Flying over Northern Ontario, one sees a land below, dotted by glittering sapphire pools of seemingly pristine lakes.
It is a picture-postcard image that Murray Jardine says hides a darker truth.
Two years ago, the 66-year-old former power engineer turned antique hunter had a plan to remove logs and bark from several lakes near his home town of Dryden. The bark would serve as fuel for a water distillation process and the logs that were not too rotten promised to be another source of income.
The logs and bark come from nearly a century of lumber activities when Northern Ontario waterways served as transportation routes for wood harvested out of the North’s forests. Many logs would sink, and it is these logs and bark, Jardine asserts, which are also the cause of serious environmental damage to some of the communities that rely on for drinking water.
“I did a lot of shallow diving in quite a few lakes looking for old relics and every lake I would dive into was loaded at the bottom with timber,” he says. “I started to take an inventory, going into practically every lake from Longlac to Shoal Lake on the Manitoba border.
“The amount of timber in there is incomprehensible,” Jardine says. “It’s in the billions of cords.”
As for the bark, “it’s a nightmare” he adds. Bark is 20 per cent tannins - an astringent compound used to tan hides. To prove his point, Jardine has conducted a simple experiment by distilling lake water to remove the impurities, including the tannins that prove fatal to any living creature exposed to them.
Jardine adds the slow fermentation of the logs creates a hazard when the water, containing gases from the logs’ fermentation, combines with gas in the water to form tri-halo methanes.
“The bark has to be taken out. It can be used as a valuable fuel. At a high temperature, you could burn it to produce electricity,” he says, adding not removing the material amounts to “slow-motion genocide” from the chemicals.
The snag Jardine has encountered in his business planning is the inability to secure insurance. His previous insurance carrier refused to renew his liability insurance and other companies he has approached since then have refused to insure him.
“The government insists on a $2-million liability insurance,” Jardine says. “I’ve tried getting the government to change the rules. That was the old Conservative government under Ernie Eves. I don’t know if the new Liberal government is willing to change the rules. I have to approach them.”
Sunken log recovery cost prohibitive
Chuck Mason, forest policy advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources forest management branch, says the harvesting of logs from the bottom of Ontario’s lakes is a new industry. It was at its peak in Ontario in 2001-2002 when there were eight practitioners who extracted about 600 cubic metres of lost wood from Ontario’s lakes under very tight controls.
Since then, less than a handful in Ontario are active, in part because of the costs incurred in extracting the wood, he says.
Both provincial and federal levels of government, including the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, as well as the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Natural Resources handle its regulation.
In addition to concerns over disturbing fish habitat, there are also concerns the type of extraction Jardine refers to may affect people’s drinking water, says Mason. By requiring the insurance, the province is not left with the tab should something happen during the extraction process that requires an environmental cleanup.
“The tannins that come from the bark sitting at the bottom of these lakes right now are not posing a threat,” he says. “If you start lifting it out, then you start stirring the toxins around.”
The insurance requirement is also due to labour laws in Ontario to protect individual workers who could be injured doing this kind of work.
Jardine says he has not given up on his plans, just placed them on hold. And there is not enough hog fuel available currently in the system to provide for his needs, as well as the needs of larger companies that burn it for electricity generation.
He vows to continue to petition both provincial and federal levels of government to reduce or eliminate the insurance requirements and allow him to harvest the bark and logs he needs for his business interests.
“I won’t quit,” Jardine says. “I’ll never quit...it’s important to clean up our lakes because our water is going to be in high demand.