Legislators must set aside Irving’s ultimatum

Wayne Young comments@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on June 21, 2014

Living just 10 minutes from Cavendish Farms, I see every day the economic impact this processing giant has on P.E.I.

Many of my neighbours and some family members depend on the plant for their livelihoods, either by working year-round in New Annan or by working with farmers who grow potatoes for the french fry production line.

Everyone wants Cavendish Farms to succeed, but not at any cost. When the company announced it was laying off 60 people from a workforce of 700 last November, it was front-page news. A company official said it was responding to increased production from competitors in North America and Europe. Three months later, for the same reason, 23 more workers were let go.

So when company president Robert Irving appeared before a legislative standing committee on agriculture last week, it wasn’t surprising that he would argue in favour of a measure he believes will help Cavendish Farms keep pace with its competitors. He urged the committee to recommend lifting a 12-year moratorium on high capacity agricultural wells in P.E.I. The move, he said, would enable its potato growers to stay competitive and the plant to send a high-quality product to market.

Fair enough.

But Irving went farther, much farther. He pointed out Cavendish Farms is the largest private employer in P.E.I. with an economic impact of over $1 billion. It purchases more than half of all raw potatoes grown on P.E.I., he said. But because those potatoes are not meeting consistency and quality demands of the french fry market, Irving warned it might have to reduce its investment here and start growing elsewhere.

Unless, of course, government lifts the moratorium on deep-water wells and allows agricultural irrigation. That, he said, would enable growers to consistently produce the quality product the market demands.

The legislative committee must now sort through Irving’s presentation and determine what’s useful and what’s not.

Cavendish Farms, along with the P.E.I. Potato Board, offered its own scientific evidence that lifting the moratorium won’t jeopardize the province’s only source of drinking water. That’s useful. Irving’s ultimatum is not, and it should be set aside in the debate.

When then-Environment Minister Chester Gillan put the moratorium in place in 2002, he said it needed further study to determine  deep-water wells’ impact on water levels. Many feared it would pose a serious threat to groundwater. Twelve years later, there seems to be plenty of science on all sides of the debate.

But now, there are increasing calls for this science to be peer-reviewed, not only from a coalition of groups and activists opposing the deep water wells, but also from farm organizations who want the moratorium lifted. I find it encouraging that Gary Linkletter of the P.E.I. Potato Board agreed after last week’s presentation that a third party should review the province’s scientific data.

“Get someone credible, probably from another province who’s got a good record, who has knowledge of these things . . . . to review the Department of Environment’s data, do other research as needed and get a definitive answer — will this hurt P.E.I.’s environment? If it won’t, then continue on.”

Like most Islanders and certainly like the politicians who will have to make the final decision, I don’t have the expertise to definitively say yes or no to lifting the moratorium. Opinion isn’t fact, and rhetoric does little to advance the debate on an issue as important as our water quality and supply. Only when all necessary scientific data has been gathered, independently reviewed and proven accurate can a final decision on the deep-water well moratorium be made.

In the meantime, developing a comprehensive water management policy may help. Environment Minister Janice Sherry promises to consult widely with Islanders and experts in coming up with the new water act. Skeptics say it will take too long, probably until after the next election when it will be easier for government to lift the moratorium.

We’ve waited 12 years and can surely wait a few more, if necessary, to get a new water act in place — one that ensures our precious water resources are sustainable for today and future generations, and for an assurance that a decision on deep-water wells will be supported by the best peer-reviewed science available.

As important as Cavendish Farms is to the Island’s economy, its demands can and must be trumped by a safe and sustainable water supply.

We want the jobs, yes, but we want the water more. The final decision on the moratorium must be based on good peer-reviewed science — not ultimatums from huge corporations.

Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.