I hadn’t even made it into Canso when I happened upon the first person willing and eager to speak her mind on the proposed spaceport that Maritime Launch Services wants to construct in the picturesque community at the very end of Highway 16, an area that boasts spectacular coastline, one ocean-side provincial park and another just offshore on Andrew Island, wild and rugged protected coastal barrens, and some history so remarkable it is commemorated by a national historic site.

In a charming restaurant a few kilometres from the centre of town, Canso native Alicia Rhynold didn’t hesitate when asked what she thinks of the spaceport project. As she handed out plates loaded with seafood and salad, she declared, “I am against it.”

Nor did she care if anyone heard her. “I’m an open book,” Rhynold said. “There won’t be jobs. And there will be toxins. We’re a fishing village and if something happens, we’ll lose everything.”

Travelling into town, I see dozens of signs proclaiming “We say no to the Canso Spaceport” plastered on poles and on lawns.

I’d travelled to Canso to attend an information session being hosted by a newly formed group of citizens concerned by the plans to launch Ukrainian-made rockets from a site just 3.5 kilometres from the town’s hospital.

They call themselves “Action Against Canso Spaceport” or AACS. One of their members is Marie Lumsden, who works for the East Coast Community Youth Association in Canso and is a very active volunteer in the community where she was born and raised.

Lumsden estimates that her house is about three kilometres from the launch site that Maritime Launch Services (MLS) intends to use to blast eight rockets a year into space between 2021 and 2030.

Marie Lumsden, a member of Action Against Canso Spaceport. Photo: Joan Baxter

AACS organized a public meeting at the Canso Lions Club because it was concerned that people in the area had not been getting the whole story from project proponents.

This local opposition to the project comes as something of a surprise, given the generally positive coverage the project has been generating, and reported enthusiasm for it from municipal officials.

Who supports a spaceport?

Until very recently, it looked as if Maritime Launch Services had unquestioning government and public support, and all systems were go for the project, once MLS found financing for it.

There was a small hint that things weren’t quite as rosy as project proponents would have everyone believe when, in August 2018, then Nova Scotia environment minister Margaret Miller did not approve the project, and instead demanded a detailed Focus Report from MLS, because the original documents registered with the province in July 2018 contained “insufficient information.”

In March this year, MLS submitted that Focus Report — 475 pages of material, much of it not all that reassuring.

A MLS graphic of the cyclone rocket it proposes to use at Canso.

The report describes hydrazine, one of the propellants that would be used in the Ukrainian Cyclone 4M rockets that would be launched from Canso, as a “strong irritant” that “may damage eyes and cause respiratory track damage.” In high concentrations, it can “cause convulsions and possibly death.” Repeated exposures to lower hydrazine concentrations may “cause toxic damage to liver and kidneys as well as anemia.”

As for emergency health services that MLS foresees in the case of an “accident” — think rocket crashing to earth on take-off, or exploding before that — the report notes that there is the Eastern Memorial Hospital:

… a six bed facility located in Canso and the Guysborough Memorial Hospital, a 10 bed [sic] located in Guysborough about 48 km away … In the event of an accident requiring services greater than those provided at local hospitals, or if the quantity [sic] of injured people exceeds local capacity, patients could be taken from the accident scene or from the heliport at Eastern Memorial Hospital to larger hospitals equipped with heliports …

Nevertheless, the Focus Report must have reassured Nova Scotia Environment. A few weeks after it was submitted, Miller was replaced by Gordon Wilson as environment minister. Just six weeks into his new job, on June 4, 2019, Wilson approved the spaceport project.

Well before the project got its environmental rubberstamp, there was evidence that the Liberal government quietly supported it. Shortly after MLS submitted the Focus Report to Nova Scotia Environment, Lloyd Hines, the minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and MLA for Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie, tabled a petition in the legislature with 753 signatures of people purportedly in support of the project.

Those who signed presumably agreed with the petition’s statement:

We, the undersigned, request the government of the Province of Nova Scotia give permission for Maritime Launch Services (MLS) to be given written approval for the development of the Canso Spaceport Project, a medium range satellite launch facility in Canso / Little Dover, creating both part time and permanent employment opportunities. 

Where exactly the petition came from, who developed it and where it was circulated are not clear. The Guysborough Journal reported that the Canso Area Development Association (CADA) “led” the petition, and CADA president, Harold Roberts, was “extremely pleased with the number of signatures.”

An email to Roberts has not been answered, nor did he return my phone call.

Jim Geddes, a member of Action Against Canso Spaceport. Photo: Joan Baxter

AACS member Jim Geddes told me he has doubts about many signatures on the petition, pointing out that some are illegible, some appear to be penned by the same person, some are duplicates, and there are signatories from places that are so far from Canso that they will never have to endure the earth-shaking roar and rumble of a rocket taking off from there.

There are signatories from Antigonish, New Glasgow, Halifax, Ottawa, Calgary, even Fort McMurray. While some signatories scribbled comments such as “good” and “jobs, please do it,” others wrote comments such as “no good” and “BAD POLLUTION DANGEROUS,” and “No one up here [on the petition above] away from the pollution and chaos of a rocket launch should have anything to say.”

Geddes estimates that there are 293 “legitimate” signatures in favour of the project, but says that some who signed it have now changed their minds.

One person I know whose name appears on the petition told me in an email that he is “embarrassed” that he signed it, so much so that he doesn’t want his name used.

An “anti rocket petition” started by AACS, has so far gathered 290 signatures.

“And those people who signed our petition did so at the kitchen table,” Geddes told me. “We went door to door in the Canso area, and talked to people face to face before they signed.”

Geddes believes that the Canso Area Development Association support for the spaceport is due in part to scare-mongering that without such a project, the Canso hospital will close.

Marie Lumsden “has no idea” how the spaceport would save the Canso hospital.

“But the hospital is only 3.5 kilometres from the actual launch site,” she told me. “I don’t think they’ve even submitted an evacuation plan. There’s only one road leaving this place, right?

Lumsden said the project is being sold to the community with the promise of “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

But, added, “For a fishing community, with great opportunities for tourism development, I think we’re risking our entire community.”

“There has to be something better than this,” she said.

Unproven rocket and dangerous propellant

Lumsden’s critique of the spaceport is mild next to the damning reports that came from the panel of people AACS invited to speak at the information session, which drew about 70 people to the Canso Lions Club last Thursday evening, August 1.

Left to right: Michael Byers on Skype, Karen McKendry Don Bowser, and session moderator Michelle Coffin. Photo: Joan Baxter

First up was Michael Byers, professor at the University of British Columbia, where he is Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law, who studies, among other things, outer space, and Canadian foreign and defence policy. Byers has written about the environmental and health risks when Russian rocket stages fuelled with unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UMDH, the same propellant MLS intends to use in the Cyclone 4 rocket stages) are dropped into Canada’s Arctic waters.

Skyped in from his home on Salt Spring Island, Byers said his main concern is about the type of rocket that MLS intends to use. He told the audience that when he first heard that MLS was proposing to build a launch facility in Canso, his reaction was positive, as he thinks Canada could use a launch facility and the coast of Nova Scotia could be great.

But then Byers said, he looked at the actual proposal, and:

… realized that they were planning on using old technology that included a hydrazine-fuelled second stage, and then just as importantly, they were planning on … combining different parts from old kinds of rockets into an untested rocket, which would be flown for the first time from Canso. 

That, in Byers’ view, is “a big problem”:

The central point is that this is an unproven rocket, and unproven rockets have a very high failure rate for the first two or three attempts, and this rocket will have a second stage that’s loaded with 10,000 kilograms of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, so in the event of a launch failure, on the launchpad or within the first minute or so of flight, you could have an awful lot of hydrazine spread around your community and the surrounding area.

Byers said countries and companies are moving away from hydrazine-related fuel:

The latest generation of Russian rockets does not use hydrazine. The latest generation of Chinese rockets does not use hydrazine. The Americans haven’t launched a hydrazine rocket for 14 years … The European Space Agency, and Ariane Space the big European launcher, hasn’t used hydrazine for decades.”

Byers added that there is a big problem where hydrazine-fuelled rockets have been used in Kazakhstan and Russia and the rocket stages fall back to earth, releasing large amounts of residual fuel as they do. This results in cloud of hydrazine “drifting over thousands of square kilometres.”

He said that Russian scientific literature shows that this causes “significant environmental damage,” as well as:

… significant elevated rates of some specific types of cancer, liver cancers for the most part. This is documented by Russian government scientists researching the consequences of Russian government launches. And none of this was acknowledged or even referenced by Maritime Launch Services in either of their proposals, and as far as I know, has not been acknowledged by the governments of Nova Scotia or Canada. 

And, he said, “until you actually get a specific response on that science literature, I don’t see how anyone in their right mind could feel comfortable about this project.”

Byers pointed out that MLS plans to use rockets provided by the Ukrainian state-owned company, Yuzhnoye, which is in deep financial trouble because it lost its main customer, Russia, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He told the audience in Canso:

So it’s the Ukrainian government that wants to launch rockets from your community. And they want to do so in large part because their business has disappeared. And they’re using old technology; the second stage of the rocket they want to use is essentially a slightly modified Cold War intercontinental ballistic missile. So their market approach, their way to saving cost, is to use old technology with Ukrainian government subsidy to keep their factory and their workers employed. That’s the circumstance. They tried to convince the government of Brazil to host a launch facility there, and the government of Brazil turned them down on environmental grounds, so they come to Nova Scotia.

A history of “malfeasance”

Another panellist at last week’s information session in Canso was native Maritimer Don Bowser, an anti-corruption specialist who has worked around the world, and who currently works in Ukraine where he continues to fight corruption and fraud. [The Halifax Examiner Morning File featured Bowser’s “Maritime Watch” episode on Maritime Launch Service and its Ukrainian roots here.]

Don Bowser. Photo: Maritime Watch video

Bowser traced the history of MLS, started in 2016 by American space industry professional John Isella, who was working for the Ukrainian government company Yuzhnoye, after the company’s efforts to build a spaceport in Brazil fell through.

At that point, Bowser said, Yuzhnoye, which does design and sales, and a second government-owned company, Yuzhmash, were desperately looking for another place to work, so they set up Maritime Launch Services, and partnered with an American government contractor, United Paradyne. (Isella was later replaced by Steve Matier as MLS CEO.)

According to Bowser, “MLS was directly created by Yushnoye. There is no degree of separation.”

The aim was to raise financing on private equity markets. But that, Bowser said, hasn’t happened.

The “history of Yuzhnoye / Yuzhmash is one of corruption, malfeasance, and deals made with rogue states [and] is well documented,” he told the audience in Canso.

In spite of that, Bowser said, from the beginning, when project proponents held their first open house at the firehall in Canso in January 2017, they have consistently said there is strong support for the project from both federal and local government.

Bowser noted that in 2017, Ukraine and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding on the issue, and Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland is “very supportive” of the project.

Still, to date there is no evidence that the federal government has offered any financing for the project, despite MLS having hired lobbyists from the Sussex Strategy Group to plead their cause in Ottawa (Tim Bousquet wrote about the lobbyists in the Halifax Examiner here.)

The two lobbyists held a total of nine “communications,” meeting with Katherine O’Halloran in the Prime Minister’s Office, Cape Breton Canso Liberal MP Roger Cuzner, Dartmouth Cole Harbour Liberal MP Darren Fisher, Jean-Frédéric Lafaille in the Privy Council Office, Liberal Fundy Royal MP Alaina Lockhart, John Hearn in Science and Economic Development Canada, as well as Geraint Breeze and Divya Shah in Infrastructure Canada.

The two MLS lobbyists are now shown as “inactive” on the federal register.

That doesn’t mean that MLS has given up on federal funding, however. In August 2018, MLS made a submission to the parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, with the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: That the Government of Canada add “Launch vehicle technology and technology for launch sites” as admissible research categories for NSERC grants providing funding for aerospace or space research and development. 

Recommendation 2: That the Government of Canada invests in and incentivizes new business practices through partnerships with Canadian companies, not-for-profits and charities, such that the youth may be equipped with STEM skills relevant to the launch industry and the overall space industry. 

Stripped of the bureaucratic vagueness, these recommendations show that MLS has tried to get public money out of NSERC (National Sciences and Engineering Research Council) and the Canadian government. (An email to MLS requesting an update on the project’s progress, and whether any financing — private or public — had been secured, went unanswered.)

Michael Byers pointed out to the Canso audience that Canada is “probably the Ukraine’s strongest international ally, and indeed our foreign minister is particularly supportive of that country.”

He wondered aloud whether the Canso project isn’t part of that equation:

I do know that the federal government is generally supportive of this project. In fact, there was a meeting in Ottawa last year that included NASA, the American space agency, talking about new launch states. And Canada was identified as a “new launch state.” So Canso is part of Canada’s plans for the Canadian space industry, but it’s murky and it requires investigation. 

Why no federal environmental assessment?

Byers believes that the importance of the Canso project to Canada’s relations with Ukraine may help explain why it has not undergone a federal environmental assessment.

He told the audience that the project involves all kinds of federal jurisdictions — over migratory birds, the marine ecosystem off the coast, for instance. Byers continued:

Fisheries and Oceans Canada should be all over this. There’s the issue of foreign relations. These rockets go into space, and that is an international domain, so it’s relations between Canada, the Untied States. Russia, China, India, that are immediately implicated. … And the federal government has mysteriously stayed out of this process. 

I asked the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) why the federal government had not undertaken an environmental assessment of the Canso spaceport project. This is the reply I received:

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (the Agency) received a request for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change (the Minister) to designate the proposed Canso Spaceport Facility Project to undergo a federal environmental assessment …

But:

The proposed project is not a physical activity described in the Regulations under CEAA 2012, and therefore it is not subject to CEAA 2012. However, activities that are not listed in the Regulations may be designated by the Minister to require a federal environmental assessment if, either the carrying out of that physical activity may cause adverse environmental effects or public concerns related to those effects may warrant the designation.

Following receipt of a designation request for the proposed project, the Agency sought input from federal departments and Indigenous groups on whether the project should be designated under CEAA 2012 and undergo an environmental assessment. 

In July 2019, the Minister determined that the project would not be designated to undergo a federal environmental assessment under CEAA 2012. The Minister’s decision follows an analysis of the project and a consideration of the regulatory mechanisms in place to evaluate and mitigate the potential environmental effects of the project.

So there you have it. For some undisclosed reasons, based on some undisclosed analysis of the project, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna decided that the Canso spaceport project did not warrant a federal assessment.

The proposal did undergo a provincial environmental assessment, but not a rigorous 275-day Class 2 process, which would have involved an “environmental assessment panel.”

Protected areas near Canso. Map: Nova Scotia government

Rather, the province decided that the spaceport project — which would involve massive amounts of highly toxic propellants, risky rocket launches, and be built on Crown land surrounded by protected wilderness areas, two provincial parks, seven lakes within six kilometres, and valuable marine fishing grounds — merited the far less onerous Class 1 environmental assessment.

This, despite the fact that Nova Scotia doesn’t even list “spaceport facility” as a category for either a Class 1 or 2 assessment, evidence that the province has no experience with such a project.

Byers told the Canso audience that they need to turn this into a “big public issue” and make it known that “the government of Nova Scotia and the government of Canada are partnering with a dubious, nearly-bankrupt Ukrainian company using Cold-war technology.” He advised them to:

Make the biggest stink you can and demand a federal environmental assessment, because technically the government of Nova Scotia is simply not up to assessing a project of this complexity. Like someone else said, they’re no experts in rocketry or toxic fuels. This environmental impact assessment has shown all kinds of problems. I don’t know whether the federal environmental impact assessment will be any better, but you certainly deserve one in Canso.

For this, he received very loud and sustained applause.

“Guinea pigs”

Another of the panellists, Karen McKendry of the Ecology Action Centre, spoke eloquently about the immense value of the biodiversity and protected wilderness areas around Canso, and the risks that the spaceport project poses.

Looking south from Glasgow Head Beach outside Canso towards Andrew Island, and behind it, the proposed launch site, with the windmills to the right. Photo: Joan Baxter

She pointed out that Nova Scotia Environment — the same government department that approved the spaceport project — also commissioned and published a report in 2017 highlighting the considerable commercial value of wilderness areas.

McKendry told the audience that governments seem to have chosen the people of Canso as “guinea pigs,” and asked if that is what they wanted. Many in the audience responded with loud “no”s.

Don Bowser told those present not to “fall for the snake-oil salesmen that are promising riches and gold and everything else,” recalling several previous business schemes that failed and left Nova Scotian taxpayers on the hook:

We’ve seen it time after time, and especially if there is even that small bit of risk that this [Canso beauty] is all spoiled, and there’s no more fishery and there’s no more anything else, because if one of these things comes down on this town, that’s it, you’re done, and there’s nobody who’s going to pay you or compensate you, and the government of Nova Scotia will say, “sorry, oops, we did it because we wanted to give you some jobs.” 

He continued:

This project is not about jobs. How many people in town are rocket engineers? How many people in town are rocket engineers who specialize in 1960s Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles? So where are the magic jobs going to come from? We have a free trade agreement with Ukraine, so they could bring over their own workers to do security and maintenance, and whatever else. And MLS has no other partners, except for Yuzhmash, none. There is nobody going to come here and launch their rockets except for Yuzhmash.

Michael Byers elicited gasps from the audience when he described two space launches he attended, at Cape Canaveral and Vanderburg, California. From an observation point 12 kilometres away, he said they were the “most powerful sensory occasions” of his life. The rockets consume up to 100 tonnes of highly volatile fuel within just a couple of minutes, making the light at the rocket base so bright you can’t look at it, even from that distance.

He said that when the shock waves hit, “you feel your internal organs vibrate.”

Given that the proposed launch site is only an estimated 2.5 kilometres from Canso, Byers said:

I’d be worried about your windows. I’d be worried about local wildlife, about your pets, about old people with health issues. In fact, I’d almost be surprised if they wouldn’t evacuate your community for each launch, if it’s that close. Again, we need to have satellite launch facilities to provide a lot of essential services in this modern time, [but] whether you want it in your community is another issue. Believe me, there’s a reason they’re not proposing this launch facility for Halifax.

Tourism

Also on the panel, and Skyped in from Dartmouth were Jan-Sebastian La Pierre and Chris Surette of A for Adventure,” a movement that promotes tourism and appreciation of the great outdoors in Nova Scotia. Both had just returned to Dartmouth from Canso, where they had been participating in the Stan Rogers Folk Festival, an annual musical tribute to the late Stan Rogers.

Said Surette:

What Jan and I are here to talk about is making sure that the town of Canso isn’t a place that people don’t want to go visit. We really believe that the opportunity for ecotourism is strong, and the beauty there is something that can be harnessed, with the national park site right there, there is opportunity for growth there, and the islands around Canso. . . Hearing this [about the proposed spaceport] is pretty shocking — details of what could happen. That’s our position on this.

To enthusiastic applause, Surette added:

Canso is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we really don’t want to see that being disrupted by something just to chase the dollar. 

If there were people in the audience in favour of the spaceport, they did not speak up to challenge the panellists.

Ray White, a member of the project’s Community Liaison Committee, and a former mayor of Canso and school principal, told me in a phone interview after the event that he missed the first hour and so didn’t hear many of the presentations. However, he said that the session — like all public discussions about the project — was important so that people can hear “all sides of the story.” White believes that “anyone who has any position for or against, the project will feel free to express their opinions.”

However, those who did express their opinions at last week’s information session were all strongly opposed to the project.

One man offered the view that, “It’s always the same in Guysborough. A few will walk out with everything and the rest get nothing.”

June Jarvis. Photo: Joan Baxter

The last word of the evening went to June Jarvis, who said that she was born in Canso and has lived there all her life, for more than 80 years. She expressed concern about the lakes in the area, and what would happen to them, even without a rocket crash, if the project went ahead.

Jarvis, who is also the aunt of the late Stan Rogers, thanked the panel for explaining how such “so-called economic schemes work.”

“It looks like these guys play dirty pool, and they’re looking for a new table,” she said. “And I hope we don’t provide it.”

Marie Lumsden told me that three members of AACS will be meeting Tuesday, August 6, with Central Nova Liberal MP Sean Fraser, who is also Parliamentary Secretary to McKenna. They will be letting Fraser know their concerns about the spaceport project and requesting a federal environmental assessment.

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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  1. This project is evil from beginning to end. Start with the carbon footprint for no real good. No government with a conscience would tolerate it, let along support it. It is worse than the propose airport for rich golfers at Inverness and that is close to the bottom.

  2. Excellent article. I have always been suspicious of this project as an economic enterprise, and thought the only possible direct benefit to the town would be a few short-term construction jobs and then possibly a few permanent security and maintenance jobs. Everything that comes out on the environmental risks adds to the feeling that this project is not worth the questionable benefits.

  3. Wow. Just wow. From what I had heard about this project I thought “ho hum, another silly go nowhere project for rural Nova Scotia” but now having been educated about the actual impacts of this, it is completely mad. Chasing the dollar is absolutely right, this spaceport (and by spaceport they mean explosion zone) will destroy Canso and everything around it. It will be a ghastly, barren area devoid of life, with clouds of toxic smog drifting off over the rest of the province. Slightly panicking that this might actually go ahead, please god, make it stop.

  4. Many thanks to Joan Baxter and to the Halifax Examiner for covering our event! I can’t seem to shake the profound hurt and insult I feel in knowing our government could put us in such peril. It is beyond comprehension. This is not the Canada I know and love.

  5. There are lots of promising developments in smaller rockets which use relatively clean fuel mixes. It would be cool to have a launch site in Canso, but not if it is going to be used to launch rehashed Soviet ICBMs.