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Canada’s first Indigenous-owned bioenergy facility opens

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As the temperature dips to -28 C, Paul Opikokew is ready for the unexpected at the newly-built Meadow Lake Tribal Council Bioenergy Centre in northwestern Saskatchewan, now being tested by its first winter in operation.

Opikokew, 44, a process operator, monitors 980 alarms on a computer system that tracks every part of the $100-million facility — from the wood chips coming in from the nearby sawmill to the power going out to roughly 5,000 homes.

“It’s something new, something that I’m excited about because it’s new technology and good for the environment,” Opikokew told CBC News during an interview at the facility located on the outskirts of Meadow Lake, 250 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Opikokew, who grew up at Canoe Lake Cree Nation, is thrilled that NorSask Forest Products, the largest First Nations-owned sawmill in Canada, is ditching a dirty habit.

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In the control room, Paul Opikokew, left, and Logan Crookedneck monitor 980 alarms that would indicate a trouble spot. Opikokew, a member of Canoe Lake Cree Nation, is proud to work for a First Nations-owned bioenergy facility. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Half century of spewing smoke and ash

For 50 years, the sawmill has simply burned its wood waste — including bark, wood chips, and sawdust — in what’s known as a beehive burner. The free-standing conical steel structure, notorious for air pollution, has been phased out or banned in most parts of Canada. Yet, NorSask Forest Products continued to dump 56,000 tonnes of leftover wood inside the antiquated incinerator, spewing out smoke and ash.

The Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC), made up of nine First Nations in northwestern Saskatchewan — including Opikokew’s band — became a part-owner of the NorSask sawmill in 1988, then the sole owner in 1998. And while it has prided itself on generating jobs and revenue for its communities, the beehive burner has been a nagging stain on its environmental record.

 

A beehive burner is a conical-shaped incinerator used for the disposal of wood residue. They’ve been phased out or banned in most provinces. This one, at NorSask Forest Products near Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, burned wood waste for 50 years until it was shut down in late 2022. (Submitted by Tina Rasmussen)

 

The now-defunct beehive burner sits idle next to NorSask Forest Products sawmill. It will store leftover wood waste in the event of a breakdown at the bioenergy facility. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

 

Tina Rasmussen, the chief business officer for MLTC and a member of Flying Dust First Nation, said elders, in particular, expressed their discomfort with wasting a quarter of each tree harvested from traditional land.

The bioenergy centre changes that.

“[Wood waste] is now being combusted in a closed-loop system that produces both combined heat and energy that allows us to make use of 100 per cent of that tree. So it’s incredible. We’ve fulfilled what our communities have expected, which is making use of that resource. If you’re taking it, then you need to use it all and not waste it.”

“It’s pretty amazing,” she said, “that this whole facility is 100 per cent Indigenous-owned.”

Any time wood is burned, it produces greenhouse gas emissions. However, the bioenergy plant uses air pollution control devices, including a filter to remove particulate matter and extremely high combustion temperatures that break down harmful pollutants into ash that’s sold to farmers.

Rasmussen and others argue that replacement forests will gradually soak up any carbon dioxide emitted when the wood waste was burned for energy, making the whole process carbon neutral.

Not all bioenergy facilities are universally celebrated. Those that harvest trees for the sole purpose of creating wood pellets to generate electricity have faced mounting criticism, both for what is happening in the forest and for the carbon emissions produced by burning the pellets. However, this facility uses leftover wood from trees that were already cut down for lumber that’s used to build homes or furniture.

Electricity for roughly 5,000 homes

Our CBC News crew was the first to be shown the bioenergy facility, now operational after months of delays.

Through a small window, it’s possible to see into the blazing red combustion chamber, where temperatures reach nearly 1,000 degrees C. The fire slowly heats tubes that are filled with thermal oil, and that heat energy is converted to electrical energy.

The MLTC Bioenergy Centre generates 8.3 megawatts of power, 6.6 of which is fed into the provincial grid, purchased by SaskPower, and used to power roughly 5,000 homes. The rest of the energy runs the bioenergy centre and heats a sawmill kiln that dries lumber.

The Meadow Lake Tribal Council’s sawmill feeds its wood waste, including wood chips, bark, and sawdust, to the newly-constructed bioenergy centre adjacent to the sawmill. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

Clean energy project not cheap, easy, or quick

The MLTC began exploring the idea of a biomass power plant in 2008.

Its goal was to phase out its beehive burner, generate carbon-neutral green power, and create jobs and revenue for its nine First Nations.

In 2012, the Harper government announced $499,000 in federal dollars to cover project design and environmental assessments. At that time, the proposed facility was expected to generate 36 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power roughly 30,000 homes. It would take another seven years to get to the point in 2019 that Trudeau’s government approved $52.5 million from its Investing in Canada green infrastructure program for a scaled down version of the project.

Al Balisky is the chief executive officer at MLTC Industrial Investments based in Meadow Lake, Sask. He stands in front of the $100-million bioenergy centre constructed near the northern city. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

“The project is expected to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by more than one million tonnes over 25 years, and reduce smoke and other harmful matter to significantly improve air quality for residents,” said a Government of Canada release from that announcement.

The pandemic and supply-chain issues inflated prices, driving the total cost just above $100 million, and added delays to construction and commissioning. The facility was initially slated to open in February 2022, but didn’t get running until late October.

Of that total price, about $35 million in contracts went to Indigenous companies, according to Al Balisky, who oversees all of MLTC’s investment projects.

“Indigenous participation, in terms of ownership, in terms of construction and now in terms of operation … from start to finish was the goal and we’ve achieved that,” said Balisky, adding that seven of 13 employees are Indigenous.

The MLTC Bioenergy Centre uses a combustion furnace that burns wood waste at 970 C and thermal oil heat exchangers to generate heat and power. (Bonnie Allen/CBC )

Balisky said the “biggest challenge” was getting the money to “pull it all together.” He said it wouldn’t make commercial sense for a private company to pursue this kind of clean energy project without taxpayer funding.

“These are very expensive projects to undertake so without that assistance, this project would not have happened,” he said.

The MTLC business team says it hopes the bioenergy facility will yield profits over time that can be returned to their communities to support health, education and housing programs.

At the MLTC Bioenergy Centre, plant manager Jason Rasmussen eyes a pile of shredded wood waste that’s feeding into a biomass-fired power plant. (Bonnie Allen/CBC)

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Suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over Canadian airspace: sources – CTV News

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[unable to retrieve full-text content]

  1. Suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over Canadian airspace: sources  CTV News
  2. Canadian pilots were warned of ‘untethered balloon’ amid China surveillance concerns  Global News
  3. U.S. military shoots down suspected Chinese spy balloon off Carolina coast  CBC.ca

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Federal government asking RCMP to ban use of sponge rounds, CS gas for crowd control

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OTTAWA — The federal government says it wants the RCMP to ban the use of two crowd-control tools that forces across the country say they have in their arsenals: sponge rounds and CS gas.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office confirmed that it wants the measures outlawed, even as the RCMP declines to say whether or not it will comply with that instruction.

The decision to restrict even the use of “less lethal” alternatives to crowd-control tools such as rubber bullets and stronger forms of tear gas has some critics questioning whether the federal Liberals are playing politics with policing.

“Removing less lethal options from our members’ available options raises real concerns for public and police officer safety,” National Police Union president Brian Sauvé said in a statement.

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The confirmation that the federal Liberals want the tools banned comes after The Canadian Press raised questions about a mandate letter Mendicino gave to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki last year.

The letter directed the force to stop using three use-of-force methods: the “carotid control” neck hold, rubber bullets and tear gas.

The RCMP made headlines recently when it confirmed that it still allows officers to use the controversial neck hold despite those instructions and the fact that other police forces have stopped using it.

The force does not use rubber bullets or the more-dangerous chemical compounds referred to as tear gas, which cause irritation to a person’s eyes and mucous membranes.

But the minister’s office is now clarifying that it wants similar tools banned, too.

Mendicino’s office said in a statement that it used the terms “rubber bullets” and “tear gas” in the mandate letter “as they are general language understood by most Canadians.”

It confirmed that it considers the milder CS gas and extended-range impact weapons, which fire foam rounds, to be the operational terms for such tools — meaning that it does want the RCMP to stop using them.

That came as news to Sauvé and other experts, who say that the decision is a departure from existing policy, since police forces across the country and around the world have such crowd-control methods in their arsenals.

The RCMP said in a statement that it is “working with partners, stakeholders and bargaining agents” to review the mandate letter — and gave no indication that it intends to follow Mendicino’s orders.

“The RCMP continues to report publicly on our use of police intervention options, including the carotid control technique and the 40 millimetre extended range impact weapon that fires sponge-tipped rounds, not rubber bullets, as well as the use of specialty munitions,” it said.

It added that its extended range weapons, in use since 2017, “provide an officer with more time and distance from an individual being responded to in order to better enable de-escalation and communication, when tactically feasible.”

Public disclosures show that the RCMP used CS gas 102 times in 2021, and it used extended-range impact weapons 86 times.

The public order units of major municipal police forces, including in Vancouver and Toronto, confirmed to The Canadian Press that they also have access to the tools.

In an interview, Western University criminologist Michael Arntfield argued that CS gas is “entirely different” than the compounds typically referred to as tear gas, and sponge rounds are different than rubber bullets.

He said tear and rubber bullets are “very inflammatory terms,” bringing up images of coups d’état, or of police attacking people who had been marching for Black civil rights outside Selma, Ala., in 1965.

“I’m not sure why those terms would be used if the government was serious about looking at less lethal alternatives.”

Arntfield said he is “genuinely confounded” about why Mendicino would “tack on” a request for the RCMP to stop using police tools that are commonplace across Canada in asking them to stop using the neck hold.

“It looks like political theatre and has absolutely nothing to do with law enforcement operations.”

On Parliament Hill this week, Mendicino said broadly that there is a need to reform law enforcement institutions.

“We are closely consulting and collaborating with law enforcement and experts in the area to take an evidence-based approach so that we can keep our community safe, while at the same time making sure that police have the tools they need when it comes to de-escalating,” Mendicino said.

But he would not answer questions about why the RCMP seems to be defying his instructions, walking away from reporters when the question was posed.

El Jones, an activist who helped lead a study on defunding police forces, says police are “an unaccountable force in Canada.”

The fact that the RCMP is not following political direction shows that impunity, she argued. “I think the police are very much signalling to us, no one can tell us what to do.”

The issue of which tools are and aren’t available to police is receiving heightened attention following the killing of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by police in Memphis, Tenn., in early January.

The “carotid control” neck hold, which the RCMP reported it used 14 times in 2021, had been widely condemned after George Floyd was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.

Jones said police are not transparent enough about their policies or how much training they provide for officers when it comes to the use of force.

“We don’t have good use-of-force study in Canada,” she said. “The picture of use of force in Canada, period, by the police, is just not very clear.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2023.

 

David Fraser, The Canadian Press

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Inuit, environmental groups call for stronger measures to reduce underwater noise

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Hunters from Pond Inlet, Nvt. — known as Mittimatalik in Inuktitut — have said they’re seeing fewer narwhal in areas where they were once abundant, making it harder to feed their families, and that the whales’ behaviour is changing.

Lisa Koperqualuk, vice chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, says that’s because of noise from ships.

“It impacts our culture when marine animals are disturbed and are not in their usual places,” she said, adding hunters have to travel further to find narwhal.

Research has found narwhal are sensitive to noise. Aerial surveys indicate their numbers are declining in Eclipse Sound on the northeastern end of Baffin Island during the summer.

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A 2020 report by the Fisheries Department suggests that could be due to increasing ship traffic from mining, cruises, ice breaking and development, as well as other factors such as the presence of killer whales or natural movement in the region.

Newly revised international guidelines on reducing underwater noise from ships recognize the unique effects on Inuit, but environmental and Inuit organizations say stronger measures are needed.

The International Maritime Organization’s subcommittee on ship design and construction met in London last week, where members agreed on revisions to the 2014 guidelines. They include updated technical knowledge and sample templates for underwater noise management plans.

The draft updated guidelines also reference Indigenous knowledge and Inuit Nunaat, or Inuit homeland in the United States, Canada, Greenland and Russia. There, it states effects from underwater noise on marine life could be greater due to ice breaking, the presence of noise-sensitive species and Indigenous hunting rights.

“That is something ICC is really encouraged about because really we are the first Indigenous organization to have a voice at the IMO,” Koperqualuk said.

The council, which represents about 180,000 Inuit worldwide, wanted a separate section included in the guidelines focusing on challenges particular to the Arctic and Inuit Nunaat. For instance, it said noise travels further in cold water and expressed concern about the consequences for marine species Inuit rely on for food, culture and livelihoods.

Koperqualuk said there was interest in specific recommendations for ships operating in these waters, such as using Indigenous knowledge in voyage planning, but the north-specific section was ultimately not included in the guidelines because it’s not universally applicable.

Koperqualuk also noted the guidelines are voluntary and there has been little uptake by ship owners.

Andrew Dumbrille with the Clean Arctic Alliance, made up of 20 non-profit organizations, agreed there is a need for mandatory measures.

He pointed to a 2019 study on implementation of the existing guidelines overseen by World Wildlife Fund Canada, the Chamber of Shipping America, World Maritime University and Transport Canada. Several organizations reported they were a low priority as they are not mandatory as well as barriers such as the lack of baseline measurements for underwater noise or reduction targets.

“These new guidelines are more detailed and they have the latest science and latest perspective on not only underwater noise impacts but technology fixes and management solutions,” Dumbrille said.

“Unfortunately these guidelines are still voluntary and so that’s problematic on a number of levels.”

The revised guidelines are to be submitted to the Marine Environmental Protection Commission in July for approval.

A working group tasked with reviewing the guidelines ran out of time last week to finalize a list of suggested next steps, areas needing further research and assessment, and suggestions to increase awareness and uptake of the guidelines. Dumbrille said a correspondence group will continue that work.

“The pathway to regulatory measures is slow,” he said. “Some people are saying it’s not fast enough to respond to the threat and the urgency and the need around addressing underwater noise because our oceans are getting louder and that’s especially true for the Arctic.”

The Arctic has some of the lowest underwater sound levels on Earth, but research suggests that could change as new shipping routes open due to sea ice loss.

A study published in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution in October predicts underwater noise emissions from ships could double every 11 and a half years on average without incentives or regulatory steps. A 2021 report by the Arctic Council found noise pollution from ships had doubled in some areas of the Arctic between 2013 and 2019.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says underwater noise has been linked to a wide range of effects on marine species that rely on sound, including behavioural changes, habitat loss, increased stress levels and permanent injury or death.

Transport Canada saidit’s pleased with the revised international guidelines, but acknowledged more work is needed.

In June 2021, Transport Canada announced the Quiet Vessel Initiative with $26 million in funding over five years to test the most promising technologies, vessel designs, retrofits and operational practices to make ships quieter. Ottawa has also been developing an Ocean Noise Strategy which, it expects to launch later this year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

 

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press

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