Community Open House on Coal Exports

Thursday Night, there is a Community Open House to discuss the proposed addition of a coal terminal at Surrey-Fraser Docks. This one featuring City Officials, no less than 2 (two!) Members of Parliament, a Member of the Provincial Legislature, and and array of energy, health and environment experts.

I have already opined once on this topic, but it might be time for an update.

You might have heard about this issue. Local Candidate-in-Waiting James Crosty has been characteristically outspoken, the Quayside Community Board has raised concerns, as have the NWEP, and others during a recent public rally on the topic. Now, the City of New Westminster has officially opposed the project until come concerns are addressed.

In direct opposition to the City’s elected officials and the vocal portion of their customer base (but toeing the line of the Surrey Chamber), the New Westminster Chamber of Commerce just released a presser indicating their support for “environmentally sound coal shipments” – apparently unaware of the oxymoron contained within that phrase.

Nothing about the shipment of coal is environmentally sound. Simply put, this bituminous coal from Wyoming (Montana?) represents the dirtiest energy available to mankind, and is a small piece in the Global Climate Change Problem. This is not high-grade anthracite coal used for making steel that we can beat into ploughshares, this is scrubby brown coal that will be burned in a power plant somewhere in the far east to produce electricity or steam cheaper than the same energy can be produced by more sustainable means. The annual greenhouse gas and climate change implications of burning this much coal (not including the extraction or transportation impacts) will be equivalent to 200x the annual GHG output of the entirety of New Westminster – all the homes, businesses, cars and industry combined.

Port Metro Vancouver (the only legislative oversight body involved here, and therefore the party we are talking to when discussing this project) and Fraser Surrey Docks simply brush these greenhouse gas concerns away – the coal will not be burned here, therefore it does not count in “our” greenhouse gas accounting. This is the same argument being made by proponents of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and the Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion. This argument is also used by Christy Clark at al. when talking about LNG exports, despite the fact the most damaging GHG impacts of that project will be released right here in BC, and not at the eventual burning site. Without getting too sidetracked by that particular lie- the central argument is ethically compromised.

A simile one could apply is the street drug trade. If one does not manufacture Crack Cocaine, and one does not smoke it, there is no reason we should restrict the business growth that comes from selling it. Hey- I’m just moving this stuff offshore (or off the sidewalk) to people who want it- I’m not responsible for where it goes! Why should we stop the job-generating resale of Crack Cocaine?

Another more direct comparison is to Canada’s asbestos industry. Canada banned the domestic use of asbestos decades ago because it apparently killed people. However, Canada has refused to ban the mining and export of the material to the Third World – even going so far as to lobby the UN from officially recognizing the scientifically-established cancer-causing properties of the material. The Harper Government(tm) was even willing to subsidize the industry in a couple of important Quebec ridings, until the newly-elected Quebec government shut that shit down.

Similarly, this crappy coal from Wyoming (Montana?) would never be burned to make electricity in BC, it is actually illegal for BC Hydro to burn this stuff because of the nasty environmental impacts. Yet, we are willing to transport it through our Ports, have it do it’s environmental and social damage elsewhere, and take our skim off the top. In this case, the skim is 50 jobs. Does that sound like an ethical approach to business? Does this sound like “environmentally sound coal movement?”

Much like the oil pipeline and LNG examples, the increase in coal export flies in the face of BC’s claims to be a “carbon neutral” province, or that because it has a neutered Carbon Tax, it is a leader in Climate Change Policy. Currently, According to the Government of BC oil, gas and coal represents much less that 2% of BC’s GDP and well less than 1% of employment – it is a minuscule portion of our true economy. Yet, we are being told that unfettered support for these industries is fundamental to the future or our Province’s economic survival. Some have suggested we are betting a lot on a pipe dream.

The reality is that these activities are threatening other sectors of our economy: fisheries, farming, forestry, tourism, manufacturing, etc. The Petro-economy is impacting our dollar which challenges all other industries, while the science-stifling required to support the industry is hurting our global competitiveness and global reputation. Climate change is threatening our salmon, and has already decimated our forests. We plan to displace farmland in order to provide electricity for carbon extraction and refrigeration, while depleting and fouling the water supply we need to keep agriculture viable in our interior valleys. This will, in turn, make us more dependent on food imports, push up healthcare costs, and turn SuperNatural British Columbia into something we may not recognize.

Of course, this isn’t all on Fraser Surrey Docks, or even Port Metro Vancouver. They are just the current  active front in a larger battle for the future of our Province’s economy, and the local focus in the discussion about the future of our planet’s climate. Are we going to become a hydrocarbon-exporting Province as our main industrial activity? Are we going to continue to ignore the global implications of our unsustainable business practices? Are we going to continue the drift from a world leader in Environmental Protection to an embarrassing laggard? Who the hell is making these decisions, and why?!

That is why this little port approval process is bringing together elected leaders from Municipal, Provincial, and Federal levels to lead a public discussion on what it all means.

I’m suggesting you show up. It should be interesting.

You can even watch it live on your computer at We truly live in the future, let’s start acting like it.

Pattullo Consultation Redux

Some were wondering what I was doing on Saturday, walking the sidewalks during Uptown Live and the Hyack Parade dressed as a bridge.

I was handing these out:

Yes, TransLink is coming back to New Westminster to talk some more about the future of the Pattullo Bridge. This is a new phase of consultation, no doubt timed to come right on the heels of the Provincial Election. This is actually good news, not something to lament.

Last time TransLink came around these parts talking about the Pattullo to the public, there were two reactions: Almost complete indifference from Surrey, and vociferous concern from New Westminster. The plan presented at that time were for a bridge that both increased the traffic load on New Westminster, while failing to acknowledge the importance of the existing structure to New Westminster’s historical and cultural landscape. The good news is that TransLink got the message, and decided to step back and re-evaluate its approach to the aging Pattullo.

Some people have asked the NWEP members if we are going to hold a “rally” related to these consultations, as we did last time. I cannot speak for the NWEP (Although there is a members meeting tomorrow night where this will no doubt be discussed), but I suspect that the answer will be no. At the successful rally last year, the NWEP and the citizens of New Westminster were asking for better idea: for TransLink to come back with a more comprehensive review of the options for the bridge, everything from replacement to moving it to refurbishing it to just removing it altogether. It appears that is what TransLink has done. Now is time for us, New Westminster, to show up at one or more of the Open House events being held in June and first listen – then think – then provide comment. Right now TransLink is listening, so there is no reason to shout. With this in mind, all I was doing on Saturday was telling people there will be meetings in June on the future of the Pattullo, and we want people to show up.

More information on the Meeting times and locations is available here.

Mark your calendars, there are actually 6 meetings (3 in New West, 3 in Surrey), and if the Surrey ones work better for you- attend those! Last time we did this, the Surrey meetings were sparsely attended, so it might be easier to bend some ears there than in New West. The most important thing is that you get out to one or more of the meetings and get your comments to TransLink. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, Participatory Democracy is those that show up.

Sufferfest (the photo essay)

Disclaimer: I am much better at riding bikes than I am at taking pictures. And I’m not very good at riding bicycles. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. For background, read this:
Day 1: Vancouver to Whistler begins, as all great Bike Rides should, in the traditional Italian Style- Caffeinated. Note Italian-built Steel bike, Canadian-built Steel Bike, and Italian-built Plastic Bike. We are all about diversity.
The pouring rain of Saturday AM was tempered a bit by a social stop at Porteau Cove campground to enjoy some friendly fire
Flat #1 arrived on the edge of Squamish, where it had (momentarily and mercifully) stopped raining, so as far as these things go, that’s success. Squamish people like their roadside dirt curiously angular. 
Brackendale was time for Coffee #2, courtesy of former co-workers. And it was dry there, which was nice for a day where it almost, but never completely, stopped raining. 
AA demonstrated the appropriate technique for acquiring the 5,000 calories a day we will burn. This apparently included adding chocolate to everything, be it milk or pretzels. 
End of Day 1, with a glass raised and shout-out to Red Van Dan who
could not join us this weekend.
Day 2 saw the addition of various Sufferfest hangers-on of note. Today we ride the Ironman Canada Route.
First stop is the end of the road in the Callaghan Valley. Yes, that tattooed calf belongs to an Ironman Finisher. He put some hurt into us before the day was done. 
Then we had to go a little past the end of the road to see the sights. 
Then it was distressingly downhill to here, where we stopped for lunch. Distressing, of course, because  we knew those hills have an “up” as well. 
The Freight Train really began to roll down the Pemberton Meadow Road. Nothing like 4 guys in formation  pulling 40 km/h for 25km…
…until you run out of pavement, and have to turn that freight train around to face the wind that has been flattering you for 25km. 
Flats #2 and #3 both occurred in one of the most beautiful gas station parking lots in the world. 
Less said about the climb back to Whistler from Pemberton, the better. We dug deep into our panniers of courage, and came back wanting. This is me, unraveled in the bus after, on our way from out lodging to the village and an inevitable one-beer drunk.
Day 3: Back at it. I just realized I was frighteningly close to a bike-matching kit here. With me is the human hummingbird: although a misnomer, as he eats more often, has a shorter attention span, and weighs less than a hummingbird, and has all the aerodynamic qualities of a discarded WalMart grocery bag. Dropped us like bad news on the hills, he did. 
Cheesecake: it isn’t just for breakfast anymore. 
Feeling the pain, here Hummingbird poses in properly menacing from with AA, who was acting all Jens on us – putting the hurt on in the rollers and the flats, churning the air in front of us and forcing hangers-on to contemplate their place in life, until he used the sprint to dash illusions. All the time apparently smuggling cantaloupes in his calf-warmers.  
Although we were well over 400km, the Duffy was not available to us, so we need to put a cap on this thing with a quick spin to the top of the Cypress Mountain Road, where AA entertained with his mad donut skills.
The toll for the weekend: about 470km, 6000m of climbing, three tubes, 15,000 calories each. Untold suffering.   

Sufferfest (part 2)

I wrote a couple of months ago about Sufferfest.

A few buddies and I were going to ride bicycles over a three-legged course through the interior of BC: three days, 500km, two major summits, endless good times good times. And I was going to suffer. And it was this weekend.

Ahh… best laid plans.

Turns out life gets in the way of adult life. One of the riders got called up and is currently sweating or freezing (because, apparently you are never doing neither) in the belly of a LAV somewhere. Another went to start a new business this winter, so (as any small business person can attest) he just doesn’t have a long weekend in the foreseeable future. With the 2/3 of Alberta Contingent of the ride not available, logistics for the interior fell apart.

We ride without a broom wagon, so logistics matter.

One of the riders is planning to Race the Ironman Canada in Whistler this year. I cannot support this idea – in a perfect world no bike ride would ever be immediately preceded by, or immediately followed by, a run or a swim – to do so is to detract from the bike ride. As would wearing a singlet. But each man chooses his path, and there is no doubt his path this weekend will stir up some dust, in which I will be riding.

As the Ironman Canada circuit is new this year, our resident Ironman was interested in pre-riding the course, and from this we developed Sufferfest Plan B.

Saturday we ride our bikes from home to Whistler – 125km, much of it uphill, but a good day in the saddle.

Sunday we ride the Ironman Course – 180km, two out-and-backs, 4200ft of climbing, alles gute.

Monday we will ride back from Whistler – after a quick trip to the Cayoosh Summit on the Duffy Lake road – 230km, switchbacks. This is where we suffer.

Last time I talked about this, I was wondering about my training plan- suffer lots in training, or suffer much more this weekend. I cut the difference, and hopefully have found the calculus. I rode my bike a lot, but have done nothing that could be termed “suffering”. I haven’t done a ride longer than 80km in 6 months. Make no mistake; I will be pedaling squares on Monday.

And this gets real as of tomorrow. I can’t believe Past Pat did this to me.

What now?

Yep, like pretty much everyone else in the province (with the notable exception of Rafe Mair), I guessed wrong.

In the end, it appears I was not cynical enough.

After this election we can be sure we will never see another campaign that doesn’t rely on the double-fisted combination of fear mongering and outright lies; at least not a successful one. The targets were there for Adrian Dix:  Christy Clark was lofting soft underhand pitches to him all campaign – she showed a pathological ignorance of the truth, she was wrapped in scandals, she made baffling unrealistic promises, and demonstrated a serial lack of judgement- from letting an 11-year-old goad her into running a red light for sport to illegally using taxpayer’s money for “quick wins” then re-hiring the soldier who fell on the sword.

Alas, Dix stayed on the high road, where he said he would. He relied on the voters to see through the sham, without actually pointing at the sham. However, even Dorothy needed Toto to pull the curtain back a bit. When Dix did start to point out the factual errors in the Liberal “Fact Free Campaign”, he did it by talking about the facts, not the liars telling them, and it just didn’t stick. This will be lesson #1 coming out of this election for all future campaigns: Positive does not work.

Voter turnout was low, and that no doubt hurt the NDP. Some suggest strategies to fix this: mandatory voting, on-line voting, a “none of the above” on the ballot. Of course, actual proportional representation might help a bit with the general disenfranchisement of the voting populace, but as low voter turnout almost always helps the incumbent, the impetus to change does not exist. The NDP did not support the STV referendum in 2009, and if they had, we would probably now be looking at an NDP /Green coalition government and Andrew Weaver would be Minister of Environment.

I argue against on-line voting because it won’t help, and the lack of a paper trail makes fraud a certainty. There is no lack of access now to the ballots, and at the polling station I worked, 95% of people were in and out in under 5 minutes. Not bad considering you get 4 hours in which to vote.

I also argue against mandatory voting for various reasons, mostly because it perpetuates the dangerous idea that Democracy = Voting. We hear people riling about how voting is our “duty” and “the only way to express your voice” or saying if you don’t vote you are not taking part in democracy and are not, therefore, allowed to complain. To all of that I say: Bullshit. Voting is one of the least important acts in a properly functioning Democracy, and your duty is not just to spend 5 minutes every 4 years going to a voting booth to mark a circle. Allow me to explain.

I was a scrutineer at the Armoury this election and a few booths over I saw a youngish woman drop off her voting card and ID, pick up a ballot, and pull out her SmartPhone to operate her browser. She spent about 5 minutes scrolling through pages, occasionally looking at her ballot and entering a few words (presumably the Candidate’s names). At first I thought she was photographing (illegal in a voting space), but it became apparent she was doing her research to see whom she wanted to vote for. A few moments in the voting station looking at candidate’s photos and maybe a few short phrases (“I Support Families!”, “I Hate Taxes”, “My Opponent Eats Puppies”), and she felt prepared to vote for one of them.

She wasn’t doing her Democratic Duty, she was shirking it.

Casting a ballot based on alphabetical order, or the haircut of the candidate, or pithy statements on a webpage is not doing a duty, or part of any functioning democracy. Learning about issues, understanding what you are voting for and why, then voting is your duty. This is not something one can do in 5 minutes once every 4 years, even with a SmartPhone.

I’m not saying people should not vote, I am saying that your duty doesn’t stop there. If Democracy was just about voting, then we have separated ourselves too much from the process (“Don’t blame me! I voted for Kodos!”) Democracy is much more about what you do the other 10 Million minutes between casting ballots. It includes learning about issues, understanding how the process works, and understanding who you are voting for. It includes getting involved to make the process happen, whether that means joining a Party, helping out with a campaign, or supporting an independent candidate with your time and your money.

I attended two sparsely-attended all-candidates events in New Westminster during this election. Every press article in the local media was a puff-piece, a thinly veiled press release. No-one asked the local candidates any difficult questions or tested them (myself included!)

I also attended an Open House this spring with two sitting MPs in the building. Prominent members of the Official Opposition were there to hear directly from the 120,000 citizens they represent. There they were, standing in a room, with an open invitation for any of those 120,000 people to ask them questions, give them credit, complain to them, give advice, throw pies – whatever – for two hours. Less than 3 dozen people bothered to show up. Do you know who your MP is? Do you know where his/her office is? When is the last time you asked them a question? Surely you would like them to do something!

There are New Westminster City Council meetings where there isn’t a single person in the audience – yet everyone is ready to complain about the decisions made there. I have found every single MP, MLA and Councillor in New Westminster is approachable and reasonable and will listen to ideas from constituents. I have agreed with some, disagreed with more, but they all had time for me. Some even reach out to me asking my opinion. Is this because I am special or “connected”? No. It is because I have reached out to them in the past to ask questions. Apparently this is so rare, so unusual even in a proactive community like New Westminster, that it stands out as remarkable.

Above that, democracy is not just about elected officials. It is about the Citizenry running the country. There is hardly a week that goes by that you can’t take part in a consultation or outreach meeting – directly helping your government make decisions. As I write, the City is seeking feedback on their Master Transportation Plan, on their Sustainability Framework, there are Residents Associations Meetings coming up this month. Many Council Advisory Committees struggle to get enough volunteers to assure quorum at meetings – where is everyone? Translink and Metro Vancouver are holding public meetings right now where the future of our region will be decided. Care about Coal? There are meetings coming up over that. Care about Tankers? The Process to approve that project is starting up right now. Want to find a group to discuss and learn about these issues and more? How about the NWEP? Think the voting system sucks? There have been people beating that drum for years – instead of wringing your hands at home or commenting on your favourite Social Media site, why not get in touch with them and help make the change you want to see?

Democracy is about those who show up: not on voting day, but every day. So if you don’t like what happened yesterday, what are you doing about it?

I walked home last night disappointed and disenchanted. Today was a glum day, but I had to think deep about how to turn it positive. So far, the best way I have thought to react is this: I’m not going to get discouraged. I am going to keep fighting for what is important to me and my community. Today I joined a Party (for the first time in a decade), and I will start taking more of a role in how that party operates. Instead of just helping out during the election, I am going to help build the Party into something that can win, and deserves to win.

When I don’t like something, I try to change it – that is my Democratic duty.

What are you going to do?

To the Victor goes the Landmines…

I am writing this before the polls close, so read this as a warning to the winning party, whomever they will be

Ah, screw it. I’m a local blogger, not the traditional media, I don’t have to pussy foot around pretending there is a real exciting race here and can just say it – we all know the NDP are going to win this election with a comfortable majority of more than 55 seats. So this is a warning not to the NDP (they know what they are in for) but to NDP supporters and the centrist voter who this one time just couldn’t put Christy Clark’s name down.

The next two years are going to suck.

It will not be the fault of Adrian Dix, it will be because of the vast minefield of trouble left behind by Christy Clark’s two years of campaigning in lieu of governing. Every step Dix and his team make in the next couple of years will be in the context of this minefield. The best case scenario is that they can get a handle on these issues and get past them in a meaningful way before the next election, because if he governs responsibly, the next two years are going to look terrible on paper.

So I present to you, in extremely short form (each of these affords its own long blog post): the landmines left behind by Christy Clark, all of which will likely explode in the next 5 years:

Pipelines: Assuming the NDP win, we will witness a monumental battle between the Federal Government and BC regarding the NGP. This fight serves the Conservatives well, as they will be seen by their base as champions battling the true enemies of Conservatism: an unholy axis of Socialist Hordes, First Nations, and Dirty Hippies. The Kinder Morgan line twinning will be no less ugly, even if the playing field will be less obvious. Closer to home, the proposal sail Panamax tankers full of jet fuel up the South Arm of the Fraser, offload in Richmond and pipe it to the Airport is stuck in EA limbo, as Minister Terry Lake cynically delayed the signing of the EA Certificate just two months before the election (no coincidence that the project had vocal public disapproval, and ran through several key Liberal ridings). All of these fights are going to be ugly, and there will be a lot of private money spent criticizing any government that opposes pipelines to the Pacific.

BC Hydro: The legacy of run-of-the-river small hydro projects has been well explored, but they are just a symptom of the monumental mismanagement of BC Hydro by this government. From signing terrible long-term contracts to buy power for much more than its re-sale value to deferring debts to some future date, to blithely ignoring the recommendations of the BC Utility Commission and the partial-privatization experiment – the Liberals have put BC Hydro on very shaky financial ground. The Cash Cow has been milked for billions in the last few years, and will soon be coming up dry. It will be increasingly difficult for the next government to hide the bleeding, especially as we try to provide power to new resource industries. Much like TransLink (below) and BC Ferries (below), this is not a criticism of BC Hydro as a Crown Corporation, but of political fettering in the business by the Premier and Darth Coleman which has limited Hydro’s ability to fulfill its mandate.

AirCare: The BC Liberals made an announcement last year that they were going to end AirCare and replace it with… uh… something. This, despite two recent external program reviews that showed AirCare to be not only an effective regional air quality protection system, but also one of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas reduction measures in the Province. It works, and it will continue to work for years to come. The Liberals, as per their habit, announced the end, but didn’t actually do anything about it– the Provincial legislation requiring TransLink to run AirCare is still on the books, so the NDP will either have to pass legislation to end it in 2014, or sign a new contract with the provider to continue it- no doubt facing Liberal criticism either way.

Water Act: Interesting fact: BC is the only jurisdiction in North America with no laws protecting groundwater resources. Anyone can drill a hole in their back yard and extract as much groundwater as they want, even if it draws the neighbour’s wells (or adjacent surface streams) dry. Recognizing this problem a decade ago, the BC Government started working on an update to the century-old Water Act. Then promptly threw it on the back burner to simmer – a limbo it has been in for several years. The failure to move this file forward one inch will be Terry Lake’s legacy as Minister of Environment  One might suspect they got push-back for attempting to download groundwater protection to municipalities (see the paucity of Water Management Plans completed in 5 years), or perhaps it is the vast quantity of water needed to fuel the fracking dreams of the Oil and Gas Industry and proposed coal mine expansions in the Rocky Mountain Trench. For whatever reason, every year without an effective Water Act means less water security for our future.

Translink: I don’t know what more to say about TransLink than they need to be given the resources to build the system back to where it was 2 years ago (yes, we actually have less bus service now than when Christy Clark took over a Premier), then we need to get the governance worked out so stupid money-losing projects like the Falcon Gates and expanding the Pattullo are forgotten, and we can start laying groundwork for real Transit expansion to UBC and (not “or“) South of the Fraser. Again: poor financial management and a lack of leadership on this front mean just fixing what has been broken will cost a lot of money and take some political will. Minister of Transportation is going to be a key (if thankless) portfolio.

Gateway: We can also expect the Minister of Transportation to suffer when the bills come due on the asphalt-laying decade of the BC Liberals. Neither the Golden Ears Bridge nor the Port Mann are meeting the fanciful traffic projections that would be needed to make the Tolls pay for the works. The SFPR will no doubt be over budget and unsatisfying as it pushes traffic back-ups around (as opposed to removing them). Some money will need to be found for the Tunnel and Pattullo refits (not “replacements“). Yes, the latter is TransLink, but their larder is bare, and the Minister can’t let a bridge fall down on their watch. Ugh. What a mess.

BC Ferries: Yet another case of a Crown Corporation not being run at arms-length, being partially sold off to profit-taking buddies, starved of revenue, then being the victim of a lack of decision-making at a crucial time. The current government wants Ferries to be self-supporting (a litmus test not applied to any other transportation system in the Province, from roads to sidewalks to bike paths to transit) while increasing rates to the point where Float Planes and Helijets are threatening to become the affordable alternative. Much like other aspects of the Province’s Transportation “Strategy”, they are worried more about moving cars than people (try to get from Vancouver to Saltspring on transit or from Victoria to Vancouver on bike- and you will see what I mean). Contracts are coming up, ships are aging and the system is failing. Something is going to have to happen soon.

Oh, I could go on – the unaccountable fiasco that is PavCo and the new BC Place Roof, the Pacific Carbon Trust, the ignored carbon emission targets, faltering timber supply for the few non-exploded lumber mills left up north, the Teacher’s contract, School seismic upgrades, Hospital upgrades, fixing the Ambulance Service, Regional Policing models, Waste-to-Energy plants…

As much as I hope Adrian Dix wins, I wouldn’t wish his job on my worst enemy.

Time to Vote!

I am someone who follows politics, gets involved in the process, likes to encourage others to get involved, is free with his opinions, yadda yadda. So you would think that I would be all excited with a tightening electoral race heading towards the polls next week. You would be wrong.

Sorry to all involved, everyone trying to get me to be more excited, but this election has been kind of a snoozer.

I was chatting to a few folks about this very topic on the weekend, and there were various excuses. Most seem to suggest we are fatigued – the election has been running for 2 years, the last 21 days have seen nothing more than an increase in volume and road signage compared to the last year. The Liberal’s (mostly through proxy) systematic application of fear and suspicion are turning people off, while the NDP have taken such a passive approach that they are not generating enough interest to offset the resultant cynicism.

Meanwhile the Greens are making serious inroads on Vancouver Island (but are silent elsewhere) and the Conservatives appear to be completely lost in the woods. The strongest cases I have heard this election are for electing independents in the hope we can fix the entire broken system.

I dutifully attended two of the three traditional all-candidates events, and I helped organize another one. Turnout for most was lower than in previous elections, which immediately calls me to question my earlier prediction that turnout would be up this year (people are more likely to line up to vote against something than they spend a lot of effort voting for something). I also have met all of the candidates in the local election. I have contributed to the process by donating my own money to the campaign. In the last 6 months, I have had lengthy sit-down discussions with three of the candidates, where we discussed a variety of issues.

From this, I have ascertained we have several truly dedicated, determined, and eager candidates, each who would serve out community well in Victoria, if given the chance.

But I only get to vote for one.

I mentioned earlier that my sincerest hope is that the local campaign is an open, honest, and positive one. From what I have seen, it has been. The only truly distasteful moment I experienced in this election was when I had a chance encounter with a person who claimed to be peripherally associated with one of the candidates and immediately gave me a bunch of “background juice” about the candidate that was highly personal. I don’t think this person knew I was a local blogger, and it was not in the context of any political event, so I’m not sure why I was chosen for a confessional. I had no reason to believe or not believe the person, and I don’t think that person’s gripes were valuable fodder for anyone. It was just weird, and hasn’t changed my opinion of the candidate or the campaign. I shared it only with a few people close to me and/or the candidate to see if I was missing something. Consensus opinion was that it was silly. So I didn’t let it bother me, and I won’t write about it here.

So in the spirit of open, honest and constructive discussion, I am going to give my impressions of the local candidates, and try my hardest to accentuate the positive. If you want to know who I am voting for, you might parse it from this, or you might drive by my house and see the sign on my lawn. Alphabetically (by first name, since we are all friends here!):

Hector Bremner: Hector has hit the City with a force. He is simply the best candidate the Liberals could have offered us this election. He is young, articulate, dedicated, and has one hell of a ground game going. His volunteer army has been ubiquitous (if somewhat anonymous), his twitter and other social media presence daunting (if not always topical), and his message strongly pointed (if not always clear). Overall, I think he is running a great campaign.

The one big thing Hector and I disagree about is the team he is representing. I have made it no secret I don’t like the Premier, and I do not have faith in her abilities as leader. Hector clearly respects her skills, and is proud to represent her. However, his campaign has been an interesting walk along a thin line: he has spoken about representing New West in Victoria, not the other way around, and has coined the phrase “this election isn’t about Change- it is about the Future”, while still saying his team is the best one to lead the Province. Not quite running as an independent, but not quite toeing the party line. It has been an interesting balancing act and he has been very effective at it.

After chatting with him recently, he is also convinced he is going to win, against the odds, the polls, and the assumed wisdom about New Westminster as an NDP stronghold. He also made it clear he was putting all his energy into this one shot – at the QPRA meeting he mentioned he was “not going to run in another jurisdiction or level of office”– this is the job he wants, and he is working hard to get it. I’m not sure he is going to be able to pull it off.

James Crosty: I was really happy to hear James was running, only because I hoped he would add some “spark” to the campaign in general. I’ve said it before: I don’t always agree with James, but I know for certain James always agrees with James. By that, I mean he is painfully honest about what is on his mind, his heart is in the right place, and he is always willing to stick his neck out and roll up his sleeves to see his vision realized. He brought a fresh perspective to the all-candidates events, full of his usual bluster, yet somewhat more positive and contemplative than he was during his Mayoral Run of 2011 (and therefore more likable). I also liked his honesty at the QPRA meeting (and I paraphrase): “[If I don’t win] You bet I am going to run again, for another level of government- because when you want to contribute to the community as much as I do, you can’t help but step up at every opportunity!”

This was in reply to Hector’s earlier discussion of his single-minded determination to get this specific job, but it told us what we all needed to know- James is healthy, happy, and as determined as ever to make change in this City. And I love him for it. I’m just afraid he ran an Independent campaign in a year when two other candidates were leaning more on their independent side than their Parties – that is a hard niche for three to fit into.

Judy Darcy: Despite my best efforts to remain jaded about the NDP nomination process, after two years of interacting with Judy Darcy, I really like her. She has an authentic spirit about her that makes you want to chat with her, and shows a keen ear when you bring her ideas. She is the first to admit when she doesn’t have an answer, but can draw on a lifetime of experience dealing with government and legislative issues. She also puts out a genuine sense that she is empathetic for others. In this campaign she was the one saying government can (and must be) an effective and positive force in our society if we are to have a fair and just society.

I think she could have done a better job taking her one perceived weakness – the feeling that she’s not “from here” (of course neither are Hector, or Terry, or James… or me for that matter) – and turned it around. She might have said that despite her only being out west for a decade, she has spent her entire life fighting for the issues that are important to people in New Westminster- We have RCH, and she has been fighting for hospital workers; we have an aging population, and she has been an advocate for seniors; we are a town with a large labour-class and she has been fighting labour issues her entire life; we have a huge population of immigrants and people in lower-cost rental housing, and she is a first-generation Canadian who has been fighting to improve conditions for low-income people. But maybe that would have been giving too much credence to the criticism in a town full of immigrants from other parts of Canada, and other parts of the world.

Her campaign was instead like that of Adrian Dix, the campaign you run as someone safely in the lead: relatively low key and positive, with a strong personal connection. She has worked hard since gaining the nomination to reach out to people across the community, and it is a good thing, because she is a candidate who is way better in person than she is on paper.

Lewis Dahlby: I have not seen or heard a peep out of Lewis this election. I did not attend the one all-candidates event he chose to attend (and where he apparently decided it was OK to commit a Godwin in polite discussion).

I have, however, once met Lewis Dahlby. I recognized him as the guy who accosted me at Sapperton day a couple of years ago. I was manning the NWEP booth having great conversations with people about transportation issues, and he spent an hour bending my ear about what was wrong with “you people” and how Government had to get out of the job of building roads and bridges. In the end, we agreed to disagree shortly after I suggested to him that if really wanted to live in a country with no interference from Government, he might want to give Somalia a try.

Paul Forseth: Paul’s campaign here in New West was symptomatic of the entire provincial Conservative campaign. It was rather lack-lustre and held more promise at the start than real punch in the end. I appreciate the service Paul has provided in the community, from his time working in the corrections, family law and parole systems, to his dozen years serving the community as an MP. However, it is clear to anyone reading my blog that I don’t share his Conservative opinions, so he probably wasn’t trying to appeal to me and my ilk.

Still, I don’t think his campaign lit any fires, and I didn’t hear him offering the electorate much. He spoke of “Conservative Values” having a history of providing better governance, but never really clarified what he meant by those words, nor did he cite examples from the modern world where “conservative” countries were outperforming “non-conservative” countries. When he shone, it was when speaking of his personal experiences growing up in New Westminster and providing services to constituents as an MP. He also rarely mentioned his Party, while at the same time he never differentiated himself from the other “Independents” running in this election in New West.

Terry Teather: To me, Terry’s finest moment was the “Stump Speech” he gave, while standing on an actual stump, during the All Candidate’s Jane’s Walk. He got very impassioned about what Green Principles are, and why they are the best direction forward for the Province, and indeed the world. He came into this election a virtual unknown in New West, but explained his motivation being to encourage the youth that he teaches in his day job to take an active role in politics- to learn and care about how Government works.

Being a virtual unknown prior to this election, I doubt he will reach the level of support that the Greens received in New Westminster during the last Provincial election, as those numbers saw a “bump” due to well-known local activist Matt Laird being on the ballot. However, Terry’s presence on the campaign was a positive one, and I hope he has the time and energy to stay involved in the local environmental scene after May. I was really happy to have met Terry during the campaign, he seems like a straight-up nice guy with a passion for improving community. We need him on the NWEP.

Now go vote. Advanced polls are open May 8-11, every day, and May 14th is the big day. I voted this evening at the Lawn Bowling Club, and it took less than 5 minutes. Go!

Abandoned Gas Stations – Part 2

In an earlier post, I talked about why there are so many empty lots that used to be gas stations on apparently valuable urban lots. The short version: the structure of the Provincial Contaminated Sites Regulation allows it, there is little municipalities can do about it, and the business interests of a risk-adverse landowner often encourage it.

Typical White Pipe Farm. 

For Part 2, I want to talk about what can be done about it. Short version: not much, unless we can find some political will and community pressure to bring these fallow lands back into (economic) production. If those arrive, there are three potential strategies that are worth exploring.

Change the Regulations.
The Contaminated Sites Regulation is not perfect, and bureaucrats in the Land Remediation Section of the Ministry of Environment would be the first to acknowledge that. It is a complex piece of regulation, first developed (believe it or not) to provide standards for the remediation of the old Expo86 site. The regulation came to force in 1996, and has been constantly evolving, both to increase protection of human health and the environment, and to make for a more efficient application of the regulations.

I already mentioned two issues that lead to empty former gas stations: the inability to “sell the liability” along with the contaminated land, and the lack of a requirement to clean up a contaminated site in a timely manner. Both of these could be changed tomorrow (well, after the election I suppose) with a signature from the Minister, but both would have unintended consequences that are probably best avoided.

The first is obvious. Separating the liability for contamination from the person responsible for it violates one of the fundamental principles of modern environmental legislation: the “polluter pays” principle. With no threat of being held responsible for contaminating lands, there is little incentive for property owners to take preventative action to avoid polluting it. After several years of irresponsible land management, the owner could effectively avoid cleaning up by selling the land (and the liability) to a numbered company on the Caymans, who will dissolve the day after, leaving no-one owning the land. Abandoned sites like this ultimately become the property (and responsibility) of the Province, and they have better things to do with your money than running around cleaning up other people’s contamination.

As for the second, there already is a provision in the EMA to “order” a property owner to clean up their site, but in the wording of the Act there has to be a compelling reason for the Director to do this. In essence, the government isn’t all that interested in marching onto your land and telling you what to do with it- unless it is causing other people environmental problems. If there is a human health or environmental risk identified on your site, the Ministry can order you to remedy it. If your property is just sitting fallow, it is way outside of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment to force you to make it productive.

Use Municipal Powers.
The problem here is that Municipalities actually have very limited powers under the Local Government Act. Forcing someone to clean up a contaminated site is not one of those powers. However, Cities can make decisions and Bylaws regarding land use, and they can charge property taxes.

In theory (and at this point, I need to make it really clear that I am a geoscientist, not a lawyer!) a Municipality could, through an amendment to the OCP, create a property class relating to gas stations and other potentially-contaminating businesses (we don’t do coal gasification much anymore, but drycleaners, metal galvanizers, and a few other industries are culprits that were historically as bad as gas stations, if not as plentiful). They could then apply a special property tax Bylaw on these properties if they are decommissioned. Note, they would probably lose in court if they tried to apply it only to the property at the corner of XXX and YYY, but if they made a broad enough category that applied to a type of landuse as opposed to a single lot, it would probably stick.

The goal here is not to be punitive (no elected official wants to be called Anti-Business), but to subtly change the business case so the “do nothing” option was no longer the most logical one for the property owner. The City could reinforce this by giving a 5-year exception from the extra tax (which should give adequate time for any investigation and remediation to a motivated landowner) if the company develops a Remedial Action Plan accepted by the Ministry of Environment, and sticks to the timelines of that plan. Or the City could keep the extra taxes in trust instead of adding them to revenue, and allow the property owner to apply them to the cost of remediation once the site is cleaned up. The cost to the City of either of these actions would, in the long run, be returned to the City in the increased land value created.

The upside of this would be incentive given to the property owner to make the site whole, while the City sees a piece of land put back into tax-generating productivity much sooner. The downside is that the owners of contaminated sites are likely to view this as a “tax-grab”, and it may significantly dis-incentivise the renewal of old buildings. Remember from Part 1, this whole process started when a property owner applied for a Permit to demolish, rezone, or develop a piece of land. If that permit application never happens, a capital-letter Contaminated Site is never identified. The only thing potentially worse for an urban area than weed-filled white pipe farms is the same number of derelict buildings where owners are afraid to knock them down.

Think outside the box
There may be other, more creative solutions to this problem that don’t actually involve cleaning the sites up. It has proven possible to actually use those vacant lots and make them part of the living neighbourhood without replacing the buildings.

The most commonly cited example of this is the Davie Village Community Garden. You have probably walked by this site at Davie and Burrard in Vancouver, one of the busiest intersections on the Downtown Peninsula. This used to be a gas station, and there were some significant challenges related to the remediation of the site.

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Sometime in 2008-2009, the developer of the site, prompted by community groups and with the assistance of the City, agreed to allow a Community Garden to be developed on a large portion of the site. The incentive to the Developer was significant property tax relief afforded by the City (by allowing the land to be classed as non-profit/ recreational instead of commercial), and an agreement that the Garden use would be temporary with a set closing date, so that their ability to develop will not be restricted once they get all their development ducks in a row.

Another hurdle was the “contaminated site” issue- not the first location you think of when you want to plant a garden! So an environmental consultant was brought in to test the soil and vapours, and assure that the residual contaminants were not going to enter the food chain at the surface, or impact the health of people using the garden space. One advantage of this site was that the contamination was not “high risk”, in that its concentration was low, and the contamination is far enough down that even the deepest-rooting vegetables were going to remain several metres away from it.

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Finally, there are some legal liability issues that the property owner would need to address- no property owner wants to be exposed to nuisance claims for everyone who stubs a toe or trips on a rake on their land, so liability insurance has to be part of the business plan for the property owner.

This is not a solution that works everywhere, but it does work surprisingly well in many locations. There is a not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver called SOLEfood Farms who are doing urban farming on numerous fallow sites, moving along as land becomes available, or is lost to eventual re-development. They have managed to string together people who have traditional work barriers, people who have little access to land or fresh food, and businesses that are looking to build community as part of their business plans. I can’t say enough good things about the success these folks have generated – you need to go there and give them a virtual high-five.

However, even if the Community Garden is not perfect for every site, there is potential at many sites to simply take down the Blue Rental Fence of Neglect and open the space, even temporarily, for parks or amenity use. In some spots, that might mean a few benches, some planters, maybe a grassy mound for picnics. In others, this may be a basketball court or bocce green, even a temporary art installation. These spots can be ideal “pocket parks” that cost the taxpayers very little while adding a bit of green, human space to busy urban areas, adding to the value of the adjacent properties instead of reducing it.

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How to make this happen? The Ministry has to agree that the proposed site use is safe. The Municipality needs to provide an incentive to the property owner, and reduced or deferred taxes is the best incentive they have. The property owner has to be reassured that this use will not cause them risk, or ultimately scuttle their plans for the site. It seems a dedicated community volunteer group to bring the partners together and shepherd the site has been the catalyst in the past. Maybe your favourite site just needs that catalyst.

Jane’s Walk Weekend comes to New West!

Hopefully, after a couple of news stories in the local papers and Mary Wilson’s dynamic talk at the recent New Westminster Pecha Kucha event, you are aware that there will be a series of Jane’s Walks in New Westminster this weekend.

(parts below cribbed from a press release I helped pen – so sorry for the quasi-self-plagiarizing!)

Jane’s Walks are becoming a global event, held in hundreds of cities around the world on the first weekend in May. Around the world, neighbourhood groups organize free community walks to honour the memory of Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs is considered by many to be the Mother of modern Urbanism, in that she brought it to life, loved and supported it, and worked tirelessly to give it all the tools it needed to prosper. She rose to prominence for her activism to protect Greenwich Village from the Lower Manhattan Expressway proposal, and her ground-breaking book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. She moved to Toronto during the Vietnam War, and brought her Urban Activism with her, such that she received first Citizenship, then the Order of Canada. To put a local angle on her story, Jacobs is sometimes referred to as “the mother of Vancouverism” for the influence her writings and research had on the development of post-freeway Vancouver, and the belief that density can be done without compromising liveability.

Jane’s Walks are meant to honour Jane, but also to honour her desire: that cities and urban areas become safe, diverse, and interesting places for people to live, work, and play. We honour this by drawing urban neighbours together to take a walk through their own city, not to get from A to B, but to have a “walking conversation”, meet neighbours, learn something new about their own backyard, and ultimately increase citizens’ connection to their urban home.

It just so happens that this year, Jane’s Walk came on the perfect weekend for a burgeoning New Westminster election tradition: Tenth to the Fraser, NEXT NewWest, and the New Westminster Environmental Partners working together to organize a unique event to bring voters and candidates together. Instead of another boring debate or staged Q&A, the “All Candidate’s Jane’s Walk” will be an inviting, social, and fun event. The goal is to give everyone a chance to meet, greet and get to know the candidates seeking your vote on May 14th.

All New Westminster residents are invited to gather at Sapperton Park (at the corner of East Columbia Street and Sherbrooke Street) at 5:30pm (sharp!). The five candidates will be introduced, and the group will walk along Columbia Street and the Central Valley Greenway to Downtown New Westminster and the River Market (a distance of about 3.5 km, so about an hour walking at a leisurely pace).

Along the way, each of the candidates will be given an opportunity for their 3-4 minutes “on the soapbox” to address the crowd. We promise to keep the speeches short, as the emphasis will be on face-to-face and small group conversations during the walk. Participants will be encouraged to chat with the candidates and ask their own questions. At the end of the walk, participants and candidates will be encouraged to gather at the Paddlewheeler Pub to continue the conversation, socialize and network (in the NEXT NewWest tradition). A rough schedule is available on the Jane’s Walk Event page– so if you can only catch part of the walk, you are, of course, welcome to join or leave! Don’t forget to bring Skytrain fare to get from the end back to the beginning- both ends are close to Millennium Line stations!

Now that the self-serving advertizing part of the post is over, I want to encourage you to go to the Jane’s Walk New Westminster page and see what other walks are coming your way this weekend. There are no less than 10 walks planned, most of them an hour or two long. I love looking at the Jane’s Walks GoogleMap plug-in to see that New Westminster is one of the two centres of Jane’s Walks for BC along with some young upstart village to the west…

I like to think this is because we have a beautiful, walkable City, and engaged citizens who are proud of their neighbourhoods and want to create community connections. It may also be because we have Mary Wilson leading the charge to make us a walking city. No matter if you live on the West Side, Queensborough, Downtown or the Brow – there is a walk in your neighbourhood.

The weather forecast is spectacular this weekend– sunscreen and water bottles are about the only thing you will need for any of the walks, and many of them terminate near places where one can buy ice cream or icy cold beer, as per your preference. So get out of your house, drag the kids away from the screen, leave the car in the garage, and meet a few neighbours. We’ll see you on the Streets of New Westminster this weekend!