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Residents split over iron project

Oct 27 2012

A controversial project that has catapulted a small Haida Gwaii village into the international spotlight is dividing residents, says an opponent of the ocean iron-dumping experiment.

Many in Old Massett are concerned they were not given the full story by community leaders, said Gloria Tauber, a Haida woman.

After a five-hour meeting this week with Old Mas-sett residents, Chief Councillor Ken Rea promised an audit to show how the $2.5-million cost of the experiment was spent, Tauber said. The goal of the iron dumping was to stimulate plankton growth to feed salmon populations.

No one from Old Massett council was available to confirm whether an audit will be conducted.

Economic development officer John Disney, who has acted as spokesman since the incident came to light, said he is no longer speaking to reporters.

"We have put a lid on the whole media stuff now because we got too beat up," he said.

Tauber believes residents were misled from the start. Disney assured people they would become wealthy from the sale of carbon credits and that salmon runs would return if the experiment went ahead, Tauber said.

"The objective was not about restoring salmon - it was about selling millions of dollars of carbon credits," she said.

Since the experiment, experts have said it would be extremely difficult to sell carbon credits, since the science is unproven.

The $2.5 million, which came to the village through Gwaii Trust Society funds and a village reserve fund, would normally have been used to buy turkeys for villagers at Christmas and for language programs, said Tauber, who believes it will mean increasing hardship in a community where there is 70 per cent unemployment.

The average income in Old Massett, according to federal government statistics, is less than $16,000 a year.

Tauber said she sounded the alarm to Environment Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation before iron was scattered in international waters 370 kilometres off the coast of Haida Gwaii.

The experiment has been criticized by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Council of the Haida Nation, which says it poses unacceptable risks to the environment.

Russ George, a California businessman and chief scientist for the project, has a history of trying to conduct iron fertilization experiments around the world - resulting in his ships being banned from ports by the Spanish and Ecuadorian governments.

George told media earlier this month that about 100 tonnes of iron dust, 90 tonnes of iron sulfate - usually used as lawn fertilizer - and 20 tonnes of iron oxide were spread in the ocean from a rented fishing boat.

The scheme to make plankton grow to provide food for salmon appealed to some community members because failing salmon runs are causing hardship, Tauber said.

But the community vote was held on an evening when most residents were involved in a sports tournament and preparing for a potlatch and scraped through with only 66 votes in favour and 57 against, Tauber said.

Disney said previously that many of the 700 residents attended the meeting and the vote passed with 70 per cent in favour.

It's the second time that George has proposed a carbon-credit scheme for Old Massett. The first plan, to cut down alders beside creeks and replace them with fast-growing evergreens, was scuttled by Fisheries and Oceans.

International implications of the iron dumping are being studied by scientists, many of whom believe it contravenes the London Convention and Protocol.

In 2008, governments that signed the Convention on Biological Diversity - including Canada - were urged to ensure ocean fertilization did not take place until there is "an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities."

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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