In the hundred years of Howe Sound Pulp and Paper (HSPP) perhaps nothing has been as contentious as its environmental history. Almost from day one there were issues with what the business would do to the land, sea and air surrounding the mill.
Chronicles of the mid-20th century tell tales of sludge on the waterfront of the mill that was so thick and deceiving that unsuspecting tourists mistook the muck for sand. It was quite an eye opener when they sunk up to their knees in the lime mud floating on the Sound. (The effluent was later resolved by installing an outfall defuser.)
Long-time resident of both Port Mellon and Gibsons, Louise Hume vividly recalled the first day she set foot in the township by the mill. She was a young girl there on holiday. As a treat she was allowed to go to the Seaside Hotel and pick whatever appealed to her from the menu. Hume chose a tempting slab of lemon meringue pie. At first bite she knew that was a mistake.
"It was the worst thing I'd ever eaten in my life," she remembered many decades later. The odour from the mill had permeated the pie and made it inedible.
Although it's seems difficult to believe, it wasn't until the mid-'80s that the biggest changes to environmental policies took place.
A May 12, 1984 item in the Coast News, a community newspaper of the time, announced improvements for the mill slated at $34.8 million. The changes began in 1981, halted in 1982 for "reasons of restraint," were to cost $9.7 million in 1984 and the balance in 1985/86.
On completion the mill would have a new pulp machine, dryer, cutter, baling line and associated equipment. This would result in extra pulp production, lower operating costs and improved product. Nowhere in the article does the environment rate even a mention.
Later that decade several things happened to change the mill radically in environmental practices.
First of all was a strident campaign launched by recording star Terry Jacks. Not one to back down to the government, Jacks questioned why the mills up and down the West Coast were allowed to "fill our air and water full of crap."
Jacks, a Sunshine Coast resident, recalled those days vividly.
He took the Ministry of Environment to court. A film he produced, The Faceless Ones, won at the New York International Film Festival.
But Jacks wasn't a hero to everyone. Some mill workers swore his intention was to shut the mill down and put them out of work.
"My boat was targeted [by disgruntled workers]," Jacks said. "My mother was phoned once by someone saying I was dead. For two hours she thought this was the truth. It was nothing to do with jobs; it was about greed," he said.
And in 1988 a young chemical engineer, Al Strang, came to work at Howe Sound Pulp and Paper as a quality control supervisor.
"Do this environmental stuff in your spare time" was the directive launched at Strang.
The first concern Strang had were dioxins, which had been identified as a pollutant in 1986. He worked with the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada to figure out how to fix the problem.
Strang said this was accomplished through modernization of the plant between 1988 and 1992. Chlorine was replaced with chlorine dioxide to get rid of the dioxins. In 1990 the effluent was dioxine free.
Strang also said particulate from the mill is now well within Ministry of Environment guidelines. It has been audited regularly since 1996 at an air quality station in Langdale.
Strang said a study commissioned by the ministry showed greater nitrogen oxide spikes from the regular disgorging of vehicles from the ferry than from the mill's operation.
"We don't have any impact on the air quality in the community," Strang stated.
"I have to give a lot of credit to people like Bill Hughes [former HSPP president who came to the mill in 1973]. Bill made a very conscious decision to invest in the best equipment we could get," Strang said.
"One of the most gratifying things that happened to me in the mid-1990s was a letter sent by Sunshine Coast Kayaking [a Gibsons company] commenting on how the life had come back in the intertidal zone. We could see visible rewards for the investment we had made in the environment. That somebody from the public out of the blue would thank us for doing that was wonderful," he remembered.
Health studies have been done over the past few years and none have identified any concerns, Strang said.
The biggest challenge remains odour. Strang explained that the more the air is cleaned, the more noticeable any smell becomes.
The odour is the result of by-products of the kraft process. It causes a family of gases containing sulphur. Now the gases are collected and burned; in the past they were vented into the atmosphere.
"When my father-in-law, Vern Rottluff, worked at the mill, his wife would make him change his clothes in the mud room and not bring them into the house," Strang said.
Now the odour is the exception rather than the rule.
"People's expectations change, what they'll accept. At one time for landfill they'd dig a hole and fill it up. Now the area is lined and water is treated at a waste water treatment plant," Strang said.
If the Seaside Hotel were still in operation today, the lemon pie would taste of citrus not sulphur. The environment has certainly changed for the better.