Being underestimated is a superpower

In this week’s newsletter, Leah Borts-Kuperman talks about reporting on a new factory opening in her hometown of North Bay, Ont.

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Wow, there’s something about Narwhals that can shine a bright light amid grim news for Canadian media. Last week, we asked for 99 new members to join our pod, and we’ve already welcomed 90 of you since then. 

The generosity of our new Narwhals made us realize one thing: no threats from tech giants to block news in Canada can stop people from reading our investigative stories, like the one we talk about in today’s newsletter. Want to be a part of this bustling pod and get a copy of our limited-edition 2023 print magazine? Become a member today.
For seven years, officials have known Lake Nipissing and other northeastern Ontario waterways are contaminated with “forever chemicals:” substances called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are used to make everything from medical equipment to waterproof clothing.

But reporter Leah Borts-Kuperman hadn’t heard that the drinking water in her hometown of North Bay was contaminated until recently, while working on a story we published this week.

Leah learned Industrial Plastics Canada was opening a factory near North Bay, where it plans to make plastic from a PFAS known as a fluoropolymer. She knew enough about PFAS, which can last up to 1,000 years and harm human, animal and plant health, to be concerned — especially when she found out the factory wasn’t required to undergo an environmental assessment.

What she didn’t know is that for decades, the Department of National Defence used a firefighting foam containing PFAS across the country, or that the chemicals had contaminated surface water, soil, bedrock and groundwater surrounding a site near North Bay.

“When I started chatting with friends and family, no one seemed to know about it,” Leah told me. “Not just about the factory, but about this years-long issue.”

The news stories she’d read about Industrial Plastics Canada didn’t look very closely at the company’s plans: North Bay has an unemployment rate twice the national average, so most local coverage focused on potential economic benefits.
Leah wanted to dig deeper, but it proved hard to get satisfying answers. Both a North Bay spokesperson and the office of the local MPP, Vic Fedeli, suggested she direct her inquiries about environmental oversight and keeping locals safe to the company. Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment didn’t respond at all. 

Industrial Plastics Canada was open to talking at first, even giving her a tour. Spokespeople told her that fluoropolymers are different from other PFAS and pose “no risk,” sharing research that came to that conclusion. But when Leah kept pressing the company — part of an Italy-based conglomerate that uses PFAS at factories around the world — about research that did show long-term environmental consequences, executives began saying “no further comment,” through a lawyer. 

“I think companies opening operations here, they’re not expecting an investigative journalist to be digging into things and to be asking real questions, maybe beyond how many jobs they’re creating,” Leah said. 

In my experience, it also often seems like people aren’t expecting investigative journalists to be women, especially young ones. But as I said to Leah, I’ve learned that in this line of work, being underestimated is kind of a superpower. 

Both local and provincial environmental experts were happy to talk to Leah. The environment manager of Nipissing First Nation expressed a need for transparency about the new factory. Others wanted broader regulation of PFAS by Health Canada, which has been studying the many thousands of forever chemicals we encounter daily for more than two years. 

“That was really eye opening, to get to talk to a lot of people not just who knew about this particular situation, but also who were so connected with the land,” Leah said. 

There are hundreds of former National Defence sites likely contaminated with PFAS, and hundreds of small towns without local news organizations digging into what that means. Leah’s story is about how that’s playing out around Lake Nipissing, but it’s relevant across Canada. And we couldn’t publish it without the support of our members. 

Take care and keep asking hard questions,

Denise Balkissoon
Ontario bureau chief
Headshot of Ontario bureau chief Denise Balkissoon
Aerial shot of oilsands facilities in Alberta and emissions rising from them.

Calling cap

On streetcars in Toronto, billboards in Vancouver or on TV, it’s possible you’ve seen optimistic ads about plans to slash carbon emissions by a group of six oilsands giants: Pathways Alliance.

Climate investigations reporter Carl Meyer — who had been digging into the group’s lobbying efforts since March — got his hands on documents that showed numerous examples of how Pathways may be misleading the public about its net-zero plan “making clear strides.” 

The group actively pushed high-level federal bureaucrats to weaken emissions cap rules as early as December 2021. Pathways also pressured the government to take a “non-regulatory approach” on slashing carbon pollution — one that could make it easier for industry and provincial governments to challenge or delay federal climate action through the courts.

“They’re clearly pursuing slower, weaker emissions caps as part of what I see as a more general trend towards climate delay in the sector, and even globally,” one expert told Carl.

Go here to read Carl’s investigation.


This week in The Narwhal

Coastal GasLink pipeline and LNG Canada in Kitimat, B.C.
There’s a place for B.C.’s gas in a net-zero future. But not for long
By Matt Simmons
LNG Canada is predicting a 40-year run for its massive gas liquefaction and export project in Kitimat, B.C. A recent report from Canada’s energy regulator cuts that lifespan in half, if countries around the world meet climate targets.

30,000 homes proposed for Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, former ‘crown jewel’ of Ontario’s Greenbelt
By Emma McIntosh
Pixelated illustration of B.C. farmland during 2021 drought
‘Hope and fear in equal measure’: renewables racing against a heating world
By Arno Kopecky


What we’re reading

For The Globe and Mail, Kate Helmore, Ivan Semeniuk and Wendy Stueck write about El Niño — a climate wildcard that amplifies severe weather events across the world — and how scientists are racing to predict its impact on Canada.

Ten years after 6 million litres of leaked oil made Lac-Mégantic one of the worst terrestrial spills in North American history, the Quebec community is a model for a greener future, Caitlin Stall-Paquet writes in The Walrus.
Dog flying on a carpet
Reporters at The Narwhal tapping into their superpowers and going above and beyond to bring you environmental stories you won’t find anywhere else. Tell your friends to sign up for our weekly newsletter so they don’t miss out.
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