New Brunswick

How did New Brunswick's environment fare in 2019? Not so well

From flooding to North Atlantic right whale deaths to the Minto tire fire, it's been a trying 12 months for the province's ecosystem.

From flooding to North Atlantic right whale deaths to the Minto tire fire, it's been a trying 12 months

From flooding to North Atlantic right whale deaths to fires, Mother Nature was rough on New Brunswick in 2019. (CBC)

From flooding to North Atlantic right whale deaths to the Minto tire fire, it's been a trying time for the province's ecosystem.

CBC New Brunswick sat down with Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, to discuss the top environmental stories of 2019 and what they might mean for the year — and decade — ahead.

In no particular order, these are the top six environmental stories of 2019.

1. Spring flooding

Water rescue authorities provide flood relief to victims stranded in their home. (Sgt. Lance Wade/5th Canadian Division)

For the second year in a row, high water levels battered many parts of the province, temporarily pushed people from their homes and closed the Trans-Canada Highway.

Water levels remained above the flood stage for two weeks throughout southern New Brunswick. Heavy winds and waves up to four feet high crashed against houses and cottages around Grand Lake. Homeowners who spent the previous year repairing and rebuilding were forced to do it all over again. 

"If there was something in this decade that woke people up, it was the back-to-back floods and it was the hurricanes and it was the ice storm," Corbett said.

In 2019, water levels peaked in Fredericton at 8.36 metres — well above the 6.5 metre flood stage for the city. In Saint John, where the flood stage is 4.2 metres, water levels peaked at 5.53 metres.

2. Right whale deaths

Eight North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters this year, including the 16-year-old female pictured above. (Marilyn Marx/Anderson Cabot Center-NEAQ)

Eight North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters in 2019.

Scientists estimate there are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales still alive. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear have been blamed for whale deaths in recent years.

"A species teetering on the brink of extinction could be in even more trouble because of the state of our oceans," Corbett said.

"When we pollute our oceans, whether it's with plastic waste on the bottom of the Bay of Fundy … we pollute all the way up the food chain and that will have an effect on endangered species like the right whale."

The survival of the species depends on no more than one whale death per year, according to Jennifer Goebel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

 Corbett said it's important the provincial and federal governments work together to ensure North Atlantic right whales live beyond the 2020s.

"We do not want next year or the year after to be remembered as the year we lost the last right whale," she said.

3. Carbon tax 

Canadian premiers and the prime minister speak to the media at the First Ministers closing news conference Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

After initially opposing the federal government's carbon tax, the New Brunswick government got Ottawa's approval to implement its own.

New Brunswick was among four provinces that fought the federal levy, which added 4.4 cents per litre plus HST to the price of gas. The federal government introduced the tax as an incentive for consumers to use less gasoline.

New Brunswick's tax applies 4.4 cents per litre at the pumps but reduces the provincial excise tax on gasoline by almost the same amount, resulting in a net increase to consumers of one cent per litre.

"There was so much tension around the carbon tax," Corbett said. "The air was kind of sucked out of the room for other significant conversations. What we need to do is turn that page in the coming year."

4. Hurricane Dorian 

About 60 boats at the Shediac Bay Yacht Club in Shediac, N.B., were tossed around and entangled by winds and waves generated by post-tropical storm Dorian in early September. (Gary Moore/CBC)

In early September, heavy wind and rain besieged some parts of the province as Hurricane Dorian made its way through the Maritimes.

Although the storm didn't impact New Brunswick to the same extent as other Atlantic provinces, the post-tropical storm still wrought some havoc.

Strong wind gusts left tens of thousands without power in Moncton and southeastern New Brunswick. About 60 boats at the Shediac Bay Yacht Club became tangled up in the winds. The storm also uprooted several trees in King's Square in Saint John, some of which were more than 200 years old.

5. Belledune Smelter shuts down 

Glencore Canada Corp. announced the closure of its lead smelter in Belledune in November. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Glencore Canada Corp. announced it was closing its lead smelter in Belledune in early November, leaving 420 employees out of work. The shutdown of the smelter will result in a big environmental mess.

"It's a cleanup project of a magnitude that we've never seen in New Brunswick or in Atlantic Canada before," Corbett said.

"In fact, it's something that hasn't happened very often worldwide." 

The land around the smelter will have arsenic, lead and mercury in it, Corbett said. 

Under New Brunswick's Clean Environment Act Glencore Canada Corp. will have to submit an environmental impact assessment of its cleanup efforts, she said.

"We've got a big mess, a legacy mess on our hands."

The municipal, provincial and federal governments are hoping to attract a new company to the northern New Brunswick community.

6. Minto tire fire

The TRACC tire recycling plant caught fire around 10 p.m. on Dec. 20 and burned for an entire week. (Harvey Fire Department)

Thick black clouds of smoke hung in the air for hours and days after a fire erupted at a tire recycling plant in Minto, N.B.

The Tire Recycling Atlantic Canada Corporation plant caught fire around 10 p.m. on Dec. 20 and burned for a week before construction and fire crews buried the tires in sand.

An air quality advisory was lifted Dec. 30, but a water advisory remains in effect. Burning rubber can contain cancer-causing chemicals.

Corbett said the Department of Environment and Local Government will need to continuously check on ground water and surface water runoff to make sure that there's no contaminants.

"I think that we'll need to be very vigilant over the next few months and especially in the springtime," she said. 

With files from Rachel Cave

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