(Trois-Rivières) Destroy wetlands to expand an industrial area? This is what the City of Trois-Rivières plans to do on its land near highways 40 and 55. And despite the resistance of elected officials, scientists, activists and citizens, it is perfectly within its rights. This crisis illustrates the gap between the environmental framework and the expectations of the population.

A blue sign, a red sign, a white building without a sign, a wood. For motorists speeding along Highway 40 towards Montreal, the last buildings on Boulevard Louis-Loranger, parallel to the highway, offer a banal landscape, typical of Quebec industrial parks. But in Trois-Rivières, it is an invisible border that arouses passions and indignation.

Beyond these buildings, the City has a hundred hectares of land that it intends to develop to make up for its economic delay. If everything had gone according to plan, the excavators would already be at work: the zoning is industrial and the Ministry of the Environment has given the green light. But for nearly two years, the project has been at an impasse, held back by a barrage of opposition.

The first obstacle arose in August 2021, in a surreal-looking council meeting. Not only was the resolution that Mayor Jean Lamarche intended to pass defeated by nine councilors to five, but the one that had brought it about flip-flopped.

“I need more information, so I will vote against, even though I proposed it,” concluded Valérie Renaud-Martin.

This was to authorize a loan by-law of half a million dollars for the first phase of the drainage works of the Les Carrefours industrial park. “It’s more than 26 hectares of wetlands that we will drain, it’s huge,” then denounced Councilor Mariannick Mercure.

This funding having been refused, the City was unable to start the work. The woodlands continue to be frequented by dog ​​owners, hunters and walkers.

The resistance grew. After the 2021 elections, where she did not run, Ms. Mercury participated in the founding of the citizens’ coalition Terre Precious.

“It served to raise awareness. Before August 2021, very few people knew that we had these wetlands there and that we were about to destroy them, ”said Ms. Mercury, met at the scene last week.

Precious Earth particularly criticizes the City for relying on a certificate of authorization obtained in 2014, well before the entry into force of the new Environment Quality Act (EQA) and the Act respecting the conservation wetlands and bodies of water, in 2018.

“It’s not strong!” “, launched one of the founders of the coalition, Philippe Duhamel, during a municipal information session, in March 2022.

The project presented then announced the destruction of 15 hectares of wetlands, including 2.1 hectares of peat bogs. Approximately 12 hectares of protected wetlands were also at risk of being affected by drainage.

In July 2022, Precious Earth masked the “Land for Sale” sign near the Carrefour 40-55 industrial park with a canvas claiming “Our wetlands not for sale!” “.

Two months later, 60% of respondents to a survey commissioned by Le Nouvelliste and 106.9 Mauricie indicated that in this project, environmental protection should take precedence over economic development, compared to 25% for the opposite.

On January 5, Mayor Lamarche promised an improved version “as soon as possible”. “We no longer touch peat bogs, it’s already a big element,” he said on Radio-Canada radio.

Precious Land, Mothers at the Front and other organizations announced a “generational mobilization” for the first council meeting of the year on January 17.

Mayor Lamarche did not sit in the end, either that evening or since. The day before the protest, he took sick leave to “reposition himself in the face of the unhealthy work climate around the council table”, and called for the withdrawal of a notice of motion on the industrial park 40-55 .

“The Carrefour 40-55 got into it,” Deputy Mayor Daniel Cournoyer told Radio-Canada. “Bringing kids into the debate made him whole,” Cournoyer added.

The January 17 protest drew around 100 people, local media reported.

At the end of February, Mr. Lamarche’s leave was extended by at least a month. The acting mayor declined our interview request.

“It’s as if a keg of powder had been hit by a spark, and it went all over the place,” laments Mario De Tilly, general manager of Innovation and Economic Development (IDE) Trois-Rivières, l paramunicipal organization mandated to support the economic development of the municipality.

The second version mentioned by the mayor offered significant improvements, he says, disappointed not to have been able to make a detailed public presentation.

The 2.1 hectares of peatlands would escape destruction, as would 1.1 hectares of wetlands, out of the 15 hectares originally planned.

And since the 2014 certificate of authorization exempts the City from the costly financial compensation of the new LQE, IDE proposes an equivalence: obliging companies to pay $7 per developable square meter to Éclore, the municipality’s environmental fund, which would allow to raise 7.3 million in 30 years.

“We will pay the same compensation, but at home”, instead of sending them “into the consolidated fund where nothing moves”, explains the DG. Since 2017, Quebec has received nearly $100 million in compensation for the destruction of wetlands, but less than 3% has been reinvested in the restoration or creation of such environments, La Presse discovered last fall1.

The promoter, who has promised a third version of the project, has shown that he strongly wishes to hear from the Center for Research on Watershed-Aquatic Ecosystem Interactions (RIVE) of the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières (UQTR).

Why not just build the industrial park without touching the wetlands?

“It would be quite difficult because we are pretty much surrounded by it. Trois-Rivières is an environment that is heavily in wetlands. It’s pretty damned,” replies Mr. De Tilly.

Proportion of the territory of Trois-Rivières composed of wetlands, i.e. 37.44 km2

Total area of ​​wetlands that could be affected by the project authorized by Quebec in 2014, i.e. just over a quarter (0.266) of a square kilometre.

Councilor Pascale Albernhe-Lahaie arrived in municipal politics with the 2021 elections. Knowing that the expansion of the 40-55 industrial park was going to be back on the agenda, she sought to make a face for herself.

“I have never taken a public position on this file. My position is to get all the relevant information to help me in my decision-making,” she explains.

Having found it difficult to obtain certain documents, she wanted to hear other points of view than those of the City and its economic development organization. In early February, she hosted a roundtable with five academic experts on Facebook, “with the goal of collaboration and transparency with citizens.”

The maps released by the City to illustrate the project are difficult to interpret for ordinary citizens, several stakeholders have also pointed out.

“We are talking about surface area, but we must also talk about functions and ecological services that are difficult to repair or replace once lost,” said Audréanne Loiselle, researcher at the Institute for Research in Plant Biology at the University of Montreal.

Other elected officials asked to broaden the reflection. Councilor Dany Carpentier recently proposed to council to commission an independent study on the industrial densification potential of Trois-Rivières. His resolution having been defeated, another councilor, Pierre-Luc Fortin, suggested that elected officials finance the study with their research budget – an issue of “responsible management”, he told Le Nouvelliste.

The fact that the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) adopted in 2017 is not retroactive, and allows the project to proceed with a nearly 10-year-old certificate of authorization, “adds to frustration,” observes Me Anne-Sophie Doré, a lawyer at the Center québécois du droit de l’environnement. “We always hope that the Ministry of the Environment is the watchdog”, but the EQA is not retroactive, “someone must take over to ensure the protection of certain environments. It contributes to the fact that the social climate is not particularly pleasant “.

The Ministry has tried to cancel old certificates authorizing the filling of wetlands, but developers have won their case in Superior Court. And the appeal scheduled for March “presents challenges,” the court noted.

Even if Quebec prevailed on appeal, the Trois-Rivières certificate would remain valid, because work had been done in the two years following its last modification, in 2020.

“We should impose ourselves to be up to 2023 standards, even if the certificate of authorization is under old regulations,” said the co-director of the Center for Research on Watershed-Aquatic Ecosystem Interactions (RIVE), Raphaël Proulx.

The City’s economic development organization is very keen to hear RIVE’s proposals. “We are not going to develop the version 2, 3 or 3.5”, but to propose “a framework of analysis in terms of conservation” applicable to any project, specifies Mr. Proulx.

Sparing wetlands by building around them is far from ideal, he points out.

“If we drain the perimeter, in the long term, we will affect the water table inside the wetland. »

He gives the example of Highway 40 which, past Trois-Rivières towards Quebec, passes through wetland systems that “are already degraded along the edge of the highway”. We need protection zones “of 50 meters and more”, he believes.

And several other aspects, including ecological corridors and connectivity, as well as the carbon neutrality of projects, are not regulated, underlines the researcher.

“There is a disconnect between provincial regulations, which are minimal, and what citizens are now demanding from their municipality,” summarizes Mr. Proulx. “It’s definitely a wake-up call for municipalities, who are like, ‘Still, I follow all the regulations, and I’m seen as a bad guy.’ »

Mario De Tilly, DG of Innovation and Economic Development (IDE) Trois-Rivières, showed us several underused or abandoned buildings that the City has undertaken to rehabilitate. An “ambitious development strategy,” recognized the Union of Quebec Municipalities, when awarding IDE a prize last year. Mr. De Tilly also provided us with data showing the City’s efforts to densify its industrial areas. The remaining spaces may soon no longer meet demand, IDE estimates.

The planned subdivision, aimed at creating a technology park for so-called green businesses, would increase the contribution of industrial taxes to the budget of Trois-Rivières.

“We had an abominable socio-economic portrait,” recalls the promoter, referring to the “disheartening statistics” in terms of economic decline, unemployment and per capita income, which have been improving in recent years.

“We think there is an obligation to have, sooner or later, other spaces to continue our recovery. Now, it will be up to the elected officials to dispose of it, to say what they want or do not want. »

It therefore remains to be seen how the third version of the project, still in preparation, will be received.

“If you tell us that there are no middles left anywhere, that these are the last places we can go now, where are we going to go in 30 years when they are destroyed? asks former councilor Mariannick Mercure, whose vibrant advocacy had led to the refusal to fund the drainage of the industrial park in 2021.

“I want this reflection to be done right away. »