Archive for June, 2019

Firefighters facing “a real monster,” Que. official says

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

Firefighters continued to battle Monday major forest fires inching closer to the native reserve of Wemotaci in central Quebec as winds blew thick smoke hundreds of kilometres way to Montreal and Ottawa.

The province’s forest fire protection agency, the Sopfeu, said 47 forest fires were raging across the province at midday Monday and eight were considered out of control.

The overall situation has improved over the weekend, but firefighters are concerned about Wemotaci, one of the hottest spots of the province.

A fire near the reserve – which was evacuated last week – grew vigorously Sunday and firefighters were forced to retreat because the smoke was too dense. "It was infernal, we’re up against a real monster," Sopfeu spokesman Marcel Trudel told reporters in La Tuque, noting the flames were as high as 30 metres.

The Sopfeu said their teams were able to return to Wemotaci Monday morning to battle the flames surrounding the reserve. "The fire didn’t do any damage but some preventive lines didn’t hold up and we’ll have to do extra work in those places," Trudel said.

He noted the winds have shifted and died down, giving a hand to the firefighters. The Sopfeu is also hoping the light rain forecasted for the region will provide some relief.

The majority of the fires are burning near Wemotaci and La Tuque, about 300 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

The Quebec provincial police asked Monday that cottage owners and people who fish and camp in the region evacuate.

"We don’t want people to wait until the last minute. We don’t know if we’ll be able to get everyone out by air if the situation becomes critical," said Surete du Quebec spokeswoman Eloise Cossette.

Some fires are also burning in the area of Parent, in the Mauricie, and in the Abitibi region.

Over the past week, firefighters have battled 118 fires in the province and managed to put out 66. With the help of teams from British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick, Maine and New Hampshire the Sopfeu currently has 1,300 firefighters working across Quebec.

The smoke from the fires has drifted hundreds of kilometres away, reaching Montreal, Quebec’s Eastern Townships and Ottawa Monday.

A layer of smoke enveloped the Montreal region Monday morning and Environment Canada issued a smoke warning for Laval, Vaudreuil, Soulanges Huntingdon, Richelieu Valley, Ste. Hyacinthe, Lachute, St. Jerome, Lanaudiere, Mauricie, Drummondville, Bois-Franc and the Eastern Townships.

The City of Montreal’s air quality monitoring stations indicated the worst readings were in Ste. Anne de Bellevue and areas of downtown, where readings were above 150. Fifty-one and above is considered bad air quality.

Smog especially affects asthmatic children and people with respiratory ailments or heart disease. It is, therefore, recommended that these individuals avoid intense physical activity outdoors until the smog warning is lifted.

In Ottawa, the fire department was kept busy responding to ‘multiple calls from across the city’ about the odour early Monday.

By Monday night, the winds are expected to change again to blow the smoke north and clear of the Montreal and Ottawa region.

With files from the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen

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Cull suggested for Nova Scotia’s Sable Island

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

A federal report proposing a massive seal cull on Nova Scotia’s Sable Island has drawn the ire of environmentalists who say it is unjustifiable and would turn the famed island, known for its wild horses and isolated, windswept beaches, into an international embarrassment for Canada.

The report, prepared last year for the federal Fisheries Department, proposes the slaughter of an estimated 220,000 seals over a five-year period.

Obtained under access-to-information legislation and posted online by The Coast weekly newspaper in Halifax, the report lays out in grisly detail, potential plans for controlling the island’s grey seal population, which is estimated at 300,000.

One proposed plan is an “immunocontraceptive” vaccine program aimed at the female population of grey seals.

The other, and more attention-grabbing plan, is a cull that would kill 100,000 seals in the first year, and 30,000 in each of the following four years – the killing would take place during the winter months and involve shooters using rifles.

To avoid the animals being “spooked” by the sound of gun blasts, silencers are recommended to be used. But since silencers are illegal in Canada, the devices likely would have to be imported from the United States, where they are legal. That would, the report said, mean special permits would have to be obtained, under guidelines of Canada’s Firearms Act.

The report also recommends the killing of baby seals because without their mothers, they would be left to starve.

The report says the fishing industry blames the seal population for overconsuming fish stocks, for disturbing feeding and spawning patterns of fish, and for destroying fishing gear, among other things.

Mark Butler, the policy director for the Ecology Action Centre, a Halifax-based environmental advocacy group, said such a cull would have to be kept up for years to come to be successful, something he said simply isn’t warranted.

“I don’t think the fishing industry in justified going in there and (killing thousands of) seals when they haven’t cleaned up their own act,” Butler said.

Earlier this year, the Nova Scotia and federal governments said they would team to designate Sable Island as either a national park or a national wildlife area.

Butler said he’s dubious such a project would be undertaken in an area destined to be a national park.

“But one can never underestimate . . . there’s been some very foolish schemes,” he said.

He said that given the international opposition the seal hunt already faces, a massive cull on Sable Island would be a “gong show.”

Butler said some of the reasons species flourish is because their natural predators have been eliminated. He cited the fact that there are some sharks that hunt seals, and that sharks have been overfished.

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Gulf oil spill threat widens, protests planned

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

VENICE, La. – Oil from BP’s out-of-control Gulf of Mexico oil spill could threaten the Mississippi and Alabama coasts this week, U.S. forecasters said on Monday, as public anger surged over the country’s worst environmental disaster.

U.S. government and BP officials are warning that the blown-out deepwater well feeding the catastrophic spill may not be shut off until August as the company begins preparations on a new but uncertain attempt to contain the leaking crude.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will meet with federal prosecutors and state attorneys general in New Orleans in Tuesday. It will be Holder’s first trip to survey the damage before what legal experts believe will be a criminal investigation into the disaster.

The London Stock Exchange and Wall Street were closed for holidays on Monday, but BP shares in Frankfurt sank 7 per cent to close at around 5.40 euros ($6.93 Cdn) on the news of the company’s weekend failure to halt the oil leak.

BP’s stock has lost nearly a quarter of its value since the oil spill started six weeks ago, wiping nearly 29 billion pounds ($44 billion Cdn) off BP’s market value, according to Reuters data.

The disaster, in its 42nd day on Monday, is already the largest oil spill in U.S. history and officials are treating it it as the country’s biggest environmental catastrophe.

Although Louisiana’s wetlands and fishing grounds have been the worst hit so far by the spill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said moderate southerly and southwesterly winds this week may start moving oil closer to the Mississippi Delta.

"Model results indicate that oil may move north to threaten the barrier islands off Mississippi and Alabama later in the forecast period," NOAA said in its 72-hour prediction on the expected trajectory of the huge oil slick.

Mississippi and Alabama have escaped lightly so far, with only scattered tar balls and oil debris reaching its coasts.

But the NOAA forecast was a sober reminder that oil from the unchecked spill, broken up and carried by winds and ocean currents, could threaten a vast area of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including tourism mecca Florida, as well as Cuba and Mexico.

Following the failure this weekend of BP’s attempt to plug the spewing 1.6 km-deep well, public anger over the spill and how it occurred is growing, as tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents face a pollution impact on their livelihoods.

A group calling itself Seize BP, which has already staged anti-BP protests, said on Monday it would organize demonstrations in more than 50 U.S. cities from Thursday to Saturday to protest the damage from the leaking oil.

The group demands that BP’s assets be immediately seized and held in trust to pay compensation for the spill triggered by the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

"JOBS VANISHING, CREATURES DYING"

"The greatest environmental disaster with no end in sight! Eleven workers dead. Millions of gallons of oil gushing for months (and possibly years) to come. Jobs vanishing. Creatures dying. A pristine environment destroyed for generations. A mega-corporation that has lied and continues to lie, and a government that refuses to protect the people," Seize BP said in a statement.

The public anger and frustration over the spill poses a major domestic challenge for President Barack Obama, who has been forced to admit publicly that the U.S. government and military do not have the technology to plug the leaking well and must leave this to BP and its private industry partners.

Obama, who made his second visit to the Gulf disaster zone on Friday, is sending three of his top energy and environmental officials back there this week. He is trying to fend off criticism that his administration acted too slowly in its response to the spill, the worst in U.S. history.

The crisis could swell into a political liability for the Democratic president as his administration and party, bloodied by bruising health care and economic policy debates, head toward key mid-term congressional elections in November.

Louisiana’s commercial and recreational fishing industry already has been dealt a blow by the spill. Fishing boats bobbed idle on Monday at the Venice Marina in Louisiana, which would normally be a hive of activity during the long Memorial Day weekend.

"Just take a look around, it’s quiet," marina owner Bill Butler said as he sat wistfully looking at the idle boats.

As a health precaution, U.S. authorities have closed all fishing in 25 per cent of Gulf of Mexico U.S. federal waters.

The Gulf Coast is one of America’s richest ecosystems and a vital breeding ground for a $6.5 billion seafood industry.

ULTIMATE HOPES IN RELIEF WELL

BP executives say the company will try several immediate options to try to control the leak, including the planned deployment of a containment cap in the next few days, but the ultimate solution may only lie in the drilling of a relief well that is expected to be completed in August.

The drilling of two relief wells, which began in May, is an expensive but more reliable way to intercept and cap the leaking well.

The Gulf spill has surpassed the Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989 as the worst U.S. oil spill, with an estimated 12,000 to 19,000 barrels (1.9 million to 3 million liters) leaking per day.

BP is now preparing a containment cap to place on top of a lower marine riser package (LMRP), a piece of equipment that sits atop the failed well blowout preventer on the seabed.

Remote vehicles have begun cutting away pipes atop the blowout preventer to allow a tight fit with the cap, and will saw through the main riser pipe in "next day or two," a BP spokesman said on Monday.

The White House said the company would begin cutting a pipe that rises out of the so-called LMRP on Monday or Tuesday.

If the containment operation works – and BP expects to know later this week – then at least some of the leaking oil could be piped to the surface.

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Harper regrets deaths in Israeli attack on aid convoy

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement Monday regretting the deaths and injuries that occurred when Israel used military force against a flotilla of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, but said more information is needed to shed light on what happened.

The statement was issued by his office shortly before Harper hosted a meeting in his office with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Canada deeply regrets the loss of life and the injuries suffered," Harper’s office said. "We are currently looking for more information in order to shed light on what exactly happened."

Prior to meeting Harper, Netanyahu gave his "full backing" to Israel’s military forces after Israeli navy commandos stormed the vessels in international waters, leaving as many as 19 people dead and others injured.

"The prime minister . . . reiterated his full backing for the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) and inquired about the well being of the wounded," his office told AFP in Ottawa.

The incident prompted a wave of international condemnation, as Israel said it was forced to board the ships to uphold its blockade of the Hamas-ruled Palestinian territory.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said the United States "deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy."

Netanyahu was scheduled to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday, but reports indicated the visit had been cancelled.

At the United Nations, the Security Council will meet Monday afternoon for an emergency session to discuss the attack on the flotilla, Security Council diplomats told Reuters.

They said no time had yet been set for the meeting and gave no further details.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay condemned Israel’s use of military force as "disproportionate."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights joined calls for an "immediate and credible" inquiry into the interception and urged Israel to lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip.

"We need to establish exactly what happened. However, nothing can justify the appalling outcome of this operation, which reportedly took place in international waters," Pillay said in a statement.

"I unequivocally condemn what appears to be disproportionate use of force, resulting in the killing and wounding of so many people attempting to bring much-needed aid to the people of Gaza, who have now been enduring a blockade for more than three years."

According to Israel’s Channel 10 television, 19 passengers were killed when Israeli naval forces stormed the ships, although the army gave a toll of 10.

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Canada’s economy grows faster than expected

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

OTTAWA – Canada’s economy grew at a faster pace than expected in the first quarter of this year, led by consumer spending, increasing the possibility of an interest rate hike Tuesday by the country’s central bank.

Gross domestic product rose at an annualized pace of 6.1 per cent between January and March, the biggest jump since the last quarter of 1999, Statistics Canada reported Monday. Growth in the fourth quarter of last year was revised to 4.9 per cent from five per cent.

Most economists had expected GDP growth of 5.8 per cent in the first three months of 2010.

"Residential investment increased for a fourth consecutive quarter, as did consumer spending on goods and services," Statistics Canada said. "Export and import volumes both rose for a third consecutive quarter, with growth in imports outpacing growth in exports in the first quarter."

This marks the third straight quarter of economic growth in Canada, following three consecutive quarters of contraction.

Meanwhile, Statistics Canada separately reported that March economic growth was 0.6 per cent, after a 0.3 per cent advance in the previous month.

"While there are some questions on the sustainability of the rebound, there is simply no question that the early stages of Canada’s recovery exceeded even the most optimistic expectations," said Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Monday’s GDP numbers came one day before the Bank of Canada meets to decide whether to begin increasing interest rates.

Many economists expect the central bank on Tuesday will raise rates for the first time since lowering them to a record-low 0.25 per cent in April 2009 in an effort to fight off the worldwide recession. The consensus is for a 25-basis-point rise to 0.50 per cent.

"While it might initially appear unseemly for the bank to hike into a severe stock market correction, it would arguably be even more frightening to the market if a peripheral country like Canada was worried enough to defer rate hiking despite such compelling domestic arguments," said TD Securities’ Eric Lascelles. "In the event that conditions deteriorate further, the bank can always pause later in its tightening cycle, with minimum damage done."

Statistics Canada said consumer spending on goods and services rose 1.1 per cent in the first quarter, compared to a one per cent gain in the previous quarter.

"Household spending on semi-durable goods advanced, particularly for clothing, footwear, and accessories," the report said. "Expenditure on new motor vehicles grew, but at a much slower pace than in the previous three quarters."

Residential investment advanced 5.4 per cent, the fourth monthly increase in a row, while new housing construction jumped 11 per cent and renovation activity was up 6.3 per cent.

Exports were up 2.9 per cent, the third consecutive quarterly gain following five quarters of decline, the federal agency said, led by industrial goods and materials and auto products. Imports rose 3.4 per cent, again lifted by industrial goods and materials and auto products -as well as machinery and equipment.

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