Greening The Valley

My sustainability column articles in The Observer (Sarnia-Lambton) in 2006

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Here's a Vision of Green Prosperity

A Vision of Green Prosperity. What's Yours?

The announced closure of the last Dow Chemical facilities in Sarnia raises serious issues and questions for the future of this city. The situation places a call to the citizens of Sarnia, one that poses a question of direction.
It struck residents off-guard who thought that Dow would always exist in some form in The Valley.
Perhaps the most serious challenge we face as a community is economic diversification. This has been talked about a lot lately and progress is being made. I believe the idea must permeate decision-making at various levels, by a diverse array of groups and individuals.
The truth is that with various future realities related to international trade, resource use and sustainability, we will need to face serious choices because plants may keep shutting down.
We should be all be painting a picture of what we want this city to look like. After that, we can look at the means of getting there (using various measures like local economic development, marketing, by-laws, advocacy, entrepreneurial spirit, etc.) I challenge those running for City Council to each present their vision. It may be optimistic or idealistic at first, but there's no better way to move towards a goal.
My portrait of the future? A Sarnia with a good new hospital and quality health care - with a focus on prevention and healthier, active residents. A city with a great expanse of natural areas, especially at schools, with children and adults swarming to our parks. Less travel by car, but a strong network of buses and trails filled with people walking and riding by bike, rollerblades, wheelchairs, skateboards and scooters.
I see public beaches along the lake that never need bacterial pollution cautions and a clean Sarnia Bay. A vibrant downtown with urban planning and development that builds the city’s core, includes green roofs and urban agriculture, and store owners who are kept busy selling local products within a green economy. A multicultural centre with a vibrant, united arts community. New industry, spread throughout the city, with people providing needed services for each other. Clean air, and downriver water fit to drink and swim in, any day of the week.
Unfortunately, I don’t paint in the golden colour of cornfields for the production of ethanol. As the premier opened a new plant in Sarnia last week, many farmers were there to express concern. Studies show that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than what it produces, because of the fossil fuels used at farming and other stages. We don’t actually have enough land to make a dent in air emissions from automobiles, and so it is not feasible as a climate change strategy.
My vision sees more consumers puchasing their crops locally, and people strongly supporting their community farmers during this transition.
Sounds like a fun and constructive exercise. Without looking at the "how to" just yet, why not pause for a few moments to think about, and write your vision for the future of this city. It might help to draw it first. Maybe elicit the thoughts of a child. Send in what you have in a letter to the editor of this newspaper. Impress me!

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Green The Valley and fix the climate

Green The Valley and fix the climate

It seems somewhat strange to me at first thought, that I have not yet devoted a column to the climate crisis. Odd, because it is perhaps the greatest present threat to civilization as a whole. The federal government seems to think that a slight tax cut is more important than this – so fulfilled is their election commitment to take a penny off your morning coffee, before we see their plan to take preventative action on drought, stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels.
Such a global challenge must be solved at the international level; and so there is perhaps a tendency to avoid such topics when trying to convey solutions amongst local issues. Yet on that ever-powerful second glance, I realize that strategies for fighting climate change have been discussed in this column, and quite often.
I’ve written about sustainable agriculture: local and organic food. While reducing our dependency on fertilizers and pesticides helps ecosystems function as they were meant to, it also helps the climate. All of the chemicals we spray on fields and lawns are fossil fuel based, and so their production causes the release of carbon dioxide. Purchasing food from the grocery store that has traveled 4,000 kilometres contributes significantly to these problems. Support the local farmers at your farmer’s market, and ask about their production practices when you go.
Local industry and power plants have been a topic of discussion in Greening The Valley. The plants release toxic chemicals to the air, amounts of which are often on the decline and must keep going in that direction. But they also play a great part in the release of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. It is unfortunate that tar sand production in Alberta is causing Canada’s emissions to skyrocket over those of the United States. Local petrochemical companies must do all they can to get those carbon dioxide levels down at their own facilities, which can logically be done alongside reductions in mercury, carbon monoxide and smog-causing chemicals.
I have also discussed naturalization and its importance to this city. As trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide, many scientists agree that this will help to reduce the greenhouse effect which causes the changes in weather we’re starting to see. People in communities throughout the world planting trees, supports the ability of atmospheric systems to go into self-repair. Preservation and restoration of parks is vital to this process. The release of data from the Neighbourwoods tree study in Sarnia will be available soon to provide you with information on which native trees to plant in your backyard.
More recently, I have written on issues of waste and energy. Whether we’re using alternative energy by supporting a company like Bullfrog Power or capturing methane emissions and creating clean electricity from landfills. Whether purchasing items with less packaging or advocating for a transition away from coal power, you are doing your part to reduce climate change. The results that come out of doing good for the environment often have multiple benefits for society. Climate repair can be one of those perks we get from doing good things in our community.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Friday, August 11, 2006

Young people painting green into their art

Young people painting green into their art

Music, poetry, dance, theatre. The arts have been a falling priority in modern society, or so it would appear. Though they make up a great part of our culture, people often put art aside and choose areas that provide easier paths to economic successes. This has been particularly true in formal, public education where arts funding has been cut dramatically and curriculum streamlined in favour of other subjects.

An art-supportive educator/administrator from Washington State, Dr. Terry Bergeson, says, “The Arts communicate and speak to us in ways that teach literacy and enhance our lives. We must continue to find a place for arts programs and partnerships not only for what it teaches students about art, but for what it teaches us all about the world we live in.”

Most of the public generally accepts the value of the arts as a contribution to culture. We therefore fund them through government contributions to various programs (and in the Untied States, through large philanthropic donations). This helps give a good start to those who provide these cultural benefits. Many give back to society with artistic presentations that don’t just tug our hearts and make us laugh, but raise important issues or provide social critiques.

Music has a history of raising social causes. Artists throughout the last century have been doing so through folk and other traditions and have sung about environmental problems since the 1960s. Youth have been on the forefront of this movement. Young people care about the state of the earth and the implications of what we are doing. This comes through when musicians like Sarah Harmer sing about the problems they see.

At the Hillside Festival in Guelph I got the chance to interview the Canadian singer-songwriter about her latest album and her ecological concerns. Growing up on the Niagara Escarpment near Burlington, Harmer weary about its degradation and started a local organization to preserve the sensitive land and work against a 200 acre mining proposal by Nelson Aggregates (owned by the multinational LaFarge company).

Lyrics in her song, Escarpment Blues, include: “if they blow a hole in the backbone, the one that runs across the muscles of the land, well we might get a load of stone for the road, but I don’t know how much longer we can stand.”

Local activists there have done good work, challenging government science and having the Ministry of Natural Resources reexamine the ecological functions and species of wetlands in the area, which have been upgraded to “provincially significant”. Harmer’s music helps popularize the issues.

“I’m trying to do my bit,” she remarked.

A friend and math student, Rob Blom and fellow traveller Ayden Sherrit hiked the whole Escarpment from the Bruce Peninsula to the Niagara Peninsula in hopes of raising funds for the protection of the Bruce Trail and raise awareness among in the public. Other friends and colleagues of mine are cycling from Vancouver to St. John’s to raise funds for the Lung Association (“Cycling for Clean Air”) and paddling the Yukon River (“Rafting for Memories”). Young people are combining social and health issues with their concerns over land, air and water.

The Yukon trip comes on the heals of a voyage down the Mackenzie, and a documentary produced by Geography student Brent Rogers documenting the experience. Another student from Windsor has shown me his documentary on that city’s “Green Corridor”, which creatively describes the project using claymation.

The artists, organizers and participants at Hillside thrived for community and environmental care by raising issues through song, and lessening the impact of the festival itself. The stage has a magnificent green roof and students were raising funds for new trails where the event was held. Vendors used reusable dishes, washed by volunteers. Former Hillside performer, Emm Gryner released a limited edition homemade album last fall called The Great Lakes. She promoted Lambton Wildlife Inc. in the album as well as donating a portion of her sales to the conservation group. The late Lambton naturalist and one of the founders of Hillside, Henry Kock was honoured there.

Young musicians from all genres are telling sounding alarm bells, from the local punk band talking about sustainable agriculture and veganism (one band in Sarnia is called Chemical Valley Mutants), to the established rockers dealing with fair trade and HIV/AIDS. Young people care, and it’s the responsibility of all of us to listen. And to support the arts.

To learn more about the Niagara Escarpment or donate to the Bruce Trail, visit Footsteps to Conservation, at If you’re interested in any of the other aforementioned initiatives, please contact me.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Sarnia: “R” you ready to reduce waste?

Sarnia: “R” you ready to reduce waste?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s the classic mantra of environmentalism.

It’s also a new song for children by the popular artist Jack Johnson. Some of the lyrics go as follows: “If you're going to the market to buy some juice, bring your own bags and you'll learn to reduce your waste”. Reducing is in fact the first step. Consume less and you’ll have less to throw out. You’ll reduce your energy use, burn less fossil fuels and de-clutter your life. Use less when you can, and don’t use a material when you don’t have to.

The song continues, “And if your brother or your sisters got some cool clothes,
try them on before you buy some of those.” Couldn’t be more correct. The more we can reuse the less new stuff we need to buy. And the money we save can be spent on services or donations that aren’t harmful to the environment. Reuse is a great place to be creative!

“And if the first two R’s don’t work out and you gotta make some trash, don’t throw it out. Recycle, you gotta learn to recycle.”

Yes, Jack, we do.

If a child can grasp these concepts – and often is it they who do it first – why can’t we? It would be a redundant addition to years of blue box lecturing the public has received if I were to emphasize this further to you as the consumer.

It is at the municipal level where this third action can be acted upon, and in a big way. We already recycle paper, cardboard, aluminum and glass. Sarnia also recycles plastics 1 and 2. Each number is a different type of plastic, and they can usually be found on the bottom of the container. Lambton Shores recycles 1, 2 & 4. I’m not sure what Sarnia’s waste diversion goals are, but our recycling program must be able to accept a lot more if we’re going to meet any appropriate targets.

Landfills in Lambton and Elgin Counties have received approvals to expand, likely spots to take Toronto’s waste when Michigan closes its border to the trucks. It’s currently a terribly wasteful process, with excessive particulate emissions polluting Sarnia and Point Edward’s air. But no doubt that people living near this Watford landfill will oppose its expansion. No one wants more garbage in their backyard.

The City of Toronto could fill its Roger’s Centre (Skydome) to the top each year with its waste. Instead they send it to Michigan, and perhaps soon, to Southwestern Ontario. Their other options include closer landfilling or clean incineration. Or they can reduce their waste – which they seem to be doing.

Some have added a fourth R: rethink. Just like the young people who wear “unlearn” shirts, which question social conventions, “rethink” teaches us to question our deeper held beliefs, particularly our needs and our wants.

We can criticize Toronto for its waste problems, but not until we do what they do: accept milk cartons, diapers, fish scraps and margarine tubs (all plastics, not just one’s and two’s). Their green bin program sees which takes in all food scraps and more achieves a 90% participation rate. The City is working towards achieving a diversion rate of 60% by 2008 and 100% by 2012. Is Sarnia up to a similar challenge?

Okay, so it may be redundant. But 95% less energy is used to make new aluminum cans than to recycle old ones and throwing away a single can is like dumping out six ounces of gasoline. Please recycle.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Sunday, July 23, 2006

You have another chance to 'go green'

You Have Another Chance to Go Green

Can you afford a bottle of water a day? How about a coffee? And what about renewable energy? Affordable, clean, green energy may be available in Sarnia sooner than you think.

Unlike electricity generated by dirty coal or nuclear power, there are now alternatives that are becoming much better known and more popular across the country. Wind turbines, solar (or photovoltaic) panels, biomass and low-impact hydro (water) power are some of the main alternatives. Wind is becoming the most practical and cheapest sustainable energy source we have. Many associated concerns are mitigative, such as noise, which has been significantly reduced by the production of quiet turbines. The general look has been a concern in the past. I just met an artist who found the turbines to be very beautiful, and visited Scotland to paint them in breathtaking landscape portraits. Solar panels are more expensive, but coming down in price with new technologies. It may be practical to place solar panels on your roof and let the government pay you the cost of installation.

Biomass energy can be produced through a turbine, using a waste product such as garbage, gas or crops for fuel. Bluewater Power (and City Council for its support) should be applauded for its initiative to produce electricity at a landfill site, using methane (a greenhouse gas) to create power. It’s a great start! Small hydro, as opposed to the giant facilities that exist, produce power in a decentralized manner, and are found in many locations and can be certified to have low ecological impact.

Lambton College’s Alternative (Sustainable) Energy Engineering Technology co-op program will help this region become a leader in the field. It’s an exciting happening and should be supported strongly by the community. The program includes some very interesting and unique courses on the specific technologies discussed above.

So what is another easy way to support all of this hopeful technology that stands a chance to improve people’s health and reduce risk for all? An Ontario company called Bullfrog Power is our province’s first 100% green energy retailer. The firm produces clean power using EcoLogo certified hydro power plants and some wind power, and feeds it into the provincial grid. Consumers can purchase that power, increasing the amount of sustainable energy produced. You basically ensure that more clean power goes into the grid (to offset the other kinds), but you are still purchasing from your local distribution company as you always have.

Unfortunately, Bullfrog’s service is not currently available in Sarnia-Lambton. The company is constantly expanding their service to cities across the province, recently adding Barrie and Peterborough. Organizations and companies have begun using Bullfrog such as Wal-mart stores, and the municipality of Caledon – a town smaller than Sarnia, that has hired an environmental professional and has taken a lead on climate change and anti-pesticide initiatives.

Bullfrog’s clean energy could come to Sarnia, but they measure interest in an area by how many people sign up to be notified when it’s available. If you want to help make that happen, go to their website:, and flick the light switch. You can also call them toll-free at, 1-877-360-3464.

So don’t waste your money on that water bottle – your tap water may be as safe, healthy, and doesn’t come with the unnecessary bottle or high cost. And you know that coffee isn’t good for you or the planet. Bullfrog’s power costs 9.1 cents per kilowatt hour, a little more than the regular (let’s call it Premium Power). But with coal and nuclear, there’s a price to pay for that low number, whether it be found in government cost overruns or damage to this and future generations caused by pollution. And while the dollar figure for that power will be going up, with Bullfrog you can lock in the price if you choose. You can offset that extra dollar a day cost for the Premium by conserving energy in your home, just as Caldeon has done in their town hall. There are tips for that on the website. And why not start saving up, before Bullfrog even arrives.

So make the switch. It will be as easy as dialing 519. I swear.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Energy future remains uncertain

June 30, 2006, The Observer
Dalton McGuinty’s turn leaves an uncertain future

Three months ago I attended a major provincial government announcement at a solar panel factory in Cambridge. McGuinty’s Liberals were there to release their plan on standard offer contracts for renewable energy. It meant that ordinary citizens or co-operatives could build renewable energy (solar, wind, biomass, hydro) and be paid for each kilowatt of power they produce. It was a great measure, and won support from David Suzuki, who was there to support the plan and the clean energy it would provide.
“I’m turning 70 in a few days,” Suzuki said. “I have nothing to gain. On behalf of my grandchildren I thank you. On behalf of the young people here, I thank you.”
The contracts offered by the Ontario Power Authority are the best in North America and make us a leader in sustainable energy. It was a good news story all around. The government even got an endorsement from member of the German National Parliament and energy expert, Hermann Scheer, who said: "The energy challenge facing the world is critical. We need to develop renewable energy as quickly as possible. There's no time to waste. With its adoption of Standard Offer contracts, the Government of Ontario has taken a historic step toward building a sustainable supply of electricity.”
I spoke with Minister of Energy Donna Cansfield that day about Lambton Generating Station. She said she believed there were more jobs in renewable energies. It seemed the government was turning a new leaf, away from dirty coal and nuclear, towards clean renewables and conservation. But when Suzuki spoke, he warned the government against investing in new nuclear. It would be contradictory to the support they were lending future generations with this new plan.
A few weeks later, I learned that according to environmentally-minded folks within the Ministry, they were not hearing enough public opposition to nuclear power. Citizens were given some say in the energy direction of the province. Minister Cansfield, who had personally worked hard on the clean energy plan, was replaced with Dwight Duncan. Then, a couple weeks ago, the Liberals’ decisions came down like a tonne of carbon bricks. Building new nuclear reactors. Breaking the promise on coal.
The decision by her government is now forcing MPP Caroline DiCocco to change her opposition to coal. In 2001 when looking into the health impacts of coal, she told The Observer, "I have to take a stand on the side of what I believe is in the best interest of the public.”
We know that scrubbers on coal generating stations only reduce some of the pollutants and do nothing about their water emissions or greenhouse gases. Closure or conversion of the coal facilities was going to allow Ontario to meet over half of its Kyoto requirements. It has also forced Ontario to renege on a national commitment on mercury. A planned 50% reduction in mercury levels was to be announced by all of the country’s environment ministers, before a letter from Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten stated that Ontario would no longer be meeting its share.
Nuclear power requires harmful uranium mining and carbon dioxide emissions at various stages in the process. A report by Amory Lovins shows wind power to be much more cost-effective than nuclear.
A letter I sent to the premier and a Kitchener MPP, stating my distaste for the plan got a quick response, noting the government’s conservation and renewable energy plans. It didn’t present an argument that nuclear and coal are clean. But at least the government is listening… The MPP passed my letter on to the new minister, but where the typed letter had written “Dear Minister”, the word “Minister” was crossed out in pen and replaced with “Dwight”.
At that good-news Liberal announcement in Cambridge, Dalton McGuinty referred to David Suzuki as “my hero.” But Suzuki told The Observer this week, "I'm very, very disappointed in the government.” Dalton McGuinty’s selective listening forces the weight of dealing with continued toxic emissions, greenhouse gases and nuclear waste onto my, and further generations.
The federal and provincial governments are not meeting the challenge of the climate crisis. Last week I saw Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and it was powerful in its science and its message about our potential future. It is not showing in Sarnia.
What actions can you take this week? Write your MPP and the premier and tell them you’ve lost faith in their plan for Ontario’s electricity supply. And call your local theatre to say you want to see An Inconvenient Truth.
Decisions about the future are being made locally as well. To those councilors who listened to their Medical Officer of Health and stood up for the environment at last week’s city council meeting, thank you. Bev MacDougall, Dave Boushy and Mike Bradley, your leadership on the pesticide issue will not be forgotten.
Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Sarnia can still become a 'natural city'

- July 17, 2006, The Observer
Sarnia: the natural city?

On my walk home from work today, I passed a green lawn. In the centre was a small sign, warning humans of pesticide use. Didn’t look very inviting. I noticed grass, and nothing much else. It did not look like anything I have ever seen in nature, in a forest, meadow or prairie. As I kept walking, I saw that this property was separated from the next by a completely different way of thinking.
This next piece of earth was covered in tall grasses, wild lupine, chives and wild strawberry. It looked good: interesting, colourful and diverse. The lupine provides for the Karner Blue butterfly, the strawberries will soon provide for the people. A Staghorn Sumac tree in the garden fits nicely below telephone lines and provides habitat area for some birds. No chemicals needed. Much less maintenance and money would have been spent.
Of course, a strong grass turf is still possible without the use of toxic chemicals, as has been stated recently by The Observer. But many local groups advocate that property owners go a step further, and naturalize.
Many members of Lambton Wildlife have been managing their properties with native plants, gardens and trees for years. A native plant species is one that is found naturally in the Carolinian forest region of which Lambton County is a part. Foreign species known as “aliens” occasionally become invasive, and replace the plants that belong. Sometimes, they are planted instead of native species, and place local ecology off-balance.
Members of Energy Exchange, the downtown studio of art and ecology, with other volunteers, have planted and keep a native garden at Christina and Davis Streets. It acts as a demonstration garden to show which species exist in the area and can be planted at home. College Park on College St. has a garden by the Sarnia Urban Wildlife Committee and is another good spot to see native plants in action. After a couple years, the plants in these gardens have established themselves well. They require less water than other garden plants.
Shawn McKnight of Energy Exchange (ee) is one of the foremost environmental thinkers in the region. He sees the city taking on a new image, a positive one of naturalization. For residents, schools, municipalities, small businesses and industry, it means working with nature, beginning by planting species on their properties that belong there. The City, needing to save money with parks, could make the switch to planting fields or gardens of native species, rather than spending extra money on annuals and turf maintenance.
If you’re going for a small forest ecosystem on your property, you can start by covering a small section of your lawn with newspaper to kill the grass and weeds, then spread woodchips and plant a White Oak, Basswood or Tulip Tree. If you want a prairie garden, start with plants like Grey-headed Coneflower, Wild Lupine and Sullivant's Milkweed. These are just examples of species; there is a wealth of information online.
We can’t forget about solving the problems we face in the area, but at the same time we can make change that will regenerate the essence of our city and villages. Naturalization is a way to simultaneously ‘brand’ ourselves positively, and create a healthier community.
Stop by the studio for free plant lists, and ideas on how to get started on naturalizing your lawn.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

We're paying the price for the pay we live

- June 3, 2006, The Observer
Facing Our Music

“Something strange is happening in a small but highly polluted Canadian community.” The first line of a New Zealand Herald article on March 4, 2006. That community is the Aamjiwnaang First Nation located within the southern boundaries of Sarnia. That something strange is a gender ratio well off balance.
A report published last year in an American journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, released information showing nearly twice the number of girls as boys being born in Aamjiwnaang. The news hit the fan. The story could be found in media from San Francisco to China. And rightfully so. Sarnia is different.
A quick check of provincial air quality readings last week found every city reporting “ozone” as the main pollutant at that time. Every city that is, except Sarnia, which reported fine particulate matter caused mostly by combustion and sulphates (vehicles, coal-fired plants, etc.), and known to be associated with serious illnesses like respiratory problems. As I’m writing this, we are under a Smog Advisory, with Sarnia’s air currently worst in the province, the only city in the “poor” category. Causes for this lie on both sides of the border.
Those countless news stories reported other statistics. Such as one in four Aamjiwnaang children with behavioural or learning disabilities. Asthma is at three times the national average. Fourty percent of women on the reserve have had at least one miscarriage, but many have had several, up to six.
Pause on that for a moment.
The issue has spread into the academic realm too. A fellow student at the University of Waterloo chose to further study Aamjiwnaang’s gender issue for a research thesis. So have students at the University of Western Ontario and Carleton University who are also studying environmental health in Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia. The environmental issues are affecting our reputation.
Of course, there doesn’t have need to be further action on these issues. After all, the study also found a one percent likelihood that the gender ratio is just chance.
But common speculation is that a combination of chemicals including those that act as endocrine disrupters are to blame. These toxins alter the hormones in the endocrine system, and the connection is so strong that they are commonly known as “gender benders”.
Last October, the same month the report was released, a dog which had played in the contaminated Talfourd Creek gave birth to dead and deformed puppies. The Observer reported on the incident and the heavy metal contamination of the Creek. But there is no answer to where the pollution is from and no one who has taken responsibility.
A strong correlation also lies between Sarnia’s environmental problems, and it’s less than perfect image. Many in town would like to improve Sarnia’s reputation by selling ourselves differently, as ‘more than just industry’. Ron Plain, chairperson of the First Nation’s environmental committee recently told The Observer that whenever native people express concern about pollution they are accused of hurting local tourism.
A lot of environmental good is happening in the Sarnia area too. Any new branding of Sarnia should market this, but it must be part of a greater movement for environmental change. We must not ignore the terrible situations that exist. Talfourd Creek is one example and the community, including industry, must get to the bottom of it. Our reputation will only improve if we continually improve. According to Joanna Kulig, a Western student who recently completed a study of environmental health perceptions in Sarnia, “A number of Canadian communities have suffered greatly from serious effects of industrial pollution, oftentimes a result of neglect of individuals, corporations and government to take responsibility and address presented issues.”
Those working to make Sarnia more progressive would like some publicity too. The next article will feature people who truly are greening the valley.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Things are done differently on Pelee Island

- May 20, 2006, The Observer
That’s Pelee

Maybe it is because it’s the southernmost inhabited spot in the country. Or maybe it’s the people who choose to live there. Whatever the reason, things are different on Pelee. On a train ride to Ottawa trip last week to endorse Elizabeth May for Green Party leader, I picked up a bottle of win for a friend I was visiting. The Riesling Dry had an image of a Great Egret on the bottle, and it reminded me of what I did one year ago, the same week.
A week-long excursion to this Canadian island found me wondering if I hadn’t left the country. I was surrounded by open lands, open waters, open skies, and some very friendly folk. Pelee Island has more than its fair share of ecological wisdom, alternative energies, and sustainable farming practices, for a land of 250 permanent residents. Perhaps these exist because of the island’s biodiversity, high number of endangered species, and fascinating bird migrations. In fact, a great number of humans – including many from Sarnia-Lambton – migrate to the island each May to spot orioles, warblers, sandpipers, swallows, ducks and herons. This long weekend, you might consider a walk through one of Lambton Country’s natural areas to see what you can spot.
In January of last year I attended the Guelph Organic Conference where I met Colin, an organic farmer living and working on Pelee Island. Colin and wife Jennie were typical of the new farmer: young, well educated, and ecologically conscious. Colin was advertising Meadowlark Organic Farm to students who might be interested in volunteering on an island for a week or two, with room and board supplied. I was interested.
Those attending the conference believed in certain principles of sustainable agriculture, which I learned during my weekend there. Grow and buy local food! There were said to be multiple benefits for everyone in the community, and ‘food localism’ was even being promoted by public health officials. Pay attention to the soil. Your plant gets all its nutrients from the soil, so any problem must be resolved at that level. Sustainability. It means permanence, or a way of farming that is possible far into the future. Meadowlark practiced these principles.
I took the ferry from Leamington to the West Dock on the island. It was slow and quiet; a taste of things to come. On my way north from the dock by bicycle, a car passed every several minutes on the island’s main drag. A Great Egret glided alongside me as other birds sang. My whole week happened like this, viewing fascinating birds, butterflies, dragonflies, turtles, frogs, toads, snakes, rabbits, and muskrat, not to mention interesting landscapes and architecture. The pace of life was taken down a notch to a level where enjoyment of simpler things was possible.
Work on the farm was very educational. Without the use of chemicals, farmers like Colin and Jennie have to use their minds to solve problems like encountering thistle, a fast growing weed. Methods used on the crops included biological control, which meant attracting beneficial insects with flowers. Companion cropping was planting the right crops close together to get mutual benefits. A similar approach can be used to get lawns off chemicals, where consideration of the soil and pesticide alternatives is important.
People purchase local and organic food because they perceive it to be healthier, to have less impact on ecosystems and because it supports farmers. With farmers often making negative incomes and their anger being demonstrated at recent protests, a local distribution system is often a better means of making a profit. Whatever the main reason, the growth rate in organic food sales is at 20% per year, so consumers are making the choice. And because of it, young families like Colin and Jennie’s will have a more stable ecological and economic environment.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

New evidence makes Sarnia’s decision easy

- May 6, 2006, The Observer
New evidence makes Sarnia’s decision easy

A few years ago, a common pesticide called diazinon was used on lawns and gardens across Canada. You may have used it or had a lawn care professional apply some in a spray or granular form on your property to rid yourself of chinch bugs or earwigs. It was said to be safe enough to use on lawns. The federal government’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency allowed its use; though it was known to be deadly if swallowed, and toxic to fish and wildlife.
Today, as you look to products you could use for pest control, you will find products with diazinon to be unavailable. It is banned from store shelves across Canada and the United States. As it turns out, the risk to human health and the environment from the use of diazinon was never acceptable.
After five years of debate, Sarnia City Council now looks poised to pass a restrictive pesticide by-law. A public meeting is being held in Council Chambers at 4:00 on May 8. Common pesticides (herbicides, fungicides and insecticides) are still being used by some for lawn care in Sarnia, whereas cities like Toronto, Peterborough, and about 90 other municipalities in Canada as well as the entire province of Quebec have banned the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes. In those areas, companies using organic methods are booming. To build the case for a Sarnia by-law, allow me to provide some specific examples.
The chemical and lawn care industries now claim that the most commonly used chemical on lawns is safe. A herbicide known as 2,4-D, it is often used in combination with other chemicals such as in products like PAR III. Very little is known about the “cumulative effects” on human health and the environment when herbicides are combined with others in one product, or when they react with other chemicals already present in soil and water.
Startling findings were released in a study last week when researchers of cancer, pediatrics and reproductive medicine discovered that 2,4-D is “persuasively linked” to cancer, neurological and reproductive problems. The doctors, who published their results in the journal Paediatrics and Child Health, also add to mounting criticism of the Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) saying, “They are looking at what happens in animals and their information is largely proprietary… The doctors are looking at what is happening in children and people living across the country and they are seeing major reasons for our problems.”
Reading the chemical industry’s own studies of 2-4,D, one finds reason for great concern. The PMRA’s latest review of the herbicide takes data from the second Industry Task Force on 2,4-D Research Data. The review mentions a study which showed exposure to the herbicide caused moderate increase in risk for early abortions. The study was rejected because the sample size of pregnancies was too small. So it is not a surprise that further research by doctors finds a strong link with reproductive problems.
The report goes on to say that 2,4-D is slightly to moderately toxic to birds such as the mallard, Sarnia’s most common species of duck. There is a moderate to high risk of decreased pup survival for small mammals, who are easily exposed and can’t read the warning signs on our lawns. Finally, the review states, “Few studies address children’s health effects from exposure to pesticides, and there are even fewer studies that address childhood cancer from exposure to specific pesticides.”
An industry-made response to the health-based movement against pesticides is a by-law allowing pesticides to be used under IPM or Integrated Pest Management. IPM Accreditation for lawn care companies is governed by the IPM-PHC Council of Ontario which includes member groups such as CropLife Canada, a pesticide industry front group and the Environmental Coalition of Ontario, a fake environmental organization which has a mandate is “To mount an [sic] public advocacy campaign in order to prevent municipal bans on pesticide use” and whose website does not mention its members.
To become accredited, a process useful for marketing, a company must send a fee to this group, provide an annual desk audit (a company must fail all five criteria to have their registration removed), and an on-site audit every three years. In addition, an exam must be taken by just one person from the company. This person must also take eight continuing education credits per year, but this can by foregone by simply writing the exam every year.
While a municipality has the right to regulate the use of pesticides, according to a London staff report an IPM by-law would regulate the users (accredited companies) and this type of by-law has not been upheld in court. Such a by-law could pose risk for the City of Sarnia.
Just like the smoking by-law, public health should be the deciding factor on pesticides. The municipal decisions are now forcing higher levels of government to take note. Once Sarnia has passed a restrictive pesticide by-law, the City can work with local stakeholders to achieve greater environmental goals. Hopefully the next decision won’t take five years.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

An introduction, and Happy Earth Day greetings

- April 22, 2006, The Observer
Let me introduce myself, and my friend Sustainability

When Gaylord Nelson founded the first Earth Day 36 years ago, I doubt he could have imagined the global movement it would help deliver. That April 22nd in 1970, twenty million Americans participated and members of Congress had the day off to listen. Since then, a number of federal acts in the United States and Canada have been put in place to regulate problems such as air pollutants, water quality, pesticides, land practices and quality of the Great Lakes.
Today as I begin this environmental column in The Observer, there exist thousands of environmental organizations and millions of campaigners worldwide, a Global Green political movement and businesses and institutions who are considering ecological concerns at every stage. My current education is part of this movement. At the University of Waterloo I am completing a degree in Environment and Resource Studies, an interdisciplinary program where I’ve been able to choose from a diverse set of courses, from Restoration Ecology to Environmental Journalism. Focus is on how to solve problems of the environment from all perspectives. And when you and I talk about “the environment” we’re talking about ourselves and all the things that exist around us; the items we use as resources for our daily activities.
With an upbringing in Sarnia, I owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs. WJ Hanna, who made the decision that land within the City should be set aside, and donated the money to make that happen. This forward-thinking decision allowed a childhood free to explore the forests, beach and spend time searching for Tarzan in Canatara Park. I became concerned about our environment as a teenager, when my interest in weather led me to notice that air quality readings in Sarnia were often the worst in the province. This moved me to research the possible causes and take a keen interest in other local and global issues.
Locally I have been on the Sarnia Urban Wildlife Committee, Sarnia Environmental Activists and started the Environment Club when I attended St. Patrick’s High School. I was and continue to be inspired and taught by several Sarnia-Lambton environmentalists and naturalists. Last Summer I coordinated Neighbourwoods, a study to assess the health of the city’s urban forest. Results and plans will be publicized this year.
I have been actively involved at the University of Waterloo initiating and coordinating environmental organizations that promote sustainability at all levels of the campus. My interest in journalism has led me to write and photograph for my campus newspaper. I’ve edited a Sarnia newsletter called The Cucumber and written book reviews for various publications.
The global issues we now face are of the greatest consequence for the next couple generations. New studies show that climate change could put the world’s major cities under water by 2100. Worldwide issues like poverty, AIDS, smog, species extinction and food and water shortages challenge the long-term sustainability of humans living on this planet. We are having an impact on these issues and we must face them at local levels.
Sustainability is our great challenge. We must get to a place where the demands we put on the environment can be met without harming future generations. It’s not so much a choice. But currently it is not being achieved, though many good things are being done. If Sarnia-Lambton is to have permanent successful economic conditions, with happy people in a healthy city, we’re going to have to change our course. We must imagine what a sustainable city would look like and then move toward that goal.
And that is what Greening The Valley will reflect. How, individually and as a group, we can affect different aspects of sustainability. We are going to achieve it in Sarnia, and now is the time to do it. Problems and solutions that may be identified from the City’s Community Round Table and a proposed environmental superplan are a potential starting point. Sarnians could benefit sustainability at an even greater scale if we become leaders and a model for other jurisdictions.
Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin senator and environmentalist died last summer. So did Greenpeace co-founder and ecojournalist Bob Hunter, and inspiring and active Sarnia nature preserver and friend, Art Teasell. Native Lambtoner Henry Koch who passed away December 25th was an outstanding advocate for organic agriculture, native plants and the ecological lifestyle. I see it as my and our collective responsibility to continue the steps that have been made by these hard-working people. So let’s begin.

Darcy Higgins is a native of Sarnia who is currently completing a degree in Environmental Studies. He can be reached by e-mail at

Greening The Valley - online

I will be posting my Observer articles at this site.
Feel free to comment at this site on each article.

- Darcy