Every so often we have a day that will stay in our minds and hearts for a long time, perhaps forever. Last Saturday was such a day for me.
I met the Minas Passage in Nova Scotia for the first time, and then too some pretty great people. We talked, and we talked…. and we talked.
We floated around in a small but pretty comfortable boat for hours. The Minas Passage, and what we saw and learned there, were what I will refer to as a giant sized sample of what is really great and what is really wrong with Nova Scotia.
Just as a backgrounder, Nova Scotia has been trying to harness the power of the tides in the Bay of Fundy, and in the Minas Passage, for 108 years. Many governments, companies and academics have come and gone, immersed in the deep desire to make those tides a powerhouse. And it is a good idea. A very good idea. An energy source that doesn’t need to be drilled or dragged out of the earth, that won’t contaminate our water supplies or leave massive gaping scars behind. It won’t pollute the air we breath. But it will only work if it is done right and for the right reasons.
Because Nova Scotia’s governments have a habit of chasing the bigger is better ideology and because those massive gaping scars are already very present, there is always going to be great concern about the way we are going about trying to get this tidal energy thing working. Corporations and government continue to bully their way through these projects, causing themselves, as well as the environment, more harm than good. We also know that once something is in place, it never gets shut down, no matter what damage it causes. A “test” turbine has existed – and provided power – in the mouth of the Annapolis River since 1984. Reports of fish kills at this facility have existed just as long. A strain of striped bass has been completely wiped out. But the Power Corp and Department of Fisheries and Oceans, have ignored, or even denied these ongoing fish kills, until just recently, when they just could not play ignorant anymore. Our Provincial Government happily says it’s outside their jurisdiction.
For the past several years, we have been paying close attention to instream turbine development. In 2016, an Open Hydro turbine project was approved for testing in the Passage. There was a lot of controversy and debate about what damage the turbine will do to the marine species who rely on the Minas Passage, based on the turbine’s location, design, and size. And a lot of the controversy was caused by the proponents themselves. You see, they claimed there were very few species who would be using that area, or implied fish would know they should go around it. But the fishermen who have been fishing in the area, for a very long time, knew differently and were demanding proper baseline studies. This causes great concern for them; for their industry and their livelihood of course, but also because they care deeply about the Bay of Fundy and the Minas Basin. Rather than do their due diligence and require complete studies and really seek out facts and baselines on the area, the Government of Nova Scotia sided with the proponent, adopting their assertions and then saying the data could be gathered while a turbine was “tested”. There would be monitoring in place. Remember a “test” turbine has been killing fish in the Annapolis River for 34 years, so you can understand where the fishermen are coming from.
In 2016, the first turbine was deployed, and then removed a little more than 6 months later. Then a second turbine was deployed in July 2018. During the first deployment, the monitoring equipment never worked properly, and some was installed incorrectly, so never was going to provide any real data. This information was never revealed until months later, since in Nova Scotia, it is standard practice for corporations to only report months later. On everything they are doing, especially when it comes to the environment. And then there was a mass fish kill, where tens of thousands of fish died, starting the very same day the turbine was “officially” connected to the grid. Herring were showing up en masse all around Scots Bay and in other areas. And then, other species of fish were turning up on beaches in the area as well.
The Government could not say what was killing the fish, asserting there were no viruses or bacterial issues, but they knew it wasn’t man made. Hmmmm. To this day, there are plenty of people who believe the turbine did cause the fish to die, and I could rehash the theories – noise, electromagnetism, etc, but for now, let’s just say, I am not sure I believe anything the government says anymore. And I am not alone. The turbine was supposedly generating enough power to supply 500 homes according to the politicians and spin doctors. But…. months later, it was disclosed only enough power to supply about 4 homes was generated.
The turbine deployed in July of this year caused immense controversy again. The deployment came weeks earlier than the fishermen expected it, before lobster season was over for the region. And the transport of the turbine from Saint John into the Minas Passage was caught on video, running over lobster traps, destroying their buoys and cutting their lines. At the time, it was just deemed to be a continued disregard for the fishing industry by this member of the energy industry, since there was any easy way to prevent all of this upset. Communication and cooperation were always on the table, but without warning the turbine came barrelling into town. And it only got worse from there. The day after it was connected to the grid, the company that built and owns the turbine, became insolvent. And their parent company were pulling out of tidal stream, effective immediately… The Open Hydro staff packed their stuff up and got out of town in a hurry.
And this brings me to my visit to the Minas Passage.
The spokesman for the fishermen in this ongoing concern is Darren Porter. I met Darren a couple of years ago when I first started working on the ‘nim-bē project, and from our first meeting he has always been a great source of information and history on not only the fishing industry, but tidal energy, the legends and the history of the Bay of Fundy. Last week, we were talking about the turbine and the latest news around moneys that were owed to local companies, and the corruption tied to this issue, and tied to many of the issues we face in Nova Scotia. We decided we should see if we could organize a round table discussion. Darren said we should do it sitting over the Turbine, in the Minas Passage. And we both agreed…. bring Joan Baxter and Don Bowser. Within 15 minutes we were organized. A plan was made and Darren was good enough to invite Mary MacPhee (former FORCE facility manager) to come along as well.
So Darren and I set out from our side of the Minas Basin, taking a scenic and legend rich tour past places like Blue Beach, Boat Island, Cape Blomidon. We saw seals swimming, birds on the beaches, so many rock formations, caves and landscapes; it was just simply awe inspiring. And the diversity of the area we covered didn’t stop changing as we crossed the Minas Passage. Darren told me I was very lucky to be crossing that day, at that time, as the water was very calm and smooth. He warned me going back would likely not be so smooth. We crossed from Blomidon to Partridge Island. And on both shores, as we passed the mountainous cliffs and beaches, I couldn’t help but feel I was blessed to be there. I was immediately in love with this part of Nova Scotia that I had never experienced before. Photos simply do not do it justice. And I know I will return with my family in tow. This just has to be shared.
As we travelled along too, Darren pointed out the various sites from the Legends of Glooscap that he has been sharing with me for a couple of years. Glooscap’s camp site, his face that can be seen from different vantage points, Partridge Island, heaven to the Mi’kmaq and Glooscap’s grandmother’s campsite. He stopped and let me take pictures and video. It was a five star tour to be sure.
As we rounded Partridge Island, a weir was on the other side, that belonged to another fisher I have met. And Joan and Don were waiting for us on the beach. They came aboard along with Mary who arrived shortly after. And we immediately headed toward the FORCE (Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy) site.
First we pulled in close to the shore, near where the cable that links the turbine to the grid comes ashore. On the beach there we saw the frame for the turbine’s monitoring platform, stripped of any equipment. That device was supposedly put in the water only a day before to provide monitoring of the turbine that was spinning and churning under water, waiting for its owners to find it a new family or find the funds to pull it out. But if the frame is sitting on the beach, there is certainly no monitoring going on under water.
We also noted a number of people at the Force Visitor Centre came outside when we arrived at the shore, to look at us from the observation area. I found that funny. Members of the general pubic would not likely be interested enough in a small boat at the shore to pour outside like that, and it was a Saturday, so… not usual business hours. I looked online to see if they were open and there is very little information on visitor hours…. come by chance is an actual option for those interested, and Tourism Nova Scotia still has Mary MacPhee listed as the contact, 8 months after she left the organization. They certainly kept an eye on us as we puttered around looking and talking about the area.
Then we worked our way out toward the turbine site. Darren went live on Facebook (Parts 1 and 2) and we started talking. He gave a backgrounder on the tidal issue. We introduced ourselves. And the conversation went from there. This tidal energy fiasco is like a carbon copy of every other big and oversized venture the Province of Nova Scotia gets itself involved in. Different project, different set of politicians, but as sure the seasons repeat themselves, so too do the cycles of hyped up anticipation and the ensuing and easily predictable failure of big projects in Nova Scotia.
First, the pubic hears about a great big idea, that has sparkle and shine plastered all over it. It will solve our economic issues, it will create thousands of jobs, it will save us money, it will benefit everyone, rural Nova Scotia will flourish, it’s green (or at least clean…er). The lobbyists will tell us the Province is suffering by not moving forward with their plan.
After the big sales pitch is thrown out there to see what the response will be, you either hear nothing, for a good long time, or there’s a flurry of public meetings and consultation. Now, those public meetings are information sessions, where they share what they want you to know, but nothing else. Most of the time it is hugely technical, boring and intended to overwhelm or numb the audience. Or it offers no insight into the actual project, just trumpets the big win for the province. They are always proud and excited about all the wonderful this will bring to the province. The government doesn’t come to these sessions, because they don’t want to answer questions, or even actually hear the questions because then they would have to acknowledge these concerns exist. So the corporate reps or their hired “consultants” meet the public at these events and if you have questions they didn’t script answers to, they’ll “get back to you”. Most times, the questions are so basic and what one might expect to be answered at such a meeting, that the lack of answers add to the apprehension. The proponents have taken to having stations and displays with team members dealing with small groups and individuals. They don’t like holding actual meetings anymore, where an audience sees and hears all the same information at the same time, or hears everyone else’s questions being asked. God forbid the masses hear all the issues, if they can keep you limited in your scope of awareness. Your submissions are disregarded, characterized as uninformed, or quite often without proof, irrelevant.
When the public steps up the level of opposition or frustration, the next step is to disparage and demean them. And this tends to be a team effort. Sometimes it is targeted, and other times wide spread. They will try to take out the main voice. And they will wear down the larger groups. The government steps in touting their regulations and saying enforcement will apply. Government staff are actually offended to think the public doubts their integrity, bless their souls. They will talk to you through the media, which is actually their method of talking to everyone else about how selfish, or silly or closed minded you are. They call their opposition names. Nimby. Radical. Professional protesters. Bored housewives. Whatever the proposal is, it is the same set of claims and tactics for every industry. Divide and conquer. Demean and Disparage. Diminish and demoralize.
During these “consultations” the public think the project is still in the talking phase, however, work has already begun. NSE, Energy, Natural Resources are helping the proponents write and rewrite their proposals, taking as many objections as they can imagine into consideration. By the time the public finds out, it is already a done deal. Sometimes there will be a delay, disguised as reviewing public concerns, or due to a political election, but the deal was drawn up months or even years before and the Minister will state that she considered the fishermen’s concerns, or the issues cited do not apply to this project or the department’s authority, or maybe she will suggest that additional “mitigation” measures have been added to the approval document. Heaven help me, I hate that word…. mitigation. How about a little prevention for a change?
You will also hear the Minister talk about “stakeholder” consultation. Never does that term include the biggest stakeholder of all. The public. The taxpayers. The local population. And in the case of tidal turbines and pulp mill effluent, the fishers. We, who have the most at stake, are a nuisance. Stakeholders in the government’s eyes are related industries, other corporations, investors, their friends. The public don’t exist.
A couple of years ago, after the Province funded the MIT 9 Elite (9 b – millionaires and top executives, who didn’t need our money and didn’t have our blessing) to attend an entrepreneurship seminar, they promoted their learning via newspapers and a website. That was an eye opening moment to be sure, when it became apparent through infographic clarity who the stakeholders are. Right there in their pictures was the absence of the public in their formula. It also provided a broader audience some motivation to understand the corporatization of not only the government, but also the universities and colleges in the province. While corporate funding is a great thing, it does not come without conditions.
Being a stakeholder means more than just worrying about impacts. Our tax dollars are used to fund projects through grants and rebates. We pay to upgrade our roads to accommodate their transportation and access. We pay for the clean up after things go wrong. One really should wonder why we are subsidizing multi-billion dollar corporate operations, while we watch our hospitals falling apart, rural roads deteriorating and social programs being cut.
Everyone should know we pay our government staff to work for the corporations. To travel the world and attend or host events promoting the province to foreign and extra-provincial entities. We are funding our government staff to be corporate agents who sell our province to corporations around the world. We pay them to service these corporations, from helping them get their permits in order, to lobbying for legislative change, to negotiating away any rights or royalties, to liaising on behalf of proponents with senior bureaucrats and Ministers, to finding ways to excuse poor adherence to standards and even violations of regulations. They are told to withhold information on important file details and back room deals and concessions and ignore the Act they are employed to uphold. Staff within the NS Department of Environment have told stories about being forced to change their reports to suit the proponent’s needs for an approval. We hear about political interference. Friends find themselves consoling a staffer over a lunch date as tears and frustration take over a supposed break from a poor workplace environment . We have been told about a Minister laying down the law on approvals, telling managers they will lose their well paid senior level jobs if they don’t comply. One staffer smiled and nodded and said the “department is corrupt” when the topic was brought up by friends in a social setting. The Department of Environment has had 6 Ministers in 5 years, with Delorey and Miller returning at different periods for a second kick at the can each.
Only one Minister of Environment, Andrew Younger, had any semblance of a science background, and he was fired the day after he revoked an approval for a controversial project because the approval had shown of all things…. a lack of public consultation. The rest in their interactions are bullish, insulting or obviously without an understanding of their role. There is a sense they think being elected somehow made them all knowing. The department issues are not isolated to the current government, but the Ministers in this current round of elected officials, leave much to be desired in the way of tact, manners or humility, and especially a lack of knowledge, which adds layers of mistrust.
I wonder all the time, what our politicians are getting out of these situations that makes their integrity and loyalty to the public, their fellow citizens, so easily expendable, when they will readily risk health and wellness to accommodate the next worst fiasco. The conclusion we all seemed to agree on in the boat was the fact that the politicians like being with important people. They like being invited to lunches and dinners, giving speeches and having their name in captions under pictures with the rich and ruthless across the globe. They never knew how much they would like these associations before they were elected and appointed to prominence in the old boys club, er, ahem “political” scene. There is a saying – Arrogance is a disguise for insecurity. And the camaraderie and flagrant admiration bestowed upon them by self serving business executives is transparent, to the rest of us. But our governing officials cannot resist their charms. It helps to have industry people working within our governing bodies, or our former executives and elected officials going to work for industry… after working for industry on our dime. Our top executives in government come from a variety of key positions in the corporate world. The Energy, Forestry and Environment Departments are consistently in a conflict of interest being the regulator and partner in many scenarios. The letters of mandate for many departments no longer place their legislation at the top of their priorities, but rather give instructions to accommodate other departments and support a business environment.
This way of doing things isn’t only about the turbine, but about offshore oil and gas, Alton Gas, gold mines, uranium, fracking, ship building… The government makes it feel like it has never been thought of before. And this is going to save us all. We keep hearing we are a have not province, that we need to tighten our purse strings, but by my count, we have more money than we know what to do with. We just keep giving away it to multi billion dollar businesses who gladly take it along with our government’s loosey goosey environmental objectives. Some of these businesses are not good corporate citizens anywhere else, but we make them feel like we need them here.
The corporations come here to benefit themselves. Not Nova Scotians. Thinking back, the sales pitch included thousands of jobs and in the case of offshore Natural Gas, initially there were big ideas about a 50 year supply, that was pared down to 25 years. The jobs didn’t really pan out, and the first instinct of the Gas corporation was to build a pipe to the US and send the gas there, and so now a 50 year supply – lasted less than 20 years? And to be honest, it didn’t seem to ever make a difference did it? Now we are going to buy our Natural Gas from the US for a higher price. So then we moved on to the next big winner. Shale gas exploration came in with the same gusto, and slinked out of town with Triangle Petroleum, lacking in investor funding, and filing for bankruptcy, leaving a mess for the Province to clean up. They let pulp mills clear cut their way through our crown lands, and had the audacity to give a 10 year lease to a mill group telling the public ” the goal of setting up an agreement with the WestFor consortium is to create “an efficient framework to ensure we can achieve world-class management on the Crown lands and it will also allow the most efficient forestry operations.” The same Provincial executive who said this, Allan Eddy, is now working for one of the pulp mills benefitting from taxpayer funding and clear cutting in the province. We are giving grants out to mining companies to lure them here to dig for gold or copper, but not negotiating royalties properly or considering our watersheds sufficiently. We spend hundreds of millions giving corporations money, to keep them here, and turn a blind eye to the immense damage they do.
Our “local” corporations are too big for their own britches as well. Their CEOs and Chairs sit on the multiple ad hoc boards, that are often funded by tax dollars, and chambers of commerce and have influence over policy and legislative amendments that favour their endeavors. They have first dibs on public funds, monopolies on major utilities and resources, open access to permits and licenses and are never held to full account for their infractions. Our regulators help them find ways around every misdeed. Emera and the Department of Oceans and Fisheries blamed a 20 minute rubber duck race in the Gaspereau River for a week long fish kill last year. Rather than fine them, Emera was allowed to donate $50,000 to a fund, so that they were able to keep their ISO certification. When Northern Pulp had a major pipe burst in 2014, they claimed only 4.5 million litres of raw effluent were released. It made no sense considering the known volumes of effluent passing through that pipe on a daily basis, but NSE supported those claims, vehemently. Only later was it revealed it was actually 47 million litres.
This is not just bad governance, but a corrupted system where the corporations (anonymous shareholders) have captured our financial security and the resources that belong to us, are meant to serve our needs and should be used based on the virtues and wishes of the people across the province. The elected officials have forgotten that these resources belong to us, and are behaving accordingly.
In the case of Open Hydro, FORCE employees are primarily located in Halifax, in an office tower, paid well and far removed from the community their worksite inhabits, and far removed from the front lines where fishermen and their communities are impacted by decisions and approvals issued. The turbine has not been monitored since it was deployed, and it could be weeks before we see a whale or sturgeon or schools of fish impacted by the churning and turning underwater.
As the week has crept by since our visit to the FORCE site, so much has come to light. It was apparently pretty obvious internationally that insolvency was expected as early as June, and most definitely prior to the turbine being hauled up the Bay. It would appear the hope was likely to place the turbine there, forcing Emera or the Province of NS to buy the turbine to have control over it, pumping more tax dollars or rate payers dollars into a dead project. Emera, is trying to remove themselves from the Open Hydro disaster, meaning the liability of the orphaned turbine and likely the unpaid bills to multiple large and small creditors. In the boat last Saturday, Mary said exactly what I was thinking about the communities left with losses on July 26. The big projects are great and get all kinds of support in these small communities as long the locals are being taken care of properly. There is sometimes a bit of blind support for these projects, because they can bring financial relief to trying times. But this is one of the more common cases where the supportive and eager locals are left high and dry with little to no hope of ever recovering losses they incurred being good welcoming neighbors to the massive and overblown project.
When I think back over the day, sitting out there in a boat near Black Rock and having this frank and somewhat ire inducing discussion, the thing that stays most prominent in my mind is the energy of the water that flowed around us. As we saw the channels and listened to whirlpools around us and the immense force of the water flowing as the fastest tides started to go out of the Bay, one can easily see how it entices the minds of energy giants and investors. But the energy is bigger than their big ideas. And it is more important than their greed. As Darren told us, that is the passage of life. It is the path that fish use, driven by nature, to reach the rivers to spawn, to sustain the ecosystems that sustain us. Their instincts are unaltered by greed and human consumption. They will continue to fight to reach those rivers every year. They do not know they should avoid a turbine as those waters roar through it. The fishermen, like Darren, are trying to protect them and their passage of life.
If the promise of tidal energy is ever going to succeed here, it must be with the goal of reducing our footprint as a rule. That is how they sell the idea but there is little effort to live up to the concept. “It’s renewable.” “It will get us off carbon fuels.” But to date the real goal, has been to harness the energy in a big way and make a killing off of it. That is why there are plans to develop a cable that will carry power to the US. Just like a pipeline was built for our natural gas to flow to New England. It isn’t about supplying clean energy to Nova Scotians. It is about making money. That is why the industry has built a massive fish grinding machine, influenced government to look the other way and smashed this project into place without thinking about any long term goals that were not related to money.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Darren, and others like him, for the work and time he has put into being a steward of the Minas Passage and Minas Basin, but even more so for trying to reach all of us in the fight to bring real truth out of the glitz of big promises of big money from big projects that are too good to be true and are destined to disappoint. It takes a lot to put yourself out there and continue to stand up, while the rich and powerful continue to try to knock you down. They have the tools, the money, and the government in their pockets to keep pushing until they hope you back down. Darren has been a force to be reckoned with, through hard and long times in this fight. The Energy executives wish to control all the power, and the politicians just want to be welcome to sit next to the powerful. None of them want Darren to win. It is up to us to keep sharing these truths and our knowledge of the issue. Keep looking for more. It is essential we recognize that bigger is not always better, and often doesn’t succeed in Nova Scotia.
As I travelled back across the passage with Darren, I remembered his warning about the ride back. He had waited for the strongest water flows to subside as the tide went out, before starting toward the other shore, and it was indeed neither calm nor smooth but it was by far a great finish to a great adventure. We were tired, sunburned and our heads full from the conversations, and I could not wait to go home and share what I had seen and heard. I will not forget my first impression of this place, that makes me want to see it again and see more, and I now understand 1,000 times better, the danger being inflicted on this unique, precious and integral part of our local environment.