Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

Posted by Michael Keating

50 years of environment writing

I grew up on the edge of the small Ontario town of Southampton. If I stepped out the door and walked west, I would soon be on the beach, facing the vast expanse of Lake Huron. If I walked south or east, I would be in cedar bush. Only walking north led to the town. Like most people at the time, I had no concept of the wave of pollution that was starting to wash across the world, and that it would define my career and reshape the way we think about nature and our own well-being. For 50 years I had a front row seat to the environmental change. As a newspaper reporter, I wrote about an ever-increasing number of environmental crises, and some of the first big steps to solve them. I spent the second half of my working life as a writer, editor, advisor and teacher in environment and sustainability.

In the first half of the past century much of the “environmental” writing in North America was about creating parks and the state of wildlife. It was often outdoor writers who were telling the stories from the perspective of hunters and fishers. In 1962, there was a sea change in attitudes toward the environment when U.S. biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning of the deadly effects of pesticides, such as DDT. The book caused a huge public debate about chemical risks in general, and is often credited with launching widespread public concern about the state of the environment. It launched “modern” environmental journalism.

I had always been interested in nature, but in 1966, as a reporter at The Owen Sound Sun-Times, newspaper, I got a phone call from a friend at the then Ontario Water Resources Commission. He said I needed to come to Niagara Falls to meet a U.S. congressman who would tell me about the “dying” of Lake Erie. I was a general assignment reporter and environment stories were not on the radar in my relatively clean part of the world. But, I made the three-hour drive, and in front of one of the world’s natural wonders, started to learn about water pollution, and how it was turning parts of the Great Lakes into a slimy mess of algae and dead fish. I became a small part of one of the biggest environmental stories of the time.


photo of dead fish in algae

Despite cleanups algae continue to clog shorelines on Lake Erie. Credit: Tom Archer

During the 1960s, phosphorus from human sewage and high-phosphate laundry detergents, along with fertilizers washed off farm fields, caused unprecedented growth of algae and weeds, particularly in the shallow waters of Lake Erie. These plants choked harbours and rotted on beaches. Their decay sucked oxygen out of the water, creating “dead zones” where fish expired, unable to feed, reproduce or even to survive. In 1965, the Canada-United States International Joint Commission on boundary waters told the two countries they needed to reduce phosphorus discharges to the Great Lakes. Governments, facing public outrage at the gross pollution, passed laws to control phosphorus, and spent billions on sewage treatment. The water got cleaner for years. More recently increasing phosphorus, especially from farm fertilizers, combined with a changing lake ecology caused by invasive mussels, has led to a resurgence of algae, causing some serious drinking water problems.


By 1970, I was a reporter at The Windsor Star, and from our offices, I could look across the Detroit River at Motor City with its heavy concentration of factories and steel mills. Industrial fallout blowing across the river was so heavy I sometimes had to wash my windshield before driving home from work. A fellow reporter wrote that breathing the air was like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I got my second chance at environmental writing when the paper broke one of the major pollution stories of the decade. A scientist had detected mercury, a heavy metal that can cause nerve damage, in fish from areas in parts of Ontario, including some near Windsor. I reported on federal and provincial politicians scrambling to come up with reassuring answers for a nervous population, and at  the Ontario government laboratory I saw how scientists were testing fish to find out how serious the mercury pollution was.

Mercury pollution was discovered in fish in Lake St. Clair, western Lake Erie and the English-Wabigoon river system of Northwestern Ontario in 1970. It came mainly from leaks and discharges of the toxic heavy metal from a chemical factory on the St. Clair River, and a pulp and paper plant at Dryden in the north. The pollution had been going on for years, but had not been measured in fish until new instruments were used. This invisible pollution can cause nerve damage in people who eat contaminated fish, particularly on a regular basis. The polluted waters were closed to commercial fishing, and sports fishing was limited because of the hazard to human health. The plants were ordered to stop discharging mercury, but the damage is still ongoing in the north, where the mercury is still found in fish, and where people still fish for food.

It would be nearly another decade before I got an opportunity to become a full-time environmental writer. In the following sections, I will track the evolution of some of the biggest environmental discoveries and decisions from the 1980s onward. At first, I covered them as a reporter, and later worked with governments, businesses, scientific, academic and non-government organizations, writing about the environment, and helping people to understand and communicate these issues.