Election Day 1

As you can read here, I am not a member of any political party, and my votes in the past have gone to candidates from all over the political spectrum. I am political, but pretty non-partisan. Good ideas can come from anyone, just as bad ideas can.

But I am not without biases. I really don’t like Harper’s Conservatives, for several reasons. A good recent example arrived in my electronic mailbox on Thursday.

I am on an Environment Canada mail list for both work and personal interest reasons, mostly because I like to know what my “open and accountable” government is up to. So when this notice arrived in my mailbox (and mailboxes across Canada) at 12:25 PDT on Thursday, I was naturally excited. Apparently the Government was finally going to do something about the damning report they themselves commissioned, then tried to bury, only releasing it a couple of days before Christmas, when everyone is paying attention. I was looking forward to calling in for the announcement, until I realized the actual announcement was in less than 20 minutes, and I would have to “pre-register” by calling the handy number they provided. So they are giving a press conference to no-one, at 3:45 EDT, the day before the Government Falls. Why do I think this is not going to be good news? Open and accountable government? those bastards. Ends up they came up with a “plan” to start monitoring the Tar Sands impacts on the Assiniboine River. No actual timing is mentioned, no actual funding is suggested. Really, there is no evidence they plan to actually do anything, but they have a plan. To start monitoring. Some time. Later. Maybe.

Apparently, I am supposed to vote Liberal, but tomorrow I will be out pounding signs into lawns for a friend representing another party. Not that it matters in this riding, as someone representing yet a third party is the foregone winner. Dilworth’s pre-recorded voice already called me today, and she gave me the canned Party Line. The message offered to hear my questions of I pressed 1, which I dutifully did. They hung up on me. but a pre-recorded message that lies about allowing you to interact: that is pretty much the Conservative Party Line, isn’t it?

So I can sit back and enjoy the election with a slight detachment. 24 hours in to the election, and Ignatieff has already made a strategic blunder.

This coalition thing is a smokescreen, it is just more of the Politics of Fear that Steve learned from his Southern Friends. As long as they are trying to paint a coalition as the Worst Possible Thing That Could Happen™, none of the real issues are going to come to the forefront.

So to deny that a coalition is up for consideration serves three purposes: It reinforces the false notion that it is the Worst Possible Thing That Could Happen™; it limits his options if the polls don’t start improving soon; and it lets Harper control the conversation.

The only appropriate response to this type of bullshit is to turn it around on him. Say something like:

“I am campaigning for a Liberal Majority Government, because I think that would be the best result for all Canadians. That said, Mr. Harper is going to have to explain to Canada why a stable coalition of willing Parliamentarians, working together to represent the interests of the majority of Canadians is somehow “less stable” than yet another fragile minority government, unwilling to work with anyone or hear any diversity of voices, desperate enough to hold on to the reigns of power that they would rather prorogue Parliament that listen to the will of the people.”


Pier Park Redeux

We got a little more info the last two weeks on the ongoing non-story of Pier Park contamination, and each little bit of info we get fills a few more gaps. I have to throw out the standard caveat here: although I have spent most of the last decade working on contaminated sites investigation and management in one capacity or another, I do not have the technical knowledge about this site to offer any “professional” opinions on it. Everything I know about this site is from the Council Reports and stories in the local media. So the following is a personal opinion based on incomplete knowledge, so treat it for what it is worth (approximately equal to what you paid for it).

So far we have had the February 14 update report to Council, and in March Chris Bell gave a delegation to Council raising his concerns about the ongoing remediation at the park, and we have seen an update on the Park and an interview with the project manager in the local papers.

First the update. It seems the (presumably shallow) soils have been remediated, and there is ongoing progress on the scrap metal “mounds”. The groundwater contamination plume (I will avoid the pejorative “toxic blob”) has been delineated (which means they have drilled holes all around it, sampled all of those wells, and found them clean), so they can now definitively say where the contamination is and where it is not. It is all within a 350 m^2 area, and they are between 40 and 50 feet below the surface. The highest concentrations are on the adjacent property, and if the groundwater flows towards the river (a safe assumption at that depth), then we can say the chlorinated solvents came from the adjacent property and migrated on to the Park Site through groundwater flow.

It is pretty clear the presence of these “DNAPL” chlorinated solvents was a surprise. It is extremely unlikely that this plume would have been discovered in any “Stage 1” or “Stage 2” Preliminary Site Investigation of the site, the type of investigation one would do prior to purchasing or developing such a site. From what I can interpret from the available reports, they bumped into this stuff while trying to do some depth-delineation of known contamination on the site. Such is the nature of the Contaminated Sites Regulations, though, that they have found it, they need to deal with it in order to get a certificate from the Ministry of Environment for the site.

These are liquid hydrocarbon solvents (likely carbon tetrachloride or tetrachloroethylene or the sort) that are heavier than water, so they sink to the bottom of the groundwater column in which they are dumped (much like the vinegar in your salad dressing drops down below the olive oil). This stuff is toxic to the environment, and potentially harmful to people, yes. Most chlorinated solvents are an irritant in low concentrations, harmful to organs like the brain to the liver in higher concentrations, and potentially carcinogenic with long-term exposure, kind of like the stuff you put in your gas tank every day or the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon smog you are exposed to walking through cosmetics section of the Bay. Toxic, but not the worst thing known to man. You can walk into Canadian tire and purchase Tetrochloroethylene for cleaning your brakes, and prior to the Montreal Protocol, you could buy Carbon Tetrachloride for everything from killing ants to running your refrigerator (but we called it Freon when using it for the latter). Mostly, they are common drycleaning chemicals.

Honestly, I cannot comment on the budget part of the update, as I am not up to speed on the budget history of this site. It is possible that this DNAPL plume is going to expand the budget of the park, but Jim Lowrie assures us it is within the “contingency” budget. Before we start yelling boondoggle, remember two things: this DNAPL was almost certainly unexpected and unpredictable, and that is what contingency budgets are for: contingent on the unexpected happening. Second, this extra cost is potentially 100% recoverable from whoever owns the property that is the source of the contamination. At this point, the concerned taxpayer would say “well, then make them clean it up!” Unfortunately, there is no way under the Contaminated Sites Regulations that the City or anyone else can force the owner of the source property to clean up the City’s property. What the City can do is clean it up, and then send the bill to the owner of the source property. They have to do it through the civil courts, but if managing this DNAPL really costs the City $1 million as some have suggested, and we can prove it came from off-site, then it should be pretty simple to recover those costs. But first, the City actually has to spend the money before it can ask for compensation. You may not like that, but it is Provincial law.

Now onto Mr. Bell’s concerns. I have met with Mr. Bell and discussed this issue with him. I respect him for his concern for the community, his persistence, and for speaking out about an issue that is relevant to all of us in the City. Just by asking questions publicly and making sure this issue stays in front of mind (if not on the front page of the Record), he is providing more impetus to the City and their consultants to make sure their “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed, and to make sure the public is kept updated on what is happening down there (remember, all of these reports will be public information eventually, so the City has nothing to lose by sharing them with us). That said, just because Chris is constantly asking questions doesn’t mean the answers are not adequate.

You can hear his delegation to council here (he starts about 1:03 in and the conversation goes on for about 15 minutes).

First, it seemed a bit flippant by Mr. Lowrie, but Madame Railjogger is almost certainly much more endangered by trains and car/truck exhaust jogging along Front Street than from vapours from the DNAPL plume. My guess based on how they are managing this plume (barrier wall), is that the surface vapours will be “risk assessed”, and the City is confident the Ministry will agree there is no unacceptable risk. With all hydrocarbons, there are separate standards for vapours rising up through the soils, based on the potential health effects of people breathing those vapours. In this case, the amount of vapour produced at depth will be small, but not negligible. However, those vapours will have to rise up through a significant saturated water column, maybe 35 feet thick, then through another 15 feet of unsaturated soils before reaching the surface, all along the way being both degraded and diluted. By the time these vapours hit the surface where Madame Railjogger is working out, they are likely to be diluted to non-detectable levels. However, even if this was not the case, the park will not be getting a certificate from the Ministry of Environment until that potential pathway is assessed. If there are vapours getting to the surface, then they will be required to put a barrier in place, but in this case, that looks pretty unlikely.

Second, my turn to be flippant: Just because Mr. Bell and the Mayor don’t understand hydrogeology, it doesn’t mean no-one else does. These contaminants are heavier than water; when dropped in a column of water, they sink. I’m not sure what Mr. Bell is calling “hardpan”, but New Westminster is underlain by permeable and semi-permeable materials for tens of metres, or more. DNAPL, when dropped in the groundwater, will go down until it hits a layer of sediment that is not permeable, then it will stay there (vertically), while spreading out on the impermeable surface, and even flow downhill along that surface if there is a slope or a groundwater flow to push it along. The Spring floods (freshet) will never cause the contaminants to rise to the surface, like they would if this was LNAPL (that is, hydrocarbons lighter than water). Placing a u-shaped barrier (described by Mr. Bell as a “fish weir”) may work perfectly fine to stop the flow of the contaminants downhill (i.e. towards the River), as long as the DNAPL cannot flow under the wall, build up to sufficient thickness to flow over the wall, or have a reason to change flow direction and go around the wall. Bentonite / concrete walls l are extremely effective, and have been used for dozens of years, in thousands of applications; the technology is well understood, effective, and reliable. Assuming there is good hydrogeology behind it, it should be the best solution here. The only pathway to people or the environment is to go sideways into the river bottom, then leak out into the river. The barrier wall will stop this from happening. The plume won’t go anywhere, it will be kept stable in place where it can do no harm. Eventually (over many, many decades I suspect) it will dissolve away, biodegrade, and otherwise break down, but no active measures will be taken to physically remove the stuff.

Third: with the contamination ‘contained’, is it a threat to the park, my puppy, my kids? Simple answer is no. This stuff is stable and is a long way down. Your child will not be able to touch this stuff, drink water contaminated with it, or breathe vapours coming off of it. With a barrier wall, this stuff will not migrate to river sediment and get into the food chain of the Pacific Salmon. There is no reasonable way that this stuff is going to get to your kid’s system. Since there will be residual contamination on the site, there will need to be a Human Health Risk Assessment demonstrating that this residual material poses no health risks prior to the City getting a certificate for the park from the Province. With the Risk managed, there is no reason people cannot live, work and play on top of a contained DNAPL plume with no risk to their health.

And that is a significant point; the Province is overseeing this work. The City and their Contractor don’t need to reassure me to move forward, nor do they have to convince Mr. Bell that everything is on the up-and-up. They need to convince the Ministry of Environment. Mr. Bell mentions in his delegation that he trusts the MoE to provide oversight, and that is what he is getting. The MoE will not issue a certificate for the Park unless they are convinced from the science on the ground that there is no risk to human health or the environment. I don’t know what else to ask for from the environmental side.

So, in summary, I remain unconcerned about the contamination issue in the Pier Park. If Mr. Bell wants to continue to make an issue of this, he might be better served chasing down the cost overrun issue, or the process for public consultation around the spending. I’m not an accountant, I don’t know much about that side of the thing, so I am best to avoid that (go to moneynewwest.blogspot.com, maybe they can help). Also, as a taxpayers, I hope the people making decisions for the City are motivated to try to recover as much of the contamination mitigation costs from the railway or whomever caused the DNAPL plume in the first place. Keep in mind 100% of this money should be recoverable from the “persons responsible” for the contamination, or the landowner from whom we received this contamination, if the City chooses to pursue those costs. I think it is important that our tax dollars not be used to clean up someone else’s spill incident, if that someone else is still around to pay for the cleanup. That is where I am looking for fiscal responsibility on this one.

Water fight!

I’m getting a little tired and punchy over The story that just won’t die. What started as an effort to reduce the environmental impact of bottled water in our schools has turned into one of the silliest political debates in the city since… hmmm… I can’t think of sillier one.

I should declare my bias here, since conflict of interest is such a big part of this. I have already publicly declared my opinion that bottled water is one of the most egregious examples of the victory of cleaver marketing over common sense, good economics, and sustainability. Not on par with smoking in the personal-health-risk department, but probably more damaging on a global heath risk, and no less stupid. So my bias is that I agree with the students on this one, not the Board of Education.

I don’t know Lori Watt, I had never met her before the infamous school board meeting where the latest motion on bottled water was discussed. Frankly, I was not impressed with her unprofessional manner at the meeting, but it is not like being unprofessional stood out in that completely dysfunctional organization, where most if not all of the members have lost touch with what they are there to do. Speaking as an adult, I was embarrassed to have the students in the audience watch their elected representatives act like that. So for the two “slates” on the board, I say a pox on all your houses.

However, the claims of “conflict of interest” in this case seem a bizarre stretch, legal opinion notwithstanding. During the last election for Board of Education, Lori Watt worked as a staffer for CUPE, and was a member of COPE, and CUPE contributed to her campaign (as they did to Trustee Ewen and Trustee Janzen). These are not secrets, nor do they preclude her for running for the Board. People voted for her in spite of (or in some cases, I am sure, because of) these associations. Labour Unions are political organizations, just as multinational corporations are. They have political interests, and put their support behind those that reflect them. Watt is a member of a labour union (like about 30% of Canada’s working population), and quite possibly shares some of the same political ideas as the Union does. It is possible she even goes to Union Meetings and takes part in the democratic process of setting those policies. Of course, she can’t vote one CUPE policies, only COPE ones.

Note also that New Westminster is a “union-friendly” City. There are numerous union offices in town, the population mix is decidedly working class, and it is a longstanding labour-NDP stronghold since before the days when Tommy Douglas represented New Westminster in Ottawa. It is entirely possible that Lori Watt’s labour connection helped her get elected: that people voted for her because of her union affiliation. These people are her constituency: like it or not, that is representative democracy.

So a member of the Board of Education, elected as a union member, put forward a motion for a policy change, seconded by Trustee Graham (who did not receive CUPE funding) and supported by all members of the board, that happened to reflect the expressed interests of her constituency. That is the conflict of interest? Conflict of interest is now putting forward a motion reflecting the interests of her constituency that was immediately supported by the rest of the board? Huh? Is there any suspicion that she personally gained financially from this? Did she short-sell her PepsiCo stocks prior to this motion coming forward? If she didn’t bring the motion forward, would she be fired from her union job? Where was her gain here? Excuse the French, but this is so much ado about sweet fuck all.

But what of the legal opinion, you ask? Given sufficient money, I could have a legal opinion drafted up that says the sky is not blue and the ocean is not wet. When one of the world’s largest bottled-water selling multinational corporations (Nestle) pays for a legal opinion from the same law firm that represents another one of the world’s largest bottled-water-selling multinational corporations (PepsiCo), and that opinion comes back in favour of the position of the bottled-water-selling multinational corporations, are we to be surprised? We should be no less surprised that the Board’s own legal opinion said there was not conflict. Legal opinions are like children: there is no limit to how many you can have, even if you can’t afford them, and everyone thinks their own is the best.

Since we are on the topic of conflict of interest: we know O’Connor received some financial assistance from Nestle for his supposedly one-man grassroots campaign against Watt. We know there were other, so far unnamed, financial contributors, willing to spend money to support one failed Board of Education candidate, as the “public face” of the fight. Receiving secret funding to wage a personal campaign? No possibility of conflict there. If O’Connor was really concerned about openness and accountability, he would declare just how many people contributed to his “grassroots” campaign, and how he got the address of PepsiCo’s favourite law firm. Still, I have yet to hear Patrick O’Connor mention anything about the interests of students (remember them?) in this entire debate. It is pretty ugly on the face of it.

I am afraid the local “Voice for openness and accountability” is on the wrong side of this fight. They threw another shot across the bow last week in the form of a letter from the President to the News Leader, praising the Board for making a “balanced and thoughtful” decision on this matter. It is clear Neil was not in the room witnessing those discussions, as there was clearly little thought put into the fall-back position this board came to.

However, there are two things I think get lost in the language, but not the spirit, of Neil’s letter, and I hope to clarify them: the health concerns of NWSS water, and “freedom of choice”, two arguments used by Voice Board of Education Members, and reinforced by the Gentleman™ from Nestle™ at that board meeting.

During the meeting, there were three people expressing the opinion that the water at NWSS was not safe: Trustee Cook, whose nuanced argument included reference to a video he apparently saw on YouTube and a headline from the Vancouver Sun that he took out of context to create the perception that school water was laden with killer lead; The Gentleman™ from Nestle™ who made vague references to “immune-deficient people”; and some guy named “Paul” from the DPAC, who I didn’t know, but I seem to recall him saying something about commies and our precious bodily fluids:

But the funniest moment was shortly after this when Trustee Goring suggested (without a hint of irony) we need to educate the youth better, because he didn’t know where these rumours were coming from amongst the students that the water was unsafe…when there were numerous youth in the room arguing for a ban on bottled water, and it was only a few misinformed (or misinforming?) adults making these ridiculous claims…

For the record, the public health officer did not say the tap water at the school was unsafe. She suggested that a ban on bottled water should be applied concurrently with a ban on all single-serving drinks, including juices and sodas. Note, she was not arguing to maintain “freedom of choice”, but to remove all choices, leaving the school with only tap water, as this would be the healthiest alternative.

Which brings us to freedom of choice. This was big part of the Gentleman™ from Nestle™ argument, and something Trustee Cook was all over: give the students choice, and educate them to make the right choice. The false choice thing aside (with no facilities to easily fill refillable bottles, and big, glowing, pop machines everywhere you look in the school, just what is the message students are being given?) why would we give the students a choice that is the opposite of the recommendation of the public health officer? I am sure the public health officer would not suggest we install cigarette machines, then let the students “choose” not to smoke. Part of an education system is empowering the students to make the right choice by providing respite from the constant media bombardment to do the wrong thing. How do we effectively teach them to make the rational choice when we turn around and take money from a global multinational to advertise the irrational choice in the teaching environment?

On an almost completely unrelated note, you might have noticed this story about how Pepsi has slipped to #3 in the “Cola Wars”. Frankly, I don’t care what brand of malted battery acid you drink, but one number popped out to me: the United States annually consumes 1.6 billion cases of Coke. A “case” is an industry measure, equal to 24 x 8-oz containers, or 192 oz. That means the USof freaking A consumes 9.1 Billion Litres of Coke a year. To put this number in perspective, if you were to fill a 10-foot-deep swimming pool with this volume of Coke, the pool would need to be as wide as a CFL Football Field, and more than 100 km long! And that is just Coke Classic, we haven’t even thought about the Dr. Pepper effect. Freedom of choice indeed.

So, if the Board of Education was really concerned about the student’s health, they would immediately adopt the public health officer’ recommendation (see the recommendation here, on page 20) and begin the phasing out of vending machines in the schools. It is clear that the public health officer thinks tap water, supplied by Metro Vancouver and regulated by Vancouver Coastal Health is the helathiest, safest alternative. If Patrick O’Connor is really interested in cultivating his position as “maverick community activist” and not a bought-and-paid hack for Multinational Corporations, then he should stop taking their shadowy money, and if Voice is really interested in open and accountable governance, they should probably be backing away from this issue and Mr. O’Connor completely.

Oh, and everybody: apologise to the damn students for being such idiots.

Earthquakes, there and here. – now with extra nuclear reality check

As a geoscientist and someone who works in Richmond, I am hyperaware of the situation in Japan. I was at the curling rink at midnight last Thursday when the news came on the TV. The initial pictures of tsunami waves of debris flowing over farmlands and the shock of seeing entire oil refineries going up in flames was ultimately too harrowing to watch. I had to turn it off and go to bed. The horror on the ground was too real. Roland Emmerlich be damned.

I am in no way an “earthquake expert”, my geology training is more sedimentology and tectonics, with some ichnology thrown in and a bunch of hydrogeology experience. However, during my schooling, I was lucky enough to learn about natural hazards from a couple of the people you have seen and heard on TV and the radio in the last few days (such as John Clague at SFU, who is the go-to academic on this stuff in Vancouver, and was a very busy guy last weekend). I also had seismic course work both theoretical at SFU, and more applied at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, so I would consider myself a well informed non-expert with quite a but of related background. For what that is worth.

An event like the one in Japan will not hit Vancouver in the same way it hit Sendai. The earthquake at Sendai was a very large megathrust , one of the largest quakes ever recorded (currently the USGS has it rated at magnitude 9.0), which occurred at the very shallow depth of 10km, only 100km from the shoreline. On every single scale, that is pretty much the worst case scenario.

We do get “megathrust” quakes off the west coast of BC, and some may even hit this magnitude, but Vancouver (and even Victoria) is not like Sendai. First off, the major thrust fault plate boundary off of Vancouver Island is more than 300km from Vancouver, and more than 200km from Victoria, with the bulk of the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island in the way. Also, there are up to two kilometres of soft Quaternary sediments draped over the subduction zone here, which may soften the blow a bit.

That said, a megathrust will be a bad day here in Vancouver (think magnitude 6.5 quake-type shaking, but lasting for several minutes: up to 15!), but the tsunami risk to Vancouver is relatively small (with a caveat below). The west coast of Vancouver Island will not get off so easy: Tofino, Bamfield, Port Alberni: these places stand a pretty good chance of being wiped out completely. The only real good news for them is that these events are very uncommon, probably about once every 500 to 700 years, so odds are it will not happen in our lifetimes.

Probably a much higher direct risk to Greater Vancouver is presented by much smaller “crustal” earthquakes that may occur very close to the City. These quakes are usually shallow, and if close enough, can cause major damage, although tsunamis are unlikely (with that caveat below). There are unlikely to be much higher than magnitude 7 or 7.2, but the proximity is the issue. These can happen anywhere between Hope and Sooke. This is the difference between Kobe, where most of the destruction was caused by shaking and fire, and Sendai, where most of the damage was by tsunami. Locally, this type of quake is much more likely, and probably has a recurrence interval of less than 100 years in our geographic region.

Oh, can we stop saying “Richter Scale”? No-one has used the Richter Scale for about 20 years. It is the Moment Magnitude Scale now, the difference is small, but quite signficant scientifically.

The tsunami caveat I have to include is that there could be a serious secondary tsunami, caused by a major landslide on the pacific coast (say, Sea-to-Sky area?) displacing a bunch of sea water, or even worse, a major collapse of the unconsolidated sediments off the west end of the Fraser Delta, which could hit the Gulf Islands with a serious tsunami, only to have to reflected back and hit Vancouver proper. Again, this is unlikely, but would be a bad day for everyone involved.

Which brings us to Richmond. I cannot comment for the City, nothing I say here is on behalf of the City. My job in the City is related to water quality and pollution prevention, I am not in the Engineering department, so I am not really in touch with those who do the earthquake planning. The only things I know about earthquake impacts in Richmond is from reading the City’s website on the issue, and a little bit of earthquake info I gained from my own personal research. None of this is official folks, it is just my personal, relatively uninformed position.

However, buildings and dikes are built to the 1:475 standard, which means the intensity expected once every 475 years, so essentially the worst of the “local crustal” quakes anticipated. Some critical infrastructure is built to higher standards yet. Legends of the entire Lulu Island “liquefying” are rather exaggerated. There will be local liquefaction of soils, probably resulting in some road and building damage and maybe some utility failures, but not the widespread destruction some would have you believe. Modern buildings are built with Liquefaction in mind, including piles, rafted foundations, stone columns… engineers, for all I hassle them, do good work.

The dykes, for the most part, should also be fine. Minor slumping in some of the older parts of the dykes is possible, but the internal drainage system of the Island (ditches, sewers, and pumps) can deal with that. Remember, most of Richmond I actually above sea level, unless there is a major freshet on the Fraser and an exceptionally high tide at the exact same time as the earthquake, widespread flooding is extremely unlikely even in the event of a major quake.

If anyone is really concerned about an acknowledged weak link in the Earthquake protection system, maybe ask the Provincial Governement where they are in those School upgrades.

Ask any Emergency Management expert in the province and they will tell you the #1 thing you can do to protect yourself from the inevitable earthquake is to be prepared. Have a 72-hour survival kit , because you shouldn’t anticipate getting any help in the first few days after an event. Another emergency kit (water, food, blanket) for your car, and one for your workplace will give you that extra protection, as you don’t know where you will be when it happens. Finally, plan ahead with your family and loved ones to agree to a place to reunite after the event, as you may not have phones to get in touch. The more eventualities you plan for, the more secure you and your family will be when (not if) the earthquake happens.

One interesting science side of this event was the pattern of earthquakes leading up to the big thrust that caused this disaster. In the days leading up to March 11th, there were several dozen “pre-shocks” of significant size in the area of the main earthquake, even up to magnitude 6.0. The Japanese lead the world in earthquake research (all due respect to the USGS), and this pre-quake pattern will be studied to death. There is hope we will learn more about the pre-cursors for this type of quake. A day’s warning, even 6 hours warning, would mean everything to the people of Tofino or Port Alberni. Compared to the hour or so warning Sendai had between the shaking and the tsunami, it could save thousands of life.

Not that Canada is slacking on this reaserch. The Neptune Project includes a plan to wire the entire Juan de Fuca plate, from the Pacific plate to the subduction zone, with sensitive seismometers to understand the changing stress regime of the plate. This is pretty cool, cutting edge stuff, no less remarkable or technically challenging that putting a probe in orbit around Mercury. It won’t get as much press, or course, unless it actually predicts the Megathrust and saves lives.

Update: as for the nuclear plant issue, the good sciency types at XKCD.com have made this cool chart up to give you an idea what the actual radiation risk is. Chort form: way less relevant than the tens oft housands killed in the tsunami, or the hundresd of thousands now homeless in Japan. Click to make readable.

On Caps

I heard Gordon Hobbis on CBC Radio’s “The Morning Edition” on Wednesday the 16th (you can stream it here, he was on about 1:40 in) talking about the United Boulevard Extension, and it got me thinking about Gord’s business: Caps Bicycles.

First off, Gordon did a great job on the radio. He hit the right points, and really addressed the concerns the neighbourhood and the entire City have about the UBE. This despite the efforts of Rick Cluff, who not only sees the world through a windshield, but is one of the all-time worst radio interviewers (you can hear him reading the questions off the sheet, as opposed to engaging in a conversation), OK for sports reporting in Ontario, and he sure likes talking about food, but his lack of intellectual depth or nuance is fairly exposed when the conversation turns the least bit political. Locally, see Stephen Quinn for the opposite: he actually asks smart questions, uses the interviewee’s responses as a launching point for follow-ups, even if this means putting them in an uncomfortable spot, or pointing out their own contradictions…but I digress.

I actually grew up in a bike shop. When I was 7 or 8, my parents bought a small-town sports store specializing in team sports, shoes, bikes and cross-country skis. My Mom became a local legend for her skate-sharpening skills, with figures skating clubs across the Kootenays sending her bags of skates on the Greyhound, which she would stay up late sharpening so they could be shipped back out on the next bus. My Dad put 20+ hours a week in as well, on top of his regular 40-hour job as an engineer. I learned a lot from growing up around that, mostly about the rewards of working hard, about how boredom could only result from laziness, and about being part of a community instead of just living in it.

But mostly, I learned to love bicycles. I remember changing my first flat tire when I was 8 or 9. I remember disassembling all of my first bikes to their bare parts, only to see how they go back together, and I remember a 1982 copy of Bicycling Magazine that talked about “The Klunkers of Marin County”: my first introduction to what we came to know as mountain bikes. With my parents running the store, I had access to bikes. I had my first real mountain bike (a pretty marginal Raleigh) by 1984, and my second (a sweet lugged and brazed triple-butted chromoly number from Miyata) by 1985. By the time I bought mountain bike #3, my parents had sold the business, and so I went out to the open market.

Bike #2 – Ridge Runner SE (it was actually a 1985-1/2 model)

By 1987, the mountain bike boom had exploded. Within about 5 years, bike shops went for selling 90% “ten speeds” to selling 90% mountain bikes, and they were selling more bikes than ever before. The twin drivers of new technology advanced around mountain bikes and the emergence of Shimano SIS, along with North American cyclists like Greg Lemond, Andy “Hamstrings” and Steve Bauer finding success in Europe, cycling was momentarily cool.

The biggest bike dealer in BC was easily Caps. Even in the Kootenays, we knew of Caps, it was a big chain and always had the lowest price. So it passed that when I graduated from High school I bought my third mountain bike from Caps. It was a 1987 Diamond Back Arrival. TIG-welded 7000-series aluminum frame (rare at the time), Deore XT components, seat-stay mounted U-brake, biopace, Araya RM-20s; this puppy was state of the art for a factory-built bike. I seem to remember is selling for $1050. And I rode the hell out of that bike for at least 4 years. Eventually it saw ubiquitous upgrades like a Syncros Stem, a Hite-Rite, and Specialized Ground Control tires. It was the bike I brought down with me in 1988 when I first moved the New West. It was the bike I put slick tires on to work as a bicycle courier in downtown Vancouver. It was the bike I raced over Vedder Mountain in those “classic” races. It was the bike that opened up Burnaby Mountain trials to me, and was the bike I had when I helped build Nicole’s trail, one of the most venerable trails on that hill. I loved that bike.

My First bike from Caps… State of the 1987 art.

Then I started paying my way through school working in other bikes shops, in the Kootenays, in Vancouver and North Van. As the Diamond Back got old, I bought a Scott Pro Racing (Tange prestige, XT, Scott self-energizing brakes, and my first set of Rock Shox RS-1s), a Giant Cadex CFM-2 (aluminum lugged carbon fibre, Suntour, Rock Shox Mag21s), then another Cadex CFM-2 (same frame, AMP parallelogram front fork(!) and the last set of thumbies I would ever own (alas)). This was replaced by my first Rocky Mountain Blizzard (Marzocchi XC-600 forks, XT, gripshift, and Magura hydraulic cantilever brakes), then another Blizzard (Bombers, XT, RaceFace, V-brakes) that I still use for commuting, and now my SantaCruz Blur named Morton. That is my mountain bike history, in a nutshell. Road bikes are another matter, as are commuters.

Liz 2 – my 2nd Blizzard, now an uber-commuter and light tourer.

Now it has been 10 years since my last bike shop job (Blizzard #1 was the last bike I didn’t have to pay retail for), and I generally hate going in bike shops. Actually, I love going in bike shops, I hate going in with the intent to buy, as more often than not I know more than the sales guy I am working with about the product I want to buy, I am a terribly picky customer and have little patience for the marketing hype (don’t get me started on “riser” handlebars) and the entire sales/snob side of the cycling industry just irritates me. That said, The iCandy has purchased both of her last two bikes from Caps: a Devinci road bike for training and Grand Fondos, and another Devinci hybrid for commuting. She has a hard time finding bikes that fit her well, and both Devinci and the staff at Caps have done a good job for her. I can go in and talk to Gord or Marie or anyone else there and 90% of the time, get what I need (and the other 10% of the time, the thing I need doesn’t exist anymore…my list of bikes above makes me look like an early adopter, but I am now pretty far to the retro-grouch end of the spectrum).

It is also great to support someone who lives and breathes his community. Gord is the driving force behind Sapperton Days, an event embraced by the entire community. He serves on community committees (including previously on the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, where I got to know him better), and he is always up for discussion about the local events of the day. I think (from my young memories), that is how my parents were: selling baseball equipment but also coaching and providing uniforms for community teams (sponsoring 8-year olds… funny when you think about it), renting XC skis, but also providing a sales location (free of charge) for the local cross-country ski club to sell their passes. They didn’t sell golf equipment (why compete with the Pro at the local club, who is a specialist in the field and a good guy?) but they served on the board of the community golf course… build the community and your customers will reward you.

So kudos to Gord, for running a community-based business, and building the community. And shame on anyone in New Westminster who buys a bike a Walmart.

News update…

So much going on, so little time to write about it.

First off, Christie Clark announces her Cabinet. To her credit, I think it is a good mix of old and new, evidenced in how Moe Sihota was stuck on CBC concurrently complaining about the lack of some new members’ experience and the fact there was no evidence of change! No problem: that kind of cognitive dissonance is nothing new for Moe. There is no local angle here (New West is a long way from any Liberals of note, figuratively, if not literally), but there is an environment angle. The new Minister of Environment is some guy no-one outside of Kamloops has ever heard of. That said, he is genuinely educated (a Veterinarian), has executive experience (Mayor of Kamloops), and seems a generally nice guy (including doing a lot of overseas development work for a non-religious organization), so I am hopeful.

However, Clark’s biggest concern should not be her cabinet selection, or Moe Sihota, it should be the three high-profile, right-of-centre-right BC MPs who have just announced they are leaving federal politics . In Stockwell Day, John Cummings, and Chuck Strahl, the BC Conservatives suddenly have an electable core, and they they won’t have to dip into the Randy White pool o’ crazy for a leader. The landscape of BC politics is about the change: you read it here first.

Now getting more local, The UBE open house on Saturday was apparently well attended and well organized. I was out of town for a curling bonspiel, and could not go, but from the reports I have heard, any topics I would have covered were covered very well by others. I am actually at a committee meeting at the same time as the Wednesday consultation, so I will not be able to attend, but I recommend all with any interest do so!

The “water bottle in the school” issue will not be going away any time soon. With the President of Voice writing an opinion piece supporting the School board (while getting some of the facts wrong), on the same day we find out that the pro-water bottle “legal opinion” was actually financed by the Gentleman™ from Nestle™. I think Voice’s best tactic now is to back slowly away from this issue. Secretive corporate financing of Mr. O’Connor’s “grassroots” anti-labour rhetoric is not really the kind of thing people commonly associate with the “accountable, transparent, democratic” ideas Voice usually represents. O’Connor is not, to the best of my knowledge, a Voice member, nor does he speak for them, but this is probably something they don’t want to be too close to when it crashes and burns.

Finally, rumour has it that the City is looking at fortnight trash delivery. Good news.

Pinch me, I’m famous – Updated!

I Finally made it.

After 6 months of blogging, 70 posts and with 5000 hits on this blog, four years with the NWEP, and 2 years as President, a half dozen delegations to council, many more letters to various editors, working on City committees, working on various political campaigns, attending countless public meetings and generally ranting and raving about politics and the environment for too many years to keep track of…I finally broke through.

Nobel Prize? Koufax Award? Book deal? Kudos from P.Z. Myers? No, better than all of these:

Paul Forseth knows I exist.

Paul Forseth 2005
I’m either standing in your shadow, or blocking your light…

We all know Paul as former MP, Conservative roustabout, and purveyor of the least local of all local blogs. His dot-com presence is more a conduit for missives from the Prime Minister’s Office than a blog, displayed in the way most posts are written by actual members of the Conservative Government, and read word-for-word like press releases in local papers nationwide.

I call it the most “non-local” local blog, as the words “New Westminster” have not appeared in a single post on the site over the last two years. Not once.

His latest post is a source of great hilarity, though. He purportedly asks people to send him their feelings about having an election, which he will dutifully post for you. Apparently, he is unaware that the whole “mail it to me and I will post it” thing isn’t needed in a Blog, as there is a “comment” thing down there at the bottom. He even has moderation turned on, which means he can filter out all those uncomfortable mentions of in-and-out scandals, Bev Oda’s inability to remember “not”s, illegal campaigning in Ministers offices, recent speaker censures, jet plane budget misestimates, or…well, you get the point.

It also went up with a dozen “opinions” that presumably already arrived, with semi-anonymous people falling into two camps: 1) No election now, Harper is doing a great job! and 2) Call an election now! Harper will sweep to majority! Of course, they all arrived with the original post asking for comments, and he hasn’t updated since, so they do smack of…I dunno, not being 100% genuine? Astroturf much?

Then I notice that one of the posts from Camp 2 is from none other than “P. Johnstone”.

O.K., so I have been a Johnstone all my life. And surprisingly, there are not that many of us. Something about the Campbells sweeping into the borderlands 400 years ago and marrying all our women. “Johnson”s out the ying-yang, “Johnston”s a dime a dozen, but “Johnstone”? Not too common. Telus White Pages list no Johnstones in New Westminster at all, and only 8 in all of Burnaby. I guess it is possible that there is another P. Johnstone in New West without a listed phone number like me, who happened upon Paul Forseth’s blog on the day he posted a request for comments, who rushed to comment. Hey, some coincidence, but stranger things happen.

Or, Maybe Paul saw my dig at his blog on another much, much more local blog and took notice. That means he knows I exist, and has been paying attention enough that this slightly uncommon but totally random name appeared in his “pseudo-comments”. I leave it up to Occam to decide.

Too bad he didn’t take my gentle jibes for what they were: advice to use his burgeoning web presence to try to connect with the people in New Westminster. That is the power of social media, it isn’t just an advertising platform, it is an opportunity to engage in conversation. For example, one local MP has been vocal about the transportation issues affecting New Westminster (those projects receiving federal funds, so therefore relevant to the federal file). Where is Paul on the UBE? Where is Paul on anything?

Maybe he need to think about taking a workshop on how Social Media is supposed to work…

Update: March 14:
In what I am sure is a complete coincidence, Paul’s website now has a post talking about a local event, and all the older missives from the PMO posts have gone down the memory hole. It’s a fundraiser, but at least it’s local!

Good to have another active voice added to the local blogosphere… I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but we need a little more active input from the Right side of the political spectrum around here.

A tale of two developments

Two development projects came to light this week in the local papers, and at council chambers.

Both are planned to occupy under-utilized pieces of land adjacent to major transportation corridors, and both are going to convert unused space into economic drivers by providing jobs. However, these two projects are completely different. By comparison and contrast, they teach us about sustainable land use planning, and how it relates to sustainable transportation planning. They serve to challenge us about the type of City we want to build.

First, the good news. Bentall Kennedy (yes, those Bentalls; no, not those Kennedys), the owners of the biggest freaking warehouse in the world adjacent to the Braid Skytrain Station, are hoping to develop the lot that includes the warehouse visible from space and the surrounding empty lots.

The report to Council outlines a first phase office complex development, followed by further offices, commercial and/or residential space. They are in the early part of the planning process, and want to get out into the community to do some consultation before they roll out their final plans (hear that TransLink?), but from the media reports, it sounds like two office buildings are already moving through the process, and more to come.

Why am I excited about office buildings? Because empty lots beside a SkyTrain Station are an embarrassing lack of planning, and a big warehouse (where stuff is taken off of one truck only to be put onto another) right next to SkyTrain Station is doubly so. Building a transit-oriented development at this future transit hub (if, as Gordie the Liar once speculated, we ever get transit onto the Shiny New Bridge). Presumably, the value of that land has increased due to the presence of SkyTrain, and this property will not only provide jobs and potential living space to accommodate growth, it will provide much-needed business revenue for the City’s coffers. Much like the MUCF, a location next to a transit hub is actually a feature when attracting 21st century businesses. New Westminster, with 5 SkyTrain Stations, is only beginning to cash in on this benefit.

Note how they are going to consult with the City and the residents before they build? Absent other info, I would suggest building working and living space next to a transit station is a good idea that we should support.

Now the bad news. The big, empty space over which you can enjoy views of Poplar Island from the east sidewalk of the Queensborough Bridge (arguably a better view than Walmart over wrecked cars – the offering from the west sidewalk) is finally going to be put to use: for taking things off of then putting them back onto trucks.

No doubt strategically located adjacent to the potential North Fraser Perimeter Road, the people of Queensborough, already burdened by excessive trucks and traffic, are going to get to enjoy dozens more trucks on their surface streets. Not trucks picking up goods from New Westminster manufacturers, or delivering goods to New Westminster businesses, but just brought here, unloaded, reloaded and shipped off elsewhere. Since it is Port Metro Vancouver land, we don’t even get the Property Tax Benefits of having a commercial distribution hub. More traffic, more road wear, minimal tax benefit. Bad idea.

Notice how the Port didn’t ask to do this, but sent a letter to the Queensborough community telling them they will be doing it? They are the Freakin Port of Freakin Metro Freakin Vancouver: they don’t need no stinkin’ consultations.

If we were consulted, what would we say? Unloading, storing and loading trucks is, perhaps, not the best use for our valuable waterfront industrial property. Although the Port originally promised short-sea shipping at this location, that seems pretty unlikely now. If you look at Port lands along the Fraser, less and less of it is involved in putting things on or off ships, and more of it is becoming a tax-free and lucrative place to build truck-only warehouse complexes. The job creation is minimal, the tax benefits are limited, and the environmental, economic and social costs of increased truck traffic in our neighborhoods is significant. The former Interfor lands, if not a place where manufacturing can take place, could at least be a location where short-sea shipping can reduce the need for the North Fraser Perimeter Road, for the United Boulevard Extension, for lines of trucks backed up on Stewardson every morning…

What do these two projects say about Urban Planning? To quote the ghost of Shoeless Joe: “if you build it, they will come”. Metro Vancouver is growing, but the type of growth we will see in New Westminster depends on the growth we are building to accommodate. Do we want relatively dense office and commercial development next to residential spaces, connected to the rest of the Lower Mainland by an integrated transit and greenway system (i.e. Braid Station, the MUCF, the Brewery District, Plaza 88)? Or do we want our roads full of trucks, connecting inefficient goods-shuffling (but not manufacturing) businesses spread out along our waterfront and through our neighborhoods?

If we build truck routes we will get trucks. If instead we build a modern, integrated system to move people and goods, we will more efficiently move people and goods, and become an attractive place for transit-oriented development.

…and on an almost completely unrelated note, the UBE is coming back to the table on Saturday.

Counting your Trips to the Curb

For those who remember the NWEP’s campaign around the roll-out of the automated trash bins, we put a lot of effort into convincing the City that 120L bins were large enough for most, if not all, households. We used the City’s own data and data from MetroVancouver’s own solid waste folks.

We even threw together some graphics.

In the end the City decided wisely to use 120L and the standard bin, and to offer 240L bins for an increased cost for those who insisted on clogging up landfills to the maximum possible extent. I was chagrined to find out that they ran out of 120L bins, and I (of all people) was one of the few houses that got a 240L bin, but the City swapped it out for me a month later (a month in which I didn’t use the bin once, just to make a point).
Kristian at the City must have got a laugh out of me, with my loud mouth, being one of the people with the 204L black bin, as he (I suspect) chose to swap out my green bin for a 120L model recently, without even telling me. Not a complaint, as I have hardly used that bin, with my green cone and compost both going gang-busters. In fact, I have no idea when the swap happened, I just noticed one day they were the same size.

However, another member of the NWEP Trash Talkers group was complaining recently about only using her 120L bin once every two months or so. With the organics out of it, it doesn’t stink, and she just doesn’t produce enough waste to fill it, and sees no point taking it out until it is full. Her only concern is that the garbage truck comes by her house 52 times per year, when it only really has to come by 6 or 7 times. She wondered how many other people found they were putting out the bins less than once a week. And from the kernel or thinking came the NWEP Trash Tracking program.

Using the lessons of the successful Glenbrook North and Sapperton Zero Waste Challenges, this idea is to estimate how much trash people actually put out: is there enough interest in fortnight or less frequent pick up if it means money savings? Is there use for 75L or smaller bins with concomitant savings in your trash bill?
To find out, first we need to collect some data, which we can then take to the City and use to plan further waste-reduction strategies. This is where you come in.

The NWEP have put together a simple garbage-tracking form.

It is designed to be posted next to the garbage calendar you receive from the City. To fill it out, you simply make a check mark every time you take one or both of your trash bins to the curb. You can mark if the bin was “full”, about half full, almost empty, or if you didn’t take it out that week. The same for the Green Organic Waste bin. Although the form starts this week, we will only use the data from April through on for stats crunching, the March start gives us a chance to get the word out and the bugs worked out. You can download it from the NWEP website and print it, or you can fill it our digitally, or if you don’t have a printer, contact us and we will get a form in your mailbox ASAP.

At the end of the survey, you can scan, e-mail, or drop your tracking sheet off (or we can come by and pick it up from you). We will collect this data, post it on our website (the names and addresses of all participants will remain anonymous) and hopefully present it to New Westminster Council and Staff in the Fall.
More info and contact info if you need more answers at the NWEP website .
p.s. I did some serious weeding last weekend, so my 120L green bin will be going out 1/2 full. Looks like my black bin is only about 1/3 full right now, so I will not be taking it out this week at all.

Long post on post shortages…

Blogging continues to be light. Things are happening, usually so fast that I just don’t have time to write as much as I would like. Blogging right now is a little light because of my other time commitments. Things I am working on that are taking more time than anticipated. Just what am I doing?

At work, I am involved in the CEAA process for a large project. I cannot comment on the actual project for obvious reasons, but it is interesting to see how these processes work. Being in a meeting with 40+ people, with the conversation varying from extremely technical science-based analysis of potential environmental impacts to listening to First Nations representatives talk about their concerns, which are often completely invisible to those of us not raised in that culture. Then there is the fun of trying to eak out the politics of the room and understand where people are coming from. That part is just a fun aside, though, as my role is very technical. My main task is to wade through several thousand pages of technical documents just to be educated enough to be able to provide summary info to the public and to senior management. Challenging, yes, but quite rewarding, as I am learning both technical material and about legislative processes. Love my job.

We are ticking down to the end of the Live Smart energy audit time, so we are doing a few last-minute upgrades at home, now that the windows are done. I will finish up the story of the windows (and why, in the end, we are not going to get any credit for them on our energy audit!), and will write about the wonders of furnaces and air-source heat pumps. For now, we are scrambling to get things done. Do first, write later.

It is also a busy time for the NWEP. We are trying to get our volunteer garbage-tracking project rolling out, we are finally updating the webpage, the transportation group is all over the MUCF issue and the UBE is looking to rear it’s ugly head again. There are potential changes to GreenDrinks coming along. A lot of this is not visible yet, but expect to hear more from the NWEP in the next few months.

The Curling Club board is also taking a bit of time these days. We are in the middle of a bunch of energy-efficiency changes. Long and short of it, a curling rink uses a lot of energy. Making ice involves taking a lot of heat out of a lot of water, which, thanks to a pesky thing called Thermodynamics, takes a lot of energy. The Royal City Club was built in the 60’s (they just celebrated their 45th anniversary), and although there have been many upgrades over the years, energy efficiency is not always priority #1. But with utility costs being a major expense in the club, and increased awareness, this is changing. I will blog more on this, but short version is that in the last year the club has dramatically cut its utility cost by installing a water recycler for the ice plant, replacing lighting fixtures and furnaces for the non-ice area, and are currently applying for grants to replace on-ice heaters and dehumidifiers. Being a member-owned and -operated club with no direct municipal funding, the budgets are shoestring and grants to help fund these efficiency programs are helpful. Grant application writing, however, is no fun.

Civic Committees are back up as well. I served on the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee last year, and have signed up for a second year. It will be an exciting year to be part of this group, as this is the year of the Master Transportation Plan, and we have a new Senior Transportation Engineer coming to the City, so changes are afoot! I also signed up for the Emergency Advisory Committee this year. I actually have some training in Emergency Operations Centre systems, and I figured this group would allow me to keep that training refreshed, while helping the City plan for the “ifs” that are really only “whens”. Having taken part in Exercise Gold last year, and being a work coordinator of the BC Shakeout this year, I seem to be getting more and more involved in Emergency Management. Don’t panic.

So, a long winging post explaining why I don’t have as much time these days to write my regular long winging posts. Typical.