Main Menu

Ingmar Lee Online

Weyerhaeuser and the Dioxin Poisoning of Nanaimo’s Community drinking-watershed

Weyerhaeuser’s Terrain/Hydrology Specialist, Shelley Higman has been writing to Island newspapers to assuage widespread concerns about the company’s ongoing aerial chemical fertilization programme inside Nanaimo’s community drinking-watershed. Nanaimo citizens had expressed concerns that the worlds largest logging company, which owns the 230 square kilometre watershed as ‘private land,’ is spreading tons of US-produced chemical fertilizers onto its vast clearcuts where Nanaimo gets its drinking water.


She states that “while Weyerhaeuser acknowledges the concerns, many statements in those letters and articles are incorrect.” “The intent of the aerial fertilization,” she writes, “is to promote tree growth and to improve the overall health of the forests within the watershed. Healthy forests and improved tree growth will also enhance forest hydrology, something that is referred to as hydrologic recovery.” She states that, “While the science is well documented, Weyerhaeuser has proceeded slowly in order to demonstrate that the application of urea fertilizer will not negatively impact the quality of the city’s water. In fact Weyerhaeuser’s modeling results conclusively show there would be no negative impacts to drinking water quality.” She finishes off her letter by stating that “We have cooperated over many years with the Greater Nanaimo Water District (GNWD) and the City of Nanaimo to help deliver safe drinking water to Nanaimo residents.”

Let’s take a look at how Ms. Higman’s statements compare with some of the recent history of Weyerhaeuser’s chemical fertilization program in Nanaimo’s drinking water supply. In February 2000, treeplanters were sickened while handling chemical fertilizers on planting contracts in the watershed. Weyerhaeuser ignored numerous complaints until independent testing paid for by treeplanters proved that the fertilizers were laced with carcinogenic heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium and strontium. When the American-based logging-corporation saw the results, they immediately pulled the product, but not before more than 60 tons had been applied throughout the extensively clearcut community watershed. We’re talking semi-truckloads of chemical fertilizers planted throughout this community drinking-watershed!

Weyerhaeuser didn’t bother to mention their fertilizer program to BC’s Auditor General George Morfitt, whose 1999 report; “Protecting Drinking-Water Sources” used the Nanaimo watershed as one of 8 case studies. The AG’s report concluded that “a number of human activities are important in terms of their potential impact, including forestry: specifically timber harvesting, forest road construction and the application of pesticides and fertilizers.” The report found that nitrate pollution from fertilizers is the most widespread cause of drinking-water contamination in British Columbia. Neither did Weyerhaeuser bother to inform the Nanaimo Water Board of their program. Wayne Hansen, superintendent of water supply for the Greater Nanaimo Water District, only learned of the fertilization after reading my February 19, 2000 article in the Times Colonist. On the front page of the Nanaimo Daily News, December 9, 2000, Hansen is quoted saying, “They [Weyerhaeuser] keep us posted on most things. They slipped up on this one.” “I guess we didn’t make it very clear,” said Weyerhaeuser’s South Island Timberlands manager, Jim Sears in the same article.

While researching into the heavy metal content of the American-supplied fertilizers used in the watershed, it became apparent that certain suppliers of ingredients to the fertilizer blend used in the watershed were involved in the recycling of industrial waste. Woodburn Fertilizers of Oregon and Frit Industries of Arkansas are involved in cleaning out steel-mill smokestacks, with the residue being made into fertilizers. Steel-mill smokestack ash is known to contain Dioxins and Furans, amongst the most toxic known poisons. When it was suggested that US industrial waste containing Dioxins and Furans may have been spread in Nanaimo’s water supply, Mayor Gary Korpan reacted, accusing myself and others of being “despicable fear-mongers.” We implored the City and Weyerhaeuser to do Dioxin and Furan tests, which at $2000, were beyond the resources of the treeplanters. They both refused. Instead, they commissioned a $4000 study, the “Greater Nanaimo Watershed Fertilizer Risk Assessment, December 5th 2000,” by BC Research Inc., which concluded that Weyerhaeuser and the City of Nanaimo “must develop a corrective protocol, should fertilizer parameters in random water sampling exceed guideline levels.”

Secretly, however, the GNWD did conduct tests of Weyerhaeuser’s fertilizers, and F.O.I. documents reveal that on March 29, 2001, Wayne Hansen received the results of the Dioxin and Furan tests from BC Research Inc., Senior Technician, Lorrie Hunt. I quote from her letter: “The Dioxin and Furan results show results consistent with levels from industrial processes were combustion product exist. (Sic)” As for the ‘corrective protocol,’ on May 2, 2002, Lorrie Hunt sent another letter to the GNWD warning that, “In the March samples from both sites (48′ Main, JC-12) there was a noticeable increase in nitrate and ammonia levels. It would be useful to determine any occurrence that might have caused these increases.” Clearly, Weyerhaeuser has applied American industrial wastes containing Dioxins and Furans into the community watershed. Clearly, nitrate, ammonia and other ‘fertilizer parameters’ are now appearing in random water sampling.

Weyerhaeuser claims that its new fertilizers are now free of US industrial wastes and that the CEO’s of their American fertilizer suppliers must personally guarantee this. But what about the clearcutting? Weyerhaeuser’s primary interest in the watershed is logging, not the production of pure drinking water. This can be clearly seen by anyone who takes a flight over the extensively clearcut watershed. Having exterminated the primeval Douglas fir forest which once provided the purest of water, the company now clearcuts ever younger forests down to a 30-year rotation, while exporting these very small logs straight to the USA, in the round, so Americans can saw up the timber. Weyerhaeuser is among BC’s largest exporters of raw logs at somewhere around 1,000,000 cubic metres a year. Meanwhile the Nanaimo River, which in 1968 was among the world’s largest Steelhead producers, ( Nanaimo Daily Free Press, Feb 24, 1968 “Nanaimo Centre Huge Steelhead Paradise”) now runs too turbid even for the Harmac Pulp Mill, which has to switch to groundwater during the winter.

I believe that the Nanaimo community drinking-watershed is being grossly mismanaged by the giant US logging corporation. For real protection of Nanaimo’s precious drinking-water resource, the City must regain complete control over its water supply. Into the future, the health and safety of the residents of Nanaimo depends on the protection of the watershed. The people of Nanaimo must demand that the landbase which supplies their drinking-water should be immediately expropriated from Weyerhaeuser, and the heavily damaged forests in the area should be permitted to recover to ensure the protection of this vital resource. Weyerhaeuser’s interests will always be logging, before drinking-water.

Ingmar Lee is a student of Environmental Studies at UVic. He has been a professional treeplanter in British Columbia for 21 years.