Safety, Clean Air and Water - GTEC Reader

Toronto in the 1960s Air Pollution

This story starts in 60’s in Toronto Ontario where I lived as a young boy. In those days there were no seatbelts in cars and no regulation ofemissions from their the engines. People drove around drunk, smoked and most people were not worried about pollution or safety. It was the post war period when most people were just concerned about jobs, family and enjoying life.

My mother became one of the first environmentalists though I am sure she did not think of it that way.She was just worried about keeping the air clean. There was a factory a couple of miles away from our house that had a tall chimney stack where I could see the smoke spewing out. We did not know what they made there, but my mom was concerned because when she put out her laundry to dry,it got dirty with black soot. I am also sure that she did not give a second thought to the idea that air drying her laundry was environmentally friendly. I don’t recall whether she did anything other than express concern about the need for clean air.

Vancouver in the early 1980s: Coal Freight Trains and Air Pollution

Twenty years later I was working atan engineering company planning the expansion of a coal terminal near Vancouver. I was involved in designingrailway access to the port. The plan was to expand the port by about a factor of about four. So, the number of coal trains travelling through communities in the region would increase from about 6 a day to 24. As a part of the planning, we assessed the impact on the communities that the train went through by utilizing a social consultant who surveyed the people living along the railway line. We found that there was a concern about the ability of ambulances and fire trucks getting to their destinations due to road closings by the mile long trains, vehicle accidents at railway crossings, noise, vibration, and coal dust flying off the trains. Safety, clean air, and noise were concerns.

Here, I want to talk about how coal dust was managed. At the time there were no covers on the rail cars and consequentlydust flew off and landed on people’s gardens, patios and cars. When we reported this to the railwaycompanies, the response was interesting. It was denial of the issue. One representativeeven suggested that it was fly feces and not coal dust.The irony of this was not lost on me when I thought back tomy mother’s concern about black soot landing on her laundry in Toronto twenty years before. To confirm the concerns about coal dust air quality sampling showed that coal dust was indeed landing on people’s gardens, windowsills and laundry.Circumstances were different this time, however than in the 60’s. The government’s condition for approval of the project was contingent on addressing the environmental concerns. Consequently, we recommended that all rail cars be covered by a latex spray so that the dust would not come off.

Taiwan in the 1980s: Port Terminals and Air Pollution

Not long after this project, I was involved in a port construction project in the mid 1980’s in Taiwan.We discovered that environmental regulations required that all conveyors that moved the coal had to be buried in tunnels underground.Conveyors are large belts that move the coal very quickly several kilometers from a ship through farmland to a storage yard at a power plant. I was told the reason for this went back to the 1960s and 1970s when Taiwan was relatively poor and in a rapid period of economic expansion. At that time, there were very few environmental regulations and the rivers were green with pollution and the air quality was very poor. There was a public reaction to this resulting in the implementation of strict environmental regulations. Burying the conveyors seemed to be excessive based on our Canadian experience. However we were told that based on the political power of farmers in Taiwan,industrial facilities near farmland had to meet very stringent environmental conditions. Despite the fact that Taiwan was not a democracy at that time, the government had responded to political pressure by farmers and enacted regulations about pollution.

Bangladesh: Poverty in the 80’s

After my time in Taiwan I was involved in a foreign aid project in Bangladesh which at the time was one of the poorest nations in the world. It was so poor that people were stealing anything and everything that was movable. There was little to no garbage because people were so poor that everything was used.  I was involved in a project to educate Bangladeshi railway workers on the maintenance of railway equipment. One of the consequences of poverty was that people stole the rubber hoses that connected the rail cars and sold them for very small amounts of money.The purpose of the rubber hoses is to transmit compressed air from the locomotive to the brakes in all the railcars. Without compressed air in every rail car,the brakes don’t work and only the brakes in the locomotive are available to stop the train. In Canada, trains were typically 100 cars long, but because the brakes don’t work on the rail cars in Bangladesh, trains were only 16 cars long. Poverty in Bangladesh at that time was crushing and there was very little concern for environmental issues.An interesting observation made by aid workers about Bangladesh was that because it was so poor it attracted significant amounts a foreign aid. However, most of this money went to people who were already wealthy and it really did not do much to help the poor. It seemed that the best thing that could happen would have been to create jobs for poor local people manufacturing goods for sale internationally. I will discuss this later.

Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s: Clearcutting and Lumber for Japan

Moving forward a few years, I left my engineering job to become the Vice President of Transportation in a trade association representing the BC forest industry. At that time there was ‘war in the woods’. Aboriginal people, and Environmentalists such as Greenpeace and the Western Wilderness Committee we’re trying to stop logging on the West coast, specifically Clayoquot Sound, a pristine old growth forest that some felt was a holy site due to the age and majesty of the trees. These trees were prized by the forest industry for their clear timber, free of knots that the Japanese paid dearly for. Ironically, the Japanese also revered pristine timber as it was featured predominantly in their temples.

The forest industry has a long history of logging and creating wealth in Canada. Itsattitudes and customs were rooted in the days when Canada was covered by forest except for the prairies.It was considered good and civilising to clear the land. Executives in the forest industry still had  vestiges of  this attitude in the 90’s although it was more oriented towards developing economic wealth. The association wanted to find out whether the environmental movement was something they had to deal with in the long run. So, they hired a public relations firm to poll the public to determine the attitudes behind the environmental movement. When the consultant gave his presentation to the captains of industry, I could tell he was nervous. He started his presentation by asking: do you like safe cities, do you like clean air, do you like clean water? And of course, the answer from the executives was yes, we like all those things. The consultant then said the environmental movement is not going away because this is what is behind the movement. How the executives responded to this information was interesting. I recall some in the room expressing the view of: I am not going to spend another nickel on protecting the forests unless I am regulated to do so. Another sentiment went along the lines of:I agree that my children and grandchildren should have safe cities, clean air and clean water I am going to find ways to change my practices and convince my board that we can make money doing this. At the time, I really did not understand the significance of the difference between these two positions,but in retrospect I do now. The first position puts economics first, while the second position puts values first. The second position does not abandon economics,but it places it second.

Bangladesh:Garment Factory collapse in the 2000’s

Sometime later, I became involved with Bangladesh again through teaching ethics and supply chain management in a business school. I used a case where low-cost clothing was manufactured in Bangladesh for large brand name organisations in North America like Walmart, Joe fresh and others. On one occasion reported by the CBC (2013) one of the factories where over 1000 people workedcollapsed killing many of them. The factory construction violated local and international building standards. After the collapse,representatives of the organizations that had contracted for the supply of clothing were asked whether they knew about this and they all claimed they didn’t know anything about it. They weren’t familiar with the low quality of the building design. When students review the case, one of the questions that comes up is who is responsible? is it the customer, is it the company buying the goods, is it the Canadian government that opened up trade with Bangladesh, is it the building owner, is it the government of Bangladesh. Canadian students say that we should stop buying from these countries. But international students from similar countries point out that the income workers make is the difference between survival and starvation as unemployment is so high.

The laws and standards in Bangladesh typically are not upheld due to corruption. The question then becomes will the Bangladeshis do anything about this? It is difficult to say. The next question is should the Canadian government do something about this? Should we cut off trade with Bangladesh? Another question is why do these people work for such low pay in such horrible conditions when they already know the riskof their jobs?  The answer to this question is not all that difficult. The unemployment rate in Bangladesh is extremely high so if you lose your job you have no income and a low probability of getting another job. So, people at the bottom of the economic pyramid have little negotiating power.

Economics taken to the extreme are not good. What did we do in the West when we had children working and dying in mines and factories in the 19th century?There was social outcry, conflict with those in power against the excess in profiteering, the formation of unions despite opposition and the implementation of a social safety net that we now take for granted. If a generous view is taken, then companies from the West operating in places like Bangladesh and other third world or developing countries make an assumption that the social systems of these countries are similar to that of the West which provides some protection to the lowest in the economic stratum. But this is often not the case and so the question becomes who is responsible in these situations.It seems to me that the buyer (large retail organizations) is responsible because they are in a position to understand the situation and has the resources to address these matters. But how? One view is that profits at all cost is the bedrock of commerce. Another approach is to inquire what values do I need to incorporate in my arrangements with companies in developing countries so that I put heart before money. A very simple way of saying this is: would I accept these working conditions for members of my family.

In conclusion, how do safe cities,clean air and water come about?First, when national poverty is dealt with. When this is achieved what next? It seems to be driven by a response to excess. When something is out of balance there is a reaction against it. The reaction can come from individuals; it can come from governments; it can come from communities of like-minded people. Is it bad that we buy things from Bangladesh or Indonesia or China or any developing country? Probably not. What might be wrong is that we fail to acknowledge the social economic conditions in these nationsand take the responsibility to ask: Are our  actions consistent with the kind of conditions under which what we would want our family, friends and community to live?


CBC (2013), Made in Bangladesh, Fifth Estate,