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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The effluent society : water pollution and environmental politics in British Columbia, 1889-1980 Keeling, Arn M.


British Columbia's rapid urbanization and industrialization in the twentieth century created extensive water pollution problems. Before the 1970s, many in industry and government considered waste disposal as a legitimate use of natural waterways, so long as it did not impair their usefulness for other purposes. However, social and political debates emerged over both the perception of pollution and its solution. By the late 1960s, public health advocates, sportsmen and commercial fisheries advocates had come to regard water pollution as a crisis, and demanded government action to protect the environment. This study shows how political conflicts in B.C. over water pollution echoed national and continental trends in environmental management and environmental values during the twentieth century. However, these debates were also shaped by particular geographical and environmental conditions in B.C., as well as social, political and economic aspects of provincial society. Through case studies of domestic and industrial pollution control, this study traces conflicts created by the use of water for waste disposal. Many in government and industry regarded the ability of water to dilute, disperse and absorb wastes as "assimilative capacity," a resource that could be managed and exploited. This dictum guided planning for sewage disposal in Greater Vancouver, as well as waste-disposal practices in the mining and pulp and paper industries. Provincial pollution and water law reflected the pro-development orientation of successive B.C. governments: the B.C. Pollution Control Board sanctioned the exploitation of assimilative capacity. This practice became controversial as water-quality problems arose throughout the province. Efforts to control and regulate water pollution from cities and industry reflected local geographical conditions, as well as changing scientific perceptions of pollution. Environmental change and social attitudes toward pollution also influenced reforms to pollution control policies. The history of water pollution in B.C. sheds new light on the province's social, economic and environmental history. Pollution problems illustrate the social and environmental impacts of urban and industrial growth in the twentieth century. Conflicts over pollution provide insight into changing environmental values and the emergence of the province's vital environmental movement. Finally, pollution-control debates decisively influenced the regime of environmental governance in the province.

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