Activist causes industry to reconsider pine beetle strategy

🕔Sep 22, 2005

Josette Wier, 57, runs an elegant B&B in the rural Smithers home she shares with her husband Peter, a retired pilot. When not working, canoeing or skiing, she’s often in her home office—where her one-woman campaign has made her the worst nightmare of government and industry forest managers who wish she, and others concerned about an arsenic-based pesticide used against the mountain pine beetle, would just go away.

But a two-feet thick stack of files on Josette’s shelves suggests that’s unlikely. They’re just some of the correspondence amassed during a four-year battle that took her to the Environmental Appeal Board, B.C.’s ombudsman, chief forester and forest minister, Canada’s health minister, B.C.’s Supreme Court and most recently, the media.

Today, Josette smiles as she adds a few choice clips to those files: a front-page article in a December Globe & Mail, and prominent others in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Victoria Times-Colonist and the Prince George Citizen. These follow interviews with CBC Radio News, numerous northwestern newspapers, TV and commercial radio outlets.

“Discouraging. Empowering. And humbling: because we’ve still got a long way to go,” says Josette.

That’s how she summarizes the journey which began in 2001, when a Ministry of Forests (MoF) newspaper ad caught her eye. It announced plans to apply up to 3,000 kg of a pesticide called Glowon to up to 100,000 trees in the Morice (now Nadina) Forest District.

It didn’t take much digging by Josette to learn that recent research on monosodium methanearsenate (MSMA), the pesticide’s arsenic-based active ingredient, has shown it to be genotoxic (that is, capable of altering humans’ DNA), almost certainly carcinogenic and far more toxic to humans than understood in 1996 when last re-registered for use in Canada.
She’d already read a November 2003 Auditor General’s report which showed Canada’s pesticide registration system to be deeply flawed. The AG concluded that “the federal government still cannot ensure that the older pesticides we are using are safe.”

“We use pesticides in an unconscious way because we don’t make the connection between them and cancer,” observes Josette. “And we’ve created a toxic world of a scale we don’t even understand.”

Concern for children’s health, and more specifically, the proven disproportionate health impact of toxic substances on them, has been her primary motivation. Before immigrating to Canada 27 years ago from France, Josette was a pediatrician.

“All the children I’ve seen with leukemia and other cancers: it’s horrible,” she says, noting that harmful toxins accumulate in our systems, and sometimes don’t manifest their effects until the next generation. “It’s important to prevent this, not hide behind statistics. If that one in a million is your child, that’s too high.”

A highly toxic substance injected into the bark of beetle-infested pine trees will find its way into the ecosystem and food chain, she argues—via birds, spills, food sourced from forests by First Nations and others, logging and milling of trees, dispersion of contaminated sawdust, lumber products and burning of contaminated wood waste. People are already waking up to the dangers of arsenic-based lumber treatments, she notes: as of 2001, chrome copper arsenate is no longer used in construction for human habitation.

Josette recalls numerous vague or watery answers elicited by questions to government and forest companies over the past three years:

MSMA is totally safe to use because it has been approved by Canada’s Pesticide Regulatory Management Agency—which assumes the trees won’t be logged or milled.1 And people are safe from exposure to MSMA because the MoF “generally” applies MSMA in isolated, remote, inaccessible locations.2 Well, at the MoF, “isolated” means “not to be harvested in the short term”—a year at least.3 And in practice, “isolated” may mean as close as 200 metres from people’s homes, or an easy walk from an existing logging road.4 Anyway, the MoF didn’t actually mean to use this term in its public ads for a pesticide use permit application: these were based on the unfortunate use of an ad template “which has been used for at least 13 years, without being reviewed for anything other than probably dates and numbers.”5 But most MSMA trees are tagged so loggers can avoid them. How will loggers tell untagged MSMA-treated trees from the surrounding forests? “It’s easy: they’re dead.”6 Anyway, MoF policy is to “encourage” companies to not log MSMA-treated trees, but it’s left up to them.7 Well, okay, Pacific Inland Resources has also purchased MSMA-treated trees.8 And Canfor has logged and milled MSMA-treated trees. 9 Well yes, burning of MSMA-treated wood residue in beehive burners is absolutely prohibited.10 But forest companies may apply to get their beehive burner permits amended by government to allow this11—as their final shut-down dates have been overturned by government numerous times. You ask why the MoF has declared its intention to treat “infested pine trees within the Morice TSA in a more discreet manner, trying to minimize public concerns over widespread use?”12 Don’t worry, Josette. It’s all under control.

Sometimes, communication appeared to stall.

For example, Pacific Inland Resources management told her that further investigation to verify an anonymous account by a logger that he’d suffered arsenic poisoning while cutting MSMA trees sold to PIR would be “at best looking for a needle in a haystack,” and thus “pointless.” Another time, a PIR manager abruptly hung up on her (although a terse, faxed apology followed after Josette contacted the company’s board).

For months, Canfor insisted on limiting most written communications with her to regular post instead of email–effectively slowing the pace of communication.13 When Canfor commissioned a study, partly to address Josette’s questions about MSMA risks, they refused her input into its design. Josette says she was told by Canfor that the study’s contents, which were presented to her in a Powerpoint format during an April 2004 meeting, could not be attributed or quoted. To date she has been denied a copy of the complete study. When Josette questioned the study’s methodology and possible biases of its authors—one of whom had published an opinion piece in a national newspaper14 arguing that pesticide bans are unwarranted—offended Canfor staff said she was “attacking the credibility of … imminent [sic] scientists,” and refused further discussions on this topic.15

“I never expected this would get so big,” she says of the nearly full-time endeavour which strained her budget and health for much of three years. But although her faith in corporate accountability and government accountability has dwindled, hope kept her going.

“Things aren’t completely corrupt. There are good people working for government: I found them.”

Ultimately, Josette and others who identified problems with controls on MSMA, such as Judy Stratton of François Lake, were vindicated. A recent Forest Practices Board report, an audit by the Ministry of Water, Land & Air Protection’s Pesticide Branch, and research on birds and MSMA by UBC and the Canadian Wildlife Service confirmed many suspicions: The public was misled about how MSMA was being used. Although B.C.’s Environmental Appeal Board and Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency assumed MSMA-treated trees weren’t being logged and milled, no effective system ensured this was the case. MSMA is making its way into the ecosystem. Given the real cost of monitoring the chemical’s use in the manner for which it was licensed, it very likely wasn’t the cheapest alternative—or even very effective. Some research shows MSMA to be about 60 per cent effective. And the beetles’ rampage continues.

Had public concerns and up-to-date research been seriously considered when brought forward, says Josette, a “poisoned forest” with a $2.5 million price tag could have been avoided. “This was about as effective as a bucket of water thrown at a raging fire,” she concludes.

Heartened by recent steps by industry and government, Josette says she’ll happily withdraw—as soon as she’s sure this is in good hands.

“There’s a lot of strength in individual people when they’re willing to trust their common sense that some things just shouldn’t be done,” she observes. “Once you find that certitude that’s in all of us, good people come from everywhere to help.”


  • There are no plans to use MSMA in the Nadina Forest District at present.
  • B.C.’s forest and environment ministries have been ordered to provide provincial policy to ensure MSMA-treated trees aren’t harvested and milled, and report back to the Forest Practices Board by March 2005.
  • Following a complaint by Josette, Canfor underwent an audit under the certification process of the International Standards Organization. Its practice of burning MSMA-contaminated wood waste was found to be out of compliance, and was asked to submit an action plan to rectify the situation, for review by the auditor. Although it won’t disclose details of this plan to Josette, Canfor now claims MSMA trees will be strictly off-limits to logging.16
  • Pacific Inland Resources and Houston Forest Products have been asked by government to supply data which proves how it ensures that no MSMA-treated trees have not and do not make it into their beehive burners.
  • MSMA is currently being re-evaluated by Health Canada. The pesticide’s registrant told Forest Practices Board investigators it won’t supply scientific data requested by Health Canada, claiming it’s too costly to produce.17 In October 2004, Josette was told by the MoF that it was considering asking taxpayers to spend up to $100,000 to finance this research.18
  • Dr. Bill Cullen, a Canadian expert on arsenic toxicity who is currently researching widespread poisoning of humans by arsenic-laden water in Bangladesh, maintains MSMA “should not be used.” Dr. Michael Kosnett, a U.S. expert who has consulted to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency and the World Health Organization on arsenic and human health, told Northword it would be “prudent to regard MSMA as a potential human carcinogen.”1
Government and industry respond

The Ministry of Forests believes all significant concerns raised by Josette have now been addressed.

“The ministry did undertake its own internal investigation based on her complaint and as a result of that we strengthened some of our operating procedures,” says MoF spokesperson Vivian Thomas from Victoria. “We’re also implementing recommendations from the Forest Practices Board report.”

Dave Walgren, mill manager at Pacific Inland Resources, speaks to Josette’s sense that she has often been given the brush-off. “I don’t think that’s been from us. I hope it hasn’t been from us,” he says. “But everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I know that we’ve tried to follow up with her on letters that she’s written, and we’ve talked to her on the phone more than once.”

In any case, Walgren maintains, PIR does not mill or burn MSMA-treated wood.

Canfor’s manager of public affairs Lee Koonfer refuses to engage with Josette’s criticisms of Canfor-hired scientists who concluded health risks of burning the waste products of MSMA-treated trees in beehive burners were negligible. “If she doesn’t like our scientists she should take it up with them,” he says.
Koonfer acknowledges that the system in place to recognize and monitor MSMA-treated trees was not as effective as it could have been, but emphasizes that Canfor’s new, auditor-approved action plan to ensure that MSMA-treated trees do not make it into beehive burners will be reassessed regularly to ensure it works.

“Dr. Wier took advantage of the avenues available to her and other members of the public,” he observes. “Continuous improvement is all about hearing input and feedback, not from only stakeholders we work with but people in community.
“Where appropriate, and when asked to respond, we do. It just shows that the IS014001 certification process works.”

©Larissa Ardis


  1. Wendy Sexsmith, chief registrar of Health Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency, advised Josette Wier in a Sept. 12, 2003 letter that Health Canada does not support purposeful burning of arsenic-contaminated wood as with CCA-treated wood.” The Environmental Appeal Board, in its July 2001 decision to stay the MoF permit to apply MSMA, accepted MoF evidence that treated trees would be left where they stood, rather than being logged: see Nadina Beetle Treatments, Forest Practices Practices Board Complaint Investigation Nov. 2004, p. 5.
  2. A File Review and Audit of Pesticide Use Permit #402-582 01/03 for Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. by R.W. Baker/NuForest Consulting Ltd. Sept. 14, 2004. This report references Dec. 6, 2000 ads in three local papers, as well as a Jan. 4, 2001 letter to the MoF from Paul Glover of the Northwest BC Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. Glover concluded from maps provided that “most of the areas are quite accessible, many are easily accessible from existing logging roads.” The Nuforest also notes that other than some comments regarding “extremely isolated locations within the park”, the MoF’s Feb. 5, 2001 response did not discuss the inaccessible locations issue raised by Glover. “In hindsight, when the PUP Application comments were received from Paul Glover of the Northwest BC Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, bells should have gone off and some changes should have been made,” concluded the auditor, who stated the ads were “somewhat misleading.”
  3. MoF. See Nadina Beetle Treatments, Forest Practices Practices Board Complaint Investigation Nov. 2004, p. 4.
  4. MoF. See Nadina Beetle Treatments, Forest Practices Practices Board Complaint Investigation Nov. 2004, p. 5
  5. A File Review and Audit of Pesticide Use Permit #402-582 01/03, p. 18.
  6. Canfor source quoted by Les Leyne in the Victoria Times Colonist, Jan. 5, 2004..
  7. MoF policy disclosed to Josette Wier in Dec. 2003.
  8. MSMA Incident Report completed by Marcel Belanger of the Northern Interior Forest Region, Special Investigations Unit, November 7, 2003.
  9. July 6, 2004 letter from Carl Vandermark of Canfor’s Houston mill, to Josette Wier.
  10. Dec. 1, 2004 letter from Mark Love, Ministry of Water, Land & Air Protection, to Canfor.
  11. ibid.
  12. June 26, 2003 letter from the MoF: Nadina Forest District, to the Ministry of Water, Land & Air Protection, describing plans for MSMA use in 2003 in the Morice Timber Supply Area.
  13. Feb. 12, 2004 letter from Canfor’s Carl Vandermark to Josette.
  14. “No basis for pesticide bans”; [National Edition] Leonard Ritter. National Post. Don Mills, Ont.: Jun 15, 2001. pg. C.19
  15. Aug. 30, 2004 letter from Canfor’s Carl Vandermark to Josette Wier.
  16. Jan 13 2005 letter to Josette Wier from Dennis Hotte, general manager of Canfor’s Houston mill.
  17. Nadina Beetle Treatments, Forest Practices Practices Board Complaint Investigation Nov. 2004, p. 7.
  18. Oct. 21, 2004 letter from Peter Hall, B.C.’s provincial forest entomologist to Josette Wier.
  19. Email/telephone interviews with Bill Cullen and Michael Kosnett, Jan. 2005.