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Canada Seeks To Block Water Export

May 5, 1998

TORONTO (AP) _ The Great Lakes hold the largest supply of fresh water in the world. Yet a Canadian firm’s plan to export a tiny fraction of that water to Asia is causing alarm on both sides of the U.S-Canadian border.

Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy entered the controversy this week, saying Canada would try to block the proposed sale of water from Lake Superior.

``It’s a matter of some real concern,″ Axworthy said Monday. ``What we are looking at ... is the large-scale export of fresh water, which we have always taken a strong stand against.″

The furor focuses on a permit issued by the Ontario Environment Ministry authorizing a company in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to pump up to 158 million gallons of water a year from Lake Superior into cargo ships for export to drought-stricken Asian countries.

The five-year permit took effect last week, although the company, Nova Group, has yet to line up any buyers.

``It’s a very small amount of water... considering the size of the Great Lakes,″ Nova Group president John Febbraro said last week. ``It won’t affect lake levels or anything else.″

Canada shares Lake Superior with Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Environmentalists and politicians on both sides of the border worry that Nova Group’s plan, if realized, would undermine U.S.-Canada treaties and encourage other companies to undertake larger-scale water exports.

``Water is going to become like the oil of the next century,″ said Sarah Miller of the Canadian Environmental Law Association. ``If it’s open season for all the water in the Great Lakes, wait and see what happens in the States, where there will be desperate water shortages.″

Both the United States and Canada have policies that sharply restrict water diversions from the Great Lakes. Axworthy complained that Ontario did not consult federal authorities before issuing the permit.

But Ontario said it followed proper procedures, even allowing a four-week period for public comment.

``The permit issued by my ministry was simply a permit to take the water, not to export it,″ said Ontario Environment Minister Norman Sterling. ``The primary responsibility for laws governing export remain clearly in the federal domain.″

Some Canadian activists say if Nova Group proceeds with the export, it would jeopardize Canada’s chances for maintaining tight control of its water resources under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Canada has more fresh water than any country in the world, with vast resources even aside from the Great Lakes.

During the negotiations that produced NAFTA, there were fears that Canada could be forced to export water against its will to its two North American partners. Those fears were not realized.

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