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The Leblanc alkali production processes were especially pernicious, but they followed along the lines of previous industrial processes. In other words, the first British environmental legislation was a response not so much to a qualitative change in industrial processes and their environmental impact but more to a quantitative increase in sources of pollution that had up to that point been (if only barely) tolerable.
Legislation Arising From Public Anger
At the center of the first British environmental legislation was the Leblanc process, an industrial process that produced of soda ash (which is chemically sodium carbonate) that came into use in the first decades of the 19th century. Named after its inventor, Nicolas Leblanc, it replaced an older process in which soda ash had been produced from wood ash. However, as the availability of wood ash declined (because of deforestation, a process that was occuring both in Great Britain and across Europe at the time. (Some soda ash was imported to Europe from the New World, where deforestation was also occurring. However, because the process of deforestation had begun later in the New World, including in Canada, there were still large stands of forests.)
At the same time that the availability of wood ash was declining, the demands for soda ash were steeply increasing. Soda ash along with potash (which is chemically potassium carbonate) are both essential ingredients in a number of industrial processes, including the production of paper, soap, glass, and fabric. While the Leblanc process was first used on a wide-scale basis in France -- which by the first decades of the 19th century was producing 10,000-15,000 tons of alkali each year -- it was in Britain that the process (and its environmental consequences) was used at its highest levels.
The first British soda works using the Leblanc process was established in 1816 on the River Tyne (thereby producing both water and air pollution).
At this time, while there were no legal restrictions on the polluting aspects of the alkali-production process; however, there were tariffs in place on salt. This fact -- given that salt is an integral ingredient to the Leblanc process -- kept the use of this process in check and so coincidentally limited the environmental effects of the process.
When the salt tariffs were repealed, large chemical works were established in both England and Scotland and by the 1850s Britain was producing 140,000 tons of soda and by the 1870s the British were producing over 200,000 tons of ash, a number larger than the production of the rest of the world combined.
The serious consequences of the Leblanc process were quickly apparent. The byproducts of the process were vented directly into the air and were in part absorbed into the nearby rivers. There was also a sulfurous smell that clung to the factories, and the solid waste that was produced by the process was simply dumped on local fields, where it began to leach into the water table and aquifers.
By 1839, there were law suits against different soda works. This is an important aspects of environmental law, because it remains the case in both Britain and Canada that much of environmental law is derived from lawsuits. While it is also true that important environmental law emanates from other aspects of the polity, citizen intervention in the form of lawsuits, remains a driving force to improve the legal environmental protections in both nations.
One of the first lawsuits against a soda ash plant argued that:
…the gas from these manufactories is of such a deleterious nature as to blight everything within its influence, and is alike baneful to health and property. The herbage of the fields in their vicinity is scorched, the gardens neither yield fruit nor vegetables; many flourishing trees have lately become rotten naked sticks. Cattle and poultry droop and pine away. It tarnishes the furniture in our houses, and when we are exposed to it, which is of frequent occurrence, we are afflicted with coughs and pains in the head ... all of which we attribute to the Alkali works.
It was precisely such concerns by the government, prompted through the action of lawsuits, that prompted the British Parliament to pass the first of the Alkali Acts, which were the first modern air pollution legislation.
However, while this was arguably an important step in the right direction in terms of legislation that acknowledged that the government had an obligation to protect the public good and the environment as a whole from the actions of industry and capitalism, it was also true that the changes in the manufacturing process that this law brought about actually increased the water pollution that resulted. Early environmental law did not address the fact that pollution is a systemic problem.
Early environmental law in Canada (such as Parry Sound Lumbering Co v Ferris, 1882 and Water Privileges Act of 1859) was keyed to the particular concerns of the local industry and business. Just as the first British environmental laws addressed the most acute problems that arose from the effects of industrialization, the first Canadian environmental laws reflected the effects of colonization on Canada. Canada remained from European colonization through the 19th century a source of raw materials for Britain and other European nations. The first environmental laws thus sought to protect riparian rights along with preservation of the forests.
But while the particulars of Canadian law were different because they were crafted in response to the particulars of Canadian environmental problems, they were based in the same basic precepts and mechanisms of British environmental law. Behind both sets of law was the fundamental idea that the government had a duty to protect the environment because it is a part of the public trust. And Canadian legislators (based in part on formal connections between the British and Canadian legal systems) also were prompted to create new law because of the concerns of individuals over the environmental harm that they saw occurring around them.
The environmental policies of the two nations have much in common, with Canadian law following British law in many ways in its form and intent as well as historically. The next chapter looks at the era of modern environmental law in these two nations as it arose from its historical bases in the 19th century.
Modern Environmental Law in Great Britain and Canada
The previous chapter dealt with the origins of environmental law in the United Kingdom and Canada. These first laws arose in response to the environmental devastation wrought in England and Scotland because of early industrialization. Although the full mechanisms and effects of the environmental problems were not initially understood in the 19h century, people living in the areas that were the first to industrialize were certainly aware of the ways in which their subjective experience was being affected. In Canada too ordinary citizens were aware of the ways in which the rivers and forests were being affected by carelessness primarily on the part of trappers and loggers. (Ironically, part of the logging that was occurring in Canada was for the purpose of producing wood ash to send to Europe because of the deforestation that had already occurred in the Old World.)
This remains an important aspect of environmental law in both nations: While the science behind environmental law has become increasingly complex, the impetus to safeguard the environment in most cases across the last nearly two centuries has been a simple one, derived from people's everyday experiences in most cases rather than initiating from scientific research. This is not always the case of course, but scientists cannot be everywhere while ordinary people can be. And thus environmental law has often sprung up from the observations that people have made over time about their local environment. When glaciers begin to recede or the rains consistently come less frequently, or individuals who drink the water in a particular area become sick, individuals set in motion the questions that scientists begin to seek to answer and petition the courts for remedies that will be (if the society is functioning well) based on both the findings of the scientists and the experiences of ordinary people observing the world around them.
Over the course of the last decades of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century a number of environmental laws were passed in both nations. However, while a number of these laws were well-thought out and effective in terms of the specific targets of the legislation, they tended to be narrowly focussed. This arose from two different factors. The first of these was that there was not yet a good scientific (or political) understanding of the myriad and complex ways in which all spheres of the environment are linked to each other and how, therefore, how fundamentally ineffective piecemeal…[continue]
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