A BRITISH company has been named one of the biggest polluters of Canada's St. Lawrence River and five company directors are facing fines that could total millions of dollars.
Tioxide Canada, a subsidiary of Toronto-based ICI Canada Inc., was charged after ignoring a series of warnings that it stop polluting the river that flows from the Great Lakes to Atlantic Ocean. But last month the company won another stay in court and the plant, which produces titanium powder for paint pigments, is still operating.
The plant at Tracy, near Montreal, dumps 184 tons of sulphates and 128 tons of sulphuric acid into the river every day. It also dumps a cocktail of poisonous heavy metals, including 8.7 tons of iron, 3,000 pounds of titanium, 632 pounds of vanadium, 205 pounds of chromium, 12 pounds of other metals, and 7,800 pounds of suspended solids. The Tioxide plant has been operating for 30 years.
"They are one of three biggest polluters of the St. Lawrence River," says Guy Martin, chief investigating officer for Canada's Environment Ministry in Montreal. "Some months they are the biggest, some months it is others."
Heavy metal pollution is being blamed for the sharp decline in the number of Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River. At the turn of the century 10,000 Belugas swam in the river. Today there are only 450 to 500.
"We have found very high levels of a variety of toxins in the systems of the Beluga whales and we have found a very high level of lesions that are found very rarely in marine mammals," says Pierre Beland, a scientist with the St. Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology, a private consulting group.
"The Beluga whales are dying of diseases that they would not normally get; they also are not reproducing. So you have high mortality and a low reproductive rate, which means the population could disappear," Mr. Beland says.
He adds that there is no direct link to Tioxide Canada. The whales eat eels that travel down from the Great Lakes, picking up the heavy metals as they feed along the bottom of the river.
"That's true, you can't put the blame directly on them [Tioxide Canada]," says Mr. Martin. "But the Belugas are dying and Tioxide is one of the most important polluters of the St. Lawrence River; you have to draw your own conclusions."
The company says that it is being unfairly singled out, since it says there are bigger polluters of the river and Tioxide plans to open a new cleaner plant by the end of 1994.
"The Beluga whale. There's another bad rap against Tioxide," says Neal Mednick, spokesman for Tioxide and ICI Canada. "The eels coming out of the Great Lakes system are the problem. The eels are bottom feeders and pick up a lot of heavy metals and the Belugas gorge on them."
Mr. Mednick admits the company is still putting untreated heavy metals directly into the river.
"They're not good for your health, not if you ingest them directly," he says. But he says the effect of the pollutants is exaggerated, especially when it comes to the Beluga whales.
Tioxide Canada is a subsidiary of Tioxide Group Ltd., which is in turn owned by ICI. ICI became the sole owner of Tioxide in December 1990.
There were a total of 36 charges made by the Canadian government, six against the company and six against each of the five directors. Each charge carries a fine of $1,000,000 [Canadian; US$788,770]. There are also possible prison terms, but it is not expected a sentence would be handed out for a first offense.
The federal government is anxious to make an example of Tioxide. "These people are bad actors. They just won't listen," says an advisor to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who asked not to be named. If the problem has reached the prime minister's notice, says the advisor, the company can expect persistence on the part of the prosecutors.
The government of the province of Quebec has ignored major polluters in the past. In spite of the St. Lawrence River being an open industrial sewer in places, last year it handed down only about C$1,000,000 in fines.
Quebec's environment minister, Pierre Paradis, gave Tioxide Canada two weeks to stop pouring heavy metals and other pollutants into the river; that was eight months ago.
Tioxide Canada says it has cut "effluent" by half. The federal government is not impressed. "They cut production because of the recession and a drop in demand," Martin says.
Whether it is the fault of Tioxide or not, television pictures of dying fish near the plant and poisoned Beluga whales farther down the river have embarrassed both provincial and national governments and they are anxious to make the charges stick.