‘Atrocious exploitation of the natural world’: environmentalist

By: Katlyn Streilein

A new peat mine may be coming to Manitoba and some environmental groups and members of the public want to stop it. 

Sun Gro Horticulture plans to open an additional peat harvest site near Lac du Bonnet with intent to harvest, process, and sell partially decomposed sphagnum as growing medium throughout North America. 

“Sun Gro Horticulture plans to expand its peat mine operation north of two existing sites. This new project would impact two small lakes within the area that are home to three fish species.” Source: Sun Gro Horticulture Environmental Act Proposal 

“This government is willing to entertain more peat mining, which is an atrocious exploitation of the natural world and our climate defences,” Eric Reder, head of the Wilderness Committee of Manitoba Office, said.

More than 350 people penned letters of concern via the organization’s public comment portal, Reder said.

Sun Gro defended its public consultation process: “We’ve been in constant contact with the local communities, with the First Nations and the Métis that are in the area about this proposal from the outset. It has not been a contentious issue,” Derek Fee, communications manager for Sun Gro’s parent company, IKO Industries, said.

The project’s Environmental Act Proposal—available on the province’s website—includes information compiled by Sun Gro’s scientists about expected habitat destruction, species of interest that on site, as well as wetland restoration protocols. 

Reder likens corporate EAPs to used car sales pitches, although, he acknowledged that this one was done “reasonably well” by reputable scientists. 

Sun Gro is slated to clear 60 ha of trees within its dedicated harvest site in the winter of 2021, if the project is approved. Over the next 17 years, the company would collect enough peat to fill 346 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Two peat bog vacuum harvesters sit idle on Sun Gro Horticulture’s property near the proposed Evergreen 1 mine site. /KATLYN STREILEIN

The EAP predicts the project will have “moderate potential adverse effect on vegetation loss” and that “groundwater in the harvest area may be contaminated during construction from leaks and accidental spills or releases of fuels or other hazardous substances.” 

Reder said the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere from peat harvesting is an even more serious concern than habitat destruction. 

“All of the emissions that we do right now are critical. We are in a climate emergency,” Reder said. “Peat bogs are the most carbon-rich terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. Only the ocean stores more carbon.” 

Peat moss’s carbon-storage process is reversed the moment it begins to dry out, leading it to release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, Reder explained.  

Walter Amerongen, reeve of the neighbouring municipality of Whitemouth, said many employees who work at Sun Gro’s regional facilities live not far from the proposed peat moss site.

“It really does bring economic spin-off the community. It’s just something that these small communities need,” Amerongen, who was Sun Gro Manitoba’s general manager for 20 years, said. 

The new peat mine isn’t slated to create any new jobs in the area since it’s an expansion to existing Sun Gro operations in the area, Fee said.

Manitoba’s peat industry accounts for 13 per cent of Canada’s total production, according to one report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development. 

This stand of trees within Sun Gro Horticulture’s proposed peat bog mine site is lightly covered with snow on Dec. 5, the same day the public comment period closed. The Wilderness Committee of Manitoba has been outspoken in its concern about the project./KATLYN STREILEIN

The project’s public comment period closed on Dec. 5. Despite this, Reder said he will leave the message portal open on the Wilderness Committee’s website indefinitely.

In the upcoming weeks, the Government of Manitoba will publish these comments along with a project evaluation from the province’s Technical Advisory Committee.

Reder said this proposal process needs to change to give the public more information to make educated decisions. 

“The public isn’t expected to be fishery biologists,” Reder said.