 to 60, the network of protected areas would cover an area the size of India. The plan includes a moratorium on all new mining projects from taking place and partial protection from commercial fishing in the Coral Sea which adjoins the threatened Great Barrier Reef. A declaration on the reserves from Australia’s minority Labour government is expected before the end of the year. Canada currently has less than 1 percent of its ocean areas protected.

Read more: New York Times, Guardian, Wall Street Journal

Opposition to closure of Experimental Lakes Area
Opposition to the federal government’s decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area is growing. Former Liberal PMs John Turner and Paul Martin, and Mulroney-era cabinet minister Tom Siddon, are among 70 signatories on a full-page ad in support of the ELA that ran last weekend in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Globe and Mail. The ad was was placed by the Coalition to  Save ELA, a group founded by Diane Orihel, a scientist at the University of Alberta. The group has collected more than 11,000 signatures on a parliamentary petition that calls on the government to continue providing the funds to keep the world renowned facility open.

Read more: Coalition to Save ELA, CBC, Vue Weekly

Shell Canada pleads guilty
Shell Canada has plead guilty to charges laid by Environment Canada for releasing harmful substances into the Peace River in Northern Alberta. The company was charged under the federal Fisheries Act for allowing the deposit of over 12,000 litters of sodium bisulphate into the river in August of 2009. Sodium Bisulphate is a common food additive that was being used at Shell’s Peace River oil sands facility to remove oxygen from water to prevent pipeline corrosion. However, sample analysis conducted on the chemical determined that it is harmful to fish. The company was fined $22,000 for the offense and was also ordered to pay over $200,000 to the Environmental Damages Fund. The Fisheries Act is one of the pieces of legislation now subject to proposed changes by the federal government through the anticipated passing of Bill C-38.

Read more: Newswire, Global

Mosquito-fighting bacteria
Mosquito season is upon us. This summer city workers in Lethbridge, Alberta will be keeping mosquitoes populations down using a bacterium called Bti. Found naturally in soil, Bti or Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies israelensis, has been used worldwide since 1982 as a biological pest control agent to combat mosquitoes and black flies. It is used in areas that accumulate water. The BTi bacterium works by producing a protein crystal which is toxic only to mosquito and black fly larvae.

Read more: Health Canada, City of Lethbridge, National Center for Biotechnology Information

Road sealant spill in Saskatoon
For this week’s Oil Leak of the Week, we’re going to Saskatchewan for a spill of oil-based road sealant material that leaked into the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon. Environmental Services manager Brenda Wallace was alerted to a glob of tar-like material on a sandbar last Thursday. The bitumen emulsion, an water-insoluble oil-based product, is used to seal cracks in roads and, according to Wallace, poses little threat to the local flora or fauna. Cleanup crews used booms to contain the spill and continued throughout the night. The amount of sealant released and the source were not yet determined.

Read more: Saskatoon Homepage, The StarPhoenix

Music, Birding, and Melting Permafrost

Today a musician, a birder, and an Arctic ecologist take us on a whirlwind tour of three very different branches of environmental work.  We start off in Kitchener with Richard Garvey who tells us about the environmental and social justice inspirations for his music, then on to Penticton where Dick Cannings explains how to get involved with this week’s Great Backyard Bird Count, and we finish up in Austin, Texas where Dr. Craig Tweedie fills us in on the complex feedback between climate change and melting permafrost. All that and more, on today’s Terra Informa.

Download this week’s show.

A young snowy owl. Photo by Floyd Davidson.

Musician Richard Garvey
The world of contemporary folk music defies clear definitions or explanations. From the birth of sub-sub-genres to use of non-traditional instruments, it has exploded into a borderless menagerie of noise and ideas. However, some would argue that you can’t improve on timeless inspiration. Richard Garvey is a born-and-raised Ontarian whose modest discography echoes a generation of youth that longs for environmental justice and social change. You can hear more of Richard’s music here.

Great Backyard Bird Count
Whether you live in the heart of the city, out in the country, or on the Arctic coast, birds bring a little sunshine into the winter months. This week bird watchers are teaming up for one of North America’s largest bird counts, but this isn’t an event that’s limited to professionals. From seasoned experts to novices, Canadians are breaking out the binoculars to help scientists better understand where birds are found and how their distributions change with time. Dick Cannings is one of the organizers of the Great Backyard Bird Count and he fills us in on what’s happening.

The Arctic’s “Carbon Bomb”
Evidence of climate change is mounting from across the globe, but nowhere is it more apparent than at the poles.  Permafrost in the Tundra is an important carbon store, but unfortunately, once it melts it may release that carbon into the atmosphere triggering a positive feedback loop.  Dr. Craig Tweedie from the University of Texas at el Paso, calls this the Arctic’s Carbon Bomb.  He studies changes to Tundra vegetation and the interactions between plants and animals in the Arctic and he spoke to Terra Informa about his findings.

News Headlines
Go West. That’s the message Canada’s population is taking, according to the 2011 census. The figures just released by Statistics Canada from last year’s census show that for the first time since Confederation, more people live west of Ontario than east of it. The economic boom in the prairie provinces has of course been fuelled by natural resource industry growth, especially in oil and gas. That’s helped push up fertility rates and migration to the prairies from other parts of the country. Alberta was the fastest-growing province from 2006. Alberta’s population rose 10.8 percent to over 3.6 million residents. That’s almost double the national average. Calgary’s mayor Naheed Nenshi told Postmedia that the overheated economy has left his city dealing with some big challenges tackling labour shortages and managing so much growth. He said those are challenges other cities would probably kill to have, though.

More on this story: Statistics Canada, Vancouver Sun, Alberta Oil MagazineGlobe and Mail

In Nova Scotia, Millbrook First Nation’s new wind farm is going to be a 21st-century expression of their culture’s values, says band Chief Lawrence Paul. The three-turbine project was just approved as part of Nova Scotia’s renewable power subsidy program. The Community Feed-in Tariff – or COMFIT – program offers higher-than-market rate contracts for power from locally-based renewable energy projects. The Millbrook band’s wind farm is the first COMFIT agreement with a Mik’maq First Nation in the province. When it’s running in 2013 or 14, it will generate 6 MW of power, or enough electricity to power hundreds of homes. The Town of New Glasgow and the Halifax Regional Water Commission also got approval for small wind projects this month. Nova Scotia is aiming to generate 25 percent of its electricity through renewable power by 2015, and 40 percent by 2020.

More on this story: Chronicle Herald, Truro Daily NewsNova Scotia Dept of Energy – Feed in Tariffs

Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck spoke at this year’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland about his work to help assess global water issues with the 2030 Water Resources Group. That work is part of the reason the University of Alberta has announced he will receive one of three honourary degrees on March 1st for his efforts in water management. That’s put the university president under a load of criticism, since Nestlé is a major promoter of water privatization, and the world’s largest producer of bottled water. Amy Kaler, a sociology professor at the U of A, is one of the faculty members speaking out against the decision. She pointed out that Nestlé’s reputation is extremely poor in many places in the global South like Laos. NGOs said in 2011 that Nestlé broke World Health Organization rules for marketing breast milk substitutes by advertising its products in Laos to nursing mothers. Many studies have shown that in poorer countries, children fed baby formulas are much more likely to die of malnutrition and infectious diseases because of lack of access to clean water, and poor instructions for preparation. The honourary degree ceremony on March 1st honouring Peter Brabeck will be followed by a panel discussion with the two other recipients being recognized for their work on water issues.

More on this story: Edmonton Journal, University of Alberta News, IRIN News

Researchers from Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute have drilled down to an ancient ice-covered lake in Antarctica. Lake Vostok is believed to have been sealed off from the atmosphere for about 15 million years. Drilling through the ice sheet above Lake Vostok began over 20 years ago. It’s the same ice sheet that gives us the Vostok ice cores, some the most important artifacts of ancient carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. The project was delayed several years in the 2000s by redesigns to make sure the drilling equipment did not contaminate whatever ecosystem might exist in the underground lake. Researchers were not sure they’d reach the water’s surface before they had to fly out of the research station on February 6. With their samples finally in hand, the team hopes to learn whether the cold, high-pressure environment allows any nutrients or life to survive, and what similar oceans on Jupiter’s moon Europa might look like.

More on this story: BBC News, Nature, Sydney Morning Herald, Newsday, Announcement by Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (in Russian)

Arcitc Issues Montage

We revisit the best of our reporting from the last year on arctic issues, along with updates and recent developments on these stories.

Download this week’s show.

Photo courtesy The Canadian Travel Guide

Hydroelectric Controversy in Labrador and the Arctic Carbon Bomb

This week on Terra Informa correspondent David Kaczan investigates the proposal for a hydroelectric project on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador. Rebekah Rooney talks with Dr. Craig Tweedie from the University of Texas at el Paso about what he calls the arctic’s Carbon Bomb. And Brett Tegard looks into composting human waste using fungi. But as always to start off the show we have this week’s news headlines with Tasneem Karbani and Steve Andersen.

Download this week’s show.

Mycena leaiana in Tasmania, Australia. Photo by JJ Harrison.

News Headlines

2,4-D Ban in Quebec

In Quebec, a legal case between the province and Dow AgroSciences has been settled. Dow sought 2 million dollars in damages stemming from the province’s 2006 ban on the cosmetic use of the company’s week killer 2,4-D. In the settlement, Quebec acknowledged that the chemical is safe, provided it is used as directed and Dow agreed to drop its claim for monetary damages. Quebec does not plan to change its legislation, saying that the chemical is unnecessary. (Globe & Mail, Manitoba Co-operator)

New TTC Trains

The Toronto Transit Commission launched its new line of subway trains last week, dubbing them the Toronto Rocket. They’re designed to be faster and more reliable while carrying 10% more passengers than the current system. The new trains are part of an expansion to the subway system that will extend it 8 km to the York Region. The vehicles were built in Thunder Bay by Bombardier and begin regular service in June. (CBC, CTV Toronto)

NDP Shadow Cabinet

Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan is no longer critic for the environment in the new cabinet announced by Jack Layton. Duncan’s new post will be as the official opposition critic for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Halifax MP Megan Leslie, the former health critic, is the new environment critic taking over from Duncan. She will be facing off against Environment Minister Peter Kent on environmental issues. (CBC, Globe & Mail, First perspective, INews 880)

Enbridge Pipeline

Senior bureaucrats have told the federal government that the export capacity is one that Canadian industry does not need. The critique was part of a federal environmental evaluation from Natural Resources Canda. The document also noted the rising public opposition to Enbridge’s proposed project and concerns about potential oil spills. The documents were released last week after an Access to Information request from the Toronto-based research group Environmental Defense. ( Vancouver Sun, The Province, Financial Post)

Langley Decision

A small conservation group and one of its members that sought to protect a fish habitat witnessed a victory last week as the BC Supreme Court dismissed a mulit-million dollar damage claim against them. The Glen Valley Watersheds Society and two individuals had been sued after speaking out about concerns over a landfill application in Aldergrove. The concern was that the landfill would have a negative impact on the fish-bearing streams nearby. The total claim from the landowner against the parties was $13 million. Justice Catherine Bruce of the BC Supreme Court concluded that the claimant had greatly exaggerated the statements made by the respondents and fabricated other allegations. ( Vancouver Sun, BC local News )

Proposed Hydroelectric Project on the Lower Churchill River in Labrador

One of the few environmental issues on the table in the recent federal election was a proposal for a hydroelectricity project on the Lower Churchill River, in Labrador. And although it does promise huge amounts of carbon free electricity, much of it for export, some people in Labrador are pretty concerned about the environmental impacts of such a megaproject. Correspondents David Kaczan and Dana Harper investigate.

The Arctic’s Carbon Bomb

Evidence of climate change is mounting from across the globe, but nowhere is it more evident than around the poles.  Permafrost in the Tundra is an important carbon store, but unfortunately, once it melts it may release that carbon into the atmosphere triggering a positive feedback loop.  Dr. Craig Tweedie from the University of Texas at el Paso, calls this the arctic’s Carbon Bomb!  He studies changes to Tundra vegetation and the interactions between plants and animals in the Arctic.  Last week he gave a talk on his research at the University of Alberta, where Terra Informa correspondent Rebecca Rooney caught up with him.

Composting Human Waste Using Fungi

When most people think of natural garbage disposal, they think of composting. Composting works exceedingly well in the natural world; organic material can be quickly broken down and recycled back into the soil. But when human waste is too toxic to be composted, the cleanup can be long and difficult. Today, Brett Tegart takes a look at the development of a new solution to repairing environmental damage: using mushrooms to eliminate pollution.

The Promise of Thermal Solar Power & Activist and Educator Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Solar thermal power tower


This Week’s Show

Today we have an exclusive interview with Order of Canada recipient and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier. She explains the impact of climate change on Arctic communities and the challenge of creating political change. We also take a look at biodiversity, and why more than just the number of species in an area is important. And to finish things off, we have an in depth look at thermal solar power. These days most people’s attention is focused on solar voltaics, but collecting heat directly from sun light shows enormous potential and all over the world solar thermal power plants are beginning to pop up.

Download this week’s show.

News Headlines

1) Total Upgrader Approved

On September 16th, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board issued its decision on the TOTAL application for a 300,000 barrel per day oil sands upgrader in Strathcona county. The ERCB, in its 62-page decision report, has conditionally approved the application for the upgrader, despite Alberta Environment’s cumulative effects framework which seems to have little teeth in managing the air and watershed’s in the industrial heartland area.

The conditions placed on the approval include; achieving a sulphur recovery rate of 99.5 percent within six months of project commencement, conducting a full-scale emergency response exercise prior to project start-up, submitting an emergency response plan, conducting a number of sound monitoring plans and surveys and ensure that the construction of the upgrader begins by 2016.

The decision report also included a number of recommendations to Alberta Environment around monitoring plans and data gathering, allowing the ERCB to wipe their hands of those responsibilities. This highlights the disconnection between the ERCB and Alberta Environment in their approval processes.

The decision comes in the face of significant resistance from local land owners, who believe that the approval should incorporate the community standards for downstream and emergency evacuation procedures, and not just the ERCB’s.

The members of Citizens for Responsible Development live within 20 kilometers of the proposed site and opposed the project at the public hearing held in June of this year with concerns over health impacts, air pollution, risks to water supply, light and noise pollution and land use.

2) Canada’s Freshwater Supply in Decline

A new report from statistics Canada has reported on the freshwater supply and demand of Canada, with some troubling results. It shows that Canada’s renewable freshwater supply has dropped dramatically over the last three decades in the heavier populated areas in the country.

The report indicated that since 1971 the water yield in Southern Canada has decreased  by 8.5 percent. The annual absolute decrease in water supply is equivalent to the volume supplied to residential consumers each year.

The prairies in particular were impacted significantly, which showed to have the lowest water yield and highest variability in water yield.

The report also indicated that 90% of withdrawn water volumes were used to support industrial and commercial activities. Most of those volumes were consumed by the thermal electric power generation industry. Only 9 percent of withdrawn volumes were used by the residential sector and 56 percent of that volume was supplied by utility water systems.

The report may be hard to stomach during the current period of high precipitation in Alberta, however it is clear that this indicates an increasing issue of water supply for Canada on a whole.

According to the Calgary Herald, John Pomeroy – director of centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan – indicated that it is clearly climate warming. “As Canada warms, evaporation generally increases due to shorter winters” Pomeroy said in an email. He went on to say that across the Prairie Provinces, ground water and pond levels have dropped for most of the last 25 years and the great lakes have seen more ice free periods and longer evaporation periods.

3) New Environmental Charges Against Suncor

Suncor is facing environmental charges for the third time in just over two years.

The oilsands company faces nine charges because it allegedly failed to comply with its Water Act licence and approval and for providing misleading information to Alberta Environment about stormwater run-off at its Voyageur upgrader site.

In 2008, the company also faced a charge for failing to provide information to Alberta Environment about a contravention.

It’s not surprising that Alberta Environment would aggressively pursue charges against a company that failed to provide it with information, which is a cornerstone of their compliance system, said Cindy Chiasson, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre.

“Generally speaking, pieces around timely reporting, failing to report and validity of information, that’s the kind of thing Alberta Environment tends to pursue pretty vigorously because their system all ties around industry self-monitoring and self-reporting,” she said. “So if you’ve got sliding there, then to some extent the system all falls apart.”

Chiasson said Alberta Environment’s track record shows that when multiple charges are laid they will ensure that if there is a plea bargain that there are guilty pleas on the company’s failure to report.

Suncor says that in both cases there were fairly complex regulatory processes in play. Spokesman Brad Bellows said they believed they were in compliance with the regulations at the time, therefore did not provide the regulator with a report saying they were not in compliance. “Our belief was that we were on side.”

Suncor’s first court appearance on the current charges is set for Nov. 3 in Fort McMurray.


1) Sheila Watt-Cloutier on the reality of climate change in the Arctic

Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a Canadian activist, teacher, and advocate for indigenous rights. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work drawing attention to the human rights impacts of climate change. With a focus on solutions, Sheila Watt-Cloutier  brings us to the realities of the Arctic, where Inuit today face profound challenges to their environment, their economy, their health and their cultural well-being. The challenges they face are clearly connected to the industries we support, the disposable world we have become, and the non-sustaining policies we create. Because her Inuit culture faces the most extreme challenges of globalization, Watt-Cloutier speaks from firsthand experience and couples that with her extensive experiences as a global leader. Drawing upon her ancient culture, and speaking from a position of strength, not victimhood, she helps audiences find common ground. Terra Informa correspondent Marcus Peterson gives us an exclusive interview with Watt-Cloutier while she came through Edmonton recently for a presentation entitled, “Everything is Connected: Environment, Economy, Foreign Policy, Sustainability, Human Rights and Leadership in the 21st Century”.

2) Ecobabble: What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is a term we hear a lot, but there’s more to it than simply the number of species in a particular area.  Rebecca Rooney defines the term for us in this week’s ecobabble.

3) Solar thermal power

The most important supplier of energy for earth is the sun. The whole of life depends on the sun’s energy.  It is the starting point for the chemical and biological processes on our planet.  At the same time solar radiation is the most environmentally friendly form of all energies –all life on earth already adapted to its abundance- and it can be used in many ways that we have not yet begun to explore. This week, Brett Tegart looks at solar thermal forms of power generation and how they can change the way we look at electricity both on earth and in orbit.