TORONTO — CANADIAN environmentalists, including some federal officials, are battling provincial officials over plans to build new pulp and paper mills in Alberta. Forestry is a provincial matter in Canada, but the environment is a federal responsibility. Anxious to diversify an economy that depends heavily on oil and gas, Alberta made deals with foreign firms over the last year to build seven plants. It leased them timber rights to virgin forest equal to one-third of the Texas-size province.
Although Proctor and Gamble, the world's largest maker of disposable diapers, plans to build one of the mills, Canadian concern is focused on Japanese companies.
The environmental planning for the Japanese mills is ``unacceptable,'' Robert Lane, an official with Environment Canada, told a public hearing in Edmonton this month. ``No other mill should be approved until we have enough information.''
The federal Minister of the Environment, Lucien Bouchard, says he agrees with Mr. Lane. And last week, a federal official said that if the Japanese-owned mills didn't meet Ottawa standards, they would be closed as soon they opened.
What worries the federal government is the risk of pollution in the Athabasca River. Waste from the mills could choke off the river's oxygen supply and introduce toxins. The pulp and paper industry has been one of Canada's largest polluters.
Mitsubishi and Honhsu Paper Co. Ltd. plan to build a $1.3-billion (Canadian, US$1.1 billion) pulp mill that would be one of the world's largest of its type. It would sit upstream from the Athabasca River.
``There was unseemly haste to attract investment without working out the environmental implications, especially in the case of the Alberta government,'' says Elizabeth May of Cultural Survival [Canada], an environmental group.
The president of Mitsubishi tried to calm fears about the plant while in Canada earlier this month. ``We have no intention of pursuing business opportunities at the expense of environment destruction,'' Shinroku Morohashi told reporters in Ottawa.
But Ms. May worries about the track record of Japanese firms in the forestry business. ``Japanese firms have committed an ecological holocaust in the forests of Malaysia,'' she says. ``If Japan starts showing concern for the Canadian environment, it will only be because Canadians have said they won't tolerate the type of practices used in Asia.''
The Alberta government has been horrified at the prospect of losing the investment dollars from the new mills. The provincial environment minister, Ralph Klien, has called on Ottawa to retract its threats to the plants. So far, it has not.