Heat & Glass

Had a bit of a break there after that last blog post. No Council meetings going on right now, so the regular cycle a little disrupted, and though I have a few things of write about, the time just wasn’t there. But as I started to reply to the e-mail that accumulated during my week off (went to Victoria, it was great!), it got me thinking about heat and glass.

The last post I wrote about the Heat Dome, and the inadequate response by local and provincial governments to the event, got a fair amount of pickup. This lead to interviews with a local news radio station, the local CBC radio, and even a short clip on the national CTV News. Easily the biggest media response to anything I’ve written here in a few years. Of course, writing “the government did a bad job” will always be a more compelling story than “here is something that the government is working hard at” or (Gord forbid) “Here is something the government is doing really well”. Such is the zeitgeist.

on the other hand, a topic I received a few e-mails on just this week was that of glass recycling in the City, apparently a slightly-delayed form of feedback to a slightly-delayed story appearing on local print paper about the conversation last month about glass recycling. I talked a bit about it here, but I think we need to have a better discussion in the community about the topic. So here, stripped of perhaps-useful context of the original letters, were my responses to two of the letters I received:

Hi <REDACTED>,

Thanks for writing, and for thinking about this issue more than most do!

First off, I agree that the environmental impact of glass going to the landfill is negligible. Glass is inert, and does not create the leachate and GHG issues that organic materials cause in landfill. There are two complicating factors, however. Glass is dense, and the way we pay for waste disposal (tipping fee by mass, not volume) means it adds cost to disposal. Also, much of our mixed garbage goes to the incinerator, not the landfill, and the fate of glass through that process is less clear to me, though adding mass to the bottom-ash of the incinerator (which is a definitively not-inert product) may be a problem. 

I suspect we are headed towards separate curbside-glass collection (though I cannot speak for what Council will decide when we get the report from staff), and because of the environmental point made above, my vote on that decision will be heavily biased towards whatever path results in the least increased cost long-term for New West residents.


Hello <REDACTED>.

I’m not sure I understand what your point is? Glass that is placed in single-family combined recycling does, indeed, currently end up in the garbage stream, because the mixed recycling process does not include glass recovery. Indeed, if that glass is mixed with paper and plastic recyclables, then there is a likelihood that the plastic and paper will accompany the glass to landfill/incinerator, as a “contaminated” load that cannot be treated as clean recyclable materials. The City does not send it to the landfill, but the waste processor who takes our recyclables likely does. Indeed the conversation at Council last month was around how the City (who is paying fines to the material processing corporation because too much of our recycling material includes glass contamination) should address this problem. I think the suggestion that education about the need to separate glass, backed by enforcement if necessary, is a reasonable one, and a fairly common good governance model that has worked effectively in other jurisdictions for managing waste stream separation problems.

Thing is, our recycling systems are very different that the narrative that exists about them. This is evidenced by seeing how the region talks about reducing or banning single-use plastics, while there is no similar discussion about banning or reducing single-use glass containers, when the latter are a much bigger problem for our recycling system. Indeed, glass going to landfill is likely (from a strictly environmental viewpoint) the ideal, as it has low recycling value and is essentially inert in the landfill, not causing downstream leachate or Greenhouse gas issues that are the fate of organic landfill materials. However, the density of glass, and the way we pay for landfilling material (tipping fees charged by mass, not volume) mean we have an economic incentive to find a different pathway for glass.

There is also a significant social marketing aspect to glass recycling. We have, for a good 40 years now, been trained to believe that glass recycling is the keystone of recycling, because glass (along with metal cans) was the first material we had society-wide systems to recycle – through education and the ubiquitous 5 cent refund. Now when glass recycling is likely both an environmental and economic negative, we still do it because we have created a cultural expectation about glass belonging in the “recycle” pile, not the “garbage” pile. Indeed, I read studies from the States (more than a decade ago, but probably still applicable, as here I am having this conversation) that showed plastic and paper diversion to recycling is more successful if parallel glass collection is available. We are trained to recycle glass and cans, plastic was the next step.

So, in short:
Glass mixed with other recyclables = bad, and really expensive.
Glass collected beside other recyclables = better, but not for the reasons you think.
Glass sent to landfill with other non-recyclables = not as bad as you might think, but expensive.

Hope you are having a good summer, and are staying safe and comfortable in the unprecedented heat. 

Bold Steps 2021

Another great news story coming out of our Council meeting last week (and to contrast from my generally sour recent social media persona, because there is a lot to be frustrated by out there right now) was an update on the City’s Bold Steps Work Plan for 2021.

Like some other jurisdictions, the City of New Westminster declared a Climate Emergency. Like a sub-set of those jurisdictions, we are taking concrete actions in addressing that Climate Emergency, in practice and in policy. Far from being an empty declaration, it was immediately followed by Council asking staff to come up with an actionable plan and viable targets – 2050 targets to meet the IPCC goal that our Country agreed to, and more important 2030 targets that require immediate action to achieve.

I feel strongly those shorter term targets are important because they require us to act now, to put the necessary changes in to our work plans and budgets in 2021 if we hope to get there. It will be hard to hold me and my Council cohort accountable for a 2050 climate target missed (As a Mayor entering his 7th term, I’ll be untouchable!), but we will know if we are on track for 2030 in the next couple of years, and will know if our actions today will get us there.

We have talked quite a bit already about the 7 Bold Steps the City as put forward, but there is a nuance in how they exist within two overlapping magisteria (h/t Stephen J Gould) known as the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS – what the City does with its own operations) and a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (CEEP – what the residents and businesses in town do). If we have 90% control over the former, we only have 10% control over the latter, and it is the much bigger nut to crack. That said, working with senior governments, we can create the right conditions for the entire community to adapt to a low-GHG economy.

The report we were provided outlines the many actions our Climate Action team and other City Departments will be undertaking in 2021. I’ll take the opportunity here to share some brief highlights from each of the 7 Bold Steps:

Carbon Free Corporation. Obviously, there are two big parts of this: our fleet and our buildings. We are replacing the CGP (our highest-emission building) and are shooting for a Zero Carbon standard for the replacement, while prioritization of retrofits and upgrades for the rest of the building stock is an ongoing project. The Green Fleet roadmap will allow us to shift to GHG-free vehicles as they become available, and assure we have the infrastructure to support them across our organization.

Car Light Community. The biggest part of this work will be shifting more spending to support Active Transportation (pedestrian safety improvements, transit support, and greenways), but it also means updating our development planning to assure we are building communities where active transportation is a viable option for more people.

Carbon Free Homes and Buildings. Two ways we can support lower-emission buildings in the City are through updating or accelerating our Step Code implementation to require that new buildings meet higher standards, and continuing to support the great work of Energy Save New West. (Did you know ESNW one of the longest running and most comprehensive community energy efficiency and GHG-reduction programs in Canada?) to help residents and businesses upgrade their own buildings and save money on energy. We are also supporting the Help Cities Lead campaign, asking the Provincial Government to give local government more tools to encourage and support a more efficient building stock.

Pollution Free Vehicles. Our biggest role here will be to support as best we can adoption of electric vehicles (e-cars, e-bikes, e-whatever comes next) by making sure we have adequate public charging, and support the installation of chargers in all new buildings.

Carbon-Free Energy. The inevitable shift from GHG-intensive energy sources to low-carbon electric power puts the city in a unique situation, with our own electrical utility. We need to update our electrical infrastructure to facilitate that, starting with our Advanced Metering Infrastructure project.

Robust Urban Forest. You may have noticed boulevard trees popping up across the Brow of the hill neighbourhood especially, we are going to keep moving ahead on that commitment, along with trying to find more opportunities to protect trees through development.

Quality Public Realm. This is one aspect of the Climate Action plan that includes adaptation to the climate change already inevitable even if we globally meet our 2050 goals. We will be doing climate risk mapping to inform that adaptation, along with other programs that may not seem like climate action (like improving road safety around schools) but is actually climate action (because it makes it more likely people won’t drive to school).

There is other work that spans all 7 Bold Steps, and indeed many of the things above overlap between steps. It is important that we have included these actions in our 5-year financial plan, which means our budget matches our priorities. But even more important, every department in the City has a role, and knows its role. The next 10 years are going to be transformational and require a culture change in how the City operates. Having everyone on board and padding the same direction is the only way we will succeed.

FREMP 2.0?

I’m going to try herd not to be too political here, but there has been something brewing that intersects both with my City Council life and my being-a-Professional-Environmental-Scientist life. As is typical in both, I have had several conversations with lots of different people over the last year or more about this, but while I was talking, others were doing, and one of those get-it-done people has put together an event where people who both talk smarter than me and do more than me are going to talk about what needs to be done if we want to be smart about doing things.

I’m talking, of course, about FREMP.

The Fraser River Estuary Management Program was, for almost 30 years, a non-profit agency funded by all three levels of government that supported responsible development and environmental protection along the Fraser River Estuary – essentially from the ocean to the Mission Bridge. Along with a sister agency called the Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program (“BIEAP”), this was an organization that brought stakeholders together to coordinate planning, protection, and development of the federally-regulated shorelines of the Lower Mainland.

This coordination meant that when there is a change in industrial use along the waterfront, when a community suggested a project like the proposed Pier-to-Landing walkway in New West, or when environmental remediation or compensatory habitat projects are needed, there was a “one counter” approach that allowed a coordinated review by the three levels of government and relevant First Nations. It was easier for each of the government agencies, because they knew where everyone else was on projects. It was easier for proponents because they could speak to one agency and not get mixed messages from different levels of government. It was better for the estuary because impacts and compensation could be coordinated based on a plan that sought to balance the many pressures on the system. As a bonus, all of the works along the river would provide data to an invaluable repository – data vital to inform future planning and to help us understand the health of the ecosystem.

FREMP wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t deserve to be killed. As part of the now-legendary gutting of Canada’s environmental protections under the Harper Government, the Federal contributions and support for the program were cut. This matters, because with all the interagency overlap in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River, ultimately they are federally regulated. When the Port and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could no longer participate, the Provincial Government ministries followed their lead, and the agency was folded, leaving local governments in a bit of a lurch. The Port was tasked with environmental reviews within their narrow jurisdictional parameters, and every project was going to have to find its own path. Regional coordination was no longer coordinated. Project proponents are on their own. There is no longer a cohesive regional environmental plan for the Estuary of the most important salmon river in Canada, or for the Burrard Inlet.

The situation is shitty, and has been shitty for long enough. Several stakeholders along the river, including local governments, environmental organizations, and First Nations are talking about what I hesitate to call “FREMP 2.0”. As you may read into the above, there is some political baggage around BIEAP- FREMP, and though it was valuable, it was not a perfect design. The discussion now is around what would a better FREMP look like? There are two important components, and the interaction between the two is obvious.

The first is a return to inter-agency review and coordinated regional planning in the estuary. A one-counter stop for project applications, and a clearing house for project details and data. This will benefit local governments hoping to revitalize their waterfronts, or protect valuable industrial land-use areas. It would also serve developers and industry who would have a clearer, more predictable path to project approval, mostly by having clear understanding of the stakeholders to be engaged. Ideally, it would also make it easier for First Nations to manage the constant demand for consultation feedback by providing them the resources they need to assure their concerns are addressed, and by assuring the knowledge they carry about the history and present of the river informs planning discussions.

The second is to provide oversight to the health of the estuary ecosystems. This would mean coordinated habitat protection and restoration, and a return to collecting that important data depository of the current and future health of the river that sustains us. Part of this is understanding the changes in the river that are coming with climate change, and developing strategies to address future flood risk, ecosystem services, and water quality concerns.

All this to preface: if you care about the Fraser River, development along the river, and the protection of this unique ecology, you may be interested in this free Webinar being put on by the Climate Caucus next week. Coquitlam City Councillor is the main organizer and moderator, and she has three brilliant panelists who know much more than I about the ecology of the Fraser River, the threat, and opportunity. This should be a great introduction to the conversations that no doubt lie ahead for the Metro Vancouver region. Join us!

Defense

I have written a few times about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project. I have strong opinions about it that have developed through the years.

At some point in my past I worked for an organization where my job was to provide technical support to an intervenor to the National Energy Board approval process, so I have way more knowledge about this project that is probably healthy. Yes, I have read the application, yes I have read the business case, yes I have watched the story of the pipeline evolve. My opinions about the project have been formed by my emersion immersion in this process, not Twitter memes or PostMedia opinion pieces.

I continue to assert it is the wrong project at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons. It will threaten the ecology of important parts of the province, including one of the most ecologically sensitive parts of New Westminster. The business case for the pipeline is a house of cards with a foundation of bullshit. If realized at the scale that the proponents aspire towards, it will blow Canada past any semblance of the commitment we made to the world in Paris. It is an embarrassing ode to a failed economic model and an icon to lack of leadership.

Fair to say, I’m not a fan.

Just last week, the reactionary Marxist hippies in the Parliamentary Budget Office told the Parliament of Canada and the Prime Minister that the pipeline is unlikely to meet its financial targets if the country plans to meet its climate targets. These were the climate targets that the Prime Minister feigned to make “law” just a few weeks before. I am not one to say “we need to choose between the environment and the economy”, because that is a false dichotomy too often used to delay climate action, but it is clear that if we are going to meet 2050 climate targets, we need to stop investing in the 1950 model of “the economy” (take that as a warning, Massey Bridge Replacement proponents). The time for special pleadings is over.

There is other news around the TMX recently, from their workers imperiling others on New Westminster city streets to the workers imperiling themselves on the worksite, but I’m not above kicking this mangy cur when it is down. So when the BNSF police (yes, a multi-national corporation with headquarters in Houston has armed police with the power of arrest roaming the streets of British Columbia) served an injunction on land defenders that have been placing themselves in the way of the deforestation of riparian habitat in the Brunette River, it is perhaps surprising that only one reporter bothered to file a story about it.

Health researcher and physician Dr. Takaro and a group of concerned citizen have been occupying space near the New West / Burnaby / Coquitlam border since the summer. The pipeline project seems to have tolerated them for a few months, but removing the trees they are occupying now appears to be on the critical path of getting the oil to tidewater, so the injunction was served last week and the Corporate armed forces of BNSF and CN, with support from the RCMP, tore down the camp an forcefully evicted the residents. As a response, the land defenders and Dr. Takaro have filed a request to the BC Supreme Court to have the injunction set aside, citing the flawed NEB process that empowered the approval in the first place.

All this as preamble to say I am proud out City Council is clear in its support for the land defenders, as our concerns in regards to this pipeline and its location in the Burnette River riparian zone have not been addressed – not in the original NEB process rammed through by the Harper Conservatives, and not in the fake “review” offered by the feckless Trudeau Conservatives once they gained control of the process. Council released this statement today:

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned about the location of the new Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (“TMX”) within the sensitive riparian area of the Brunette River;

As an intervener in the flawed National Energy Board process that led to the approval of the TMX project, the City of New Westminster has not been satisfied that TMX sufficiently addresses the imminent and long-term risks to the Brunette River, its unique habitat, and species at risk, including recently-rejuvenated local populations of chum and coho salmon, and the endangered Nooksack dace;

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned that the TMX project is at odds with Canada’s regulated commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce global Greenhouse Gas emissions and limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius;

New Westminster Council stands in support of the land defenders currently acting to protect fragile riparian habitat near the Brunette River through peaceful protest and occupation of federally regulated lands, and ask that the injunction preventing this action be set aside.

CEERS 2020

We had a report at the September 28th Council meeting that I mentioned in my blog, but skipped past the details of, because I think it was too important a report to bury in a long boring Council Report. This is the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS).

The City has two roles in addressing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the Paris Agreement goals that the City, the province, and the nation have all stated they intend to meet. One is making it possible for our community (residents, businesses, industry) to meet the goals, which is addressed through a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (“CEEP”). The second is managing our own corporate emissions, those created by the City in operating its own buildings and fleet. The CEERS is our updated plan to deal with this second part.

This CEERS replaces an older plan that was adopted in 2008 and reduced our emission by 12% over the last decade. CEERS 2020 outlines the strategy to get us to our newly stated and ambitious goals – reduce emissions to 45% below our 2010 baseline by 2030 as the first step towards a 100% reduction by 2050. I think the most important part of any climate policy is that we set goals within a viewable horizon – ones we need to take action on *now* to achieve, because as bold as 100% by 2050 is, the 30 year timeframe gives too much cover to those willing to kick climate action down the road.

This Strategy lays out a clear path to get our building and fleet emissions to our 2030 goal. Replacing the Canada Games Pool with a zero-carbon building will be a huge step, but there are 13 other buildings in the City that would see energy and emissions reduction measures soon. This would reduce our building emissions by 55%, and would pay us back in energy savings within 10 years. We are also going to be taking a much more aggressive approach to electrification of our vehicle fleet to reduce those emissions by 30%, both by buying electric vehicles, and by updating our infrastructure to provide charging to these vehicles. With these two strategies and continued improvement on smaller-emission sources like street lighting and wastewater, we can get to our 45% goal by 2030.

That doesn’t mean we will be done in 2030. We will then have harder work to do to find a path to carbon-neutrality that we are aspiring towards in our Bold Step #1. Things like deep retrofits of some other buildings in the City, exploring alternate energy sources (renewable gas, hydrogen, solar, etc.) and creating an offset program through reforestation or other strategies. We can also anticipate that technology will catch up to our goals in the decade ahead, making the next steps a little easier. For example, it is simply not viable to have all-electric or hydrogen fuel cell fire truck fleet today, but we will be relying on those types of changes to emerge after 2030 when those deeper reductions are needed. So if we are going beyond just picking low-hanging fruit now, we are still harvesting the riper fruit.

There is a lot of great policy in here aside from just purchasing changes. We are going to start internally pricing carbon at $150/Tonne. This means we will account for our internal emissions, and use that value to inform our purchasing programs for new equipment. This value (about $650,000/yr based on 2020 emissions) will go into a Climate Reserve Fund to help pay for carbon reduction projects. This both provides internal incentive for departments to find lower-emission approaches (as the cost comes out of your departments budget) and provides us a clear fund and budget line item to apply to emergent projects.

Overall, the cost of implementing this plan is about $13.5M, though much of it is already included in our 5-year capital plan. To put that number into context, we annually spend about $700,000 on fossil fuels (gasoline, diesel, propane) for our current fleet, and energy to heat and service our two dozen buildings (pools, rec centres, City Hall, etc.) is about $1.2 Million per year. It doesn’t take complicated math to recognize that reductions in these costs will rapidly offset the capital costs invested today. With interest rates as low as they are, and senior governments telegraphing their intent to support this type of green infrastructure renewal with grants, the time is now. The City Council of 2030 will be saving a lot of money because of the commitment we make today.

We are going to get there. We can get there. To delay any further would be irresponsible.

Projections

I want to talk about this picture.

Because it triggered for me something that has been banging around in the back of my head for a few years, and I have not really known how to relate it. When it arrived a few years ago thoughts like this were too catastrophic to fit into our world view. Maybe our world view is changing, but I’m not sure about it.

At the time, I was on the Metro Vancouver Utility Committee, which is a committee of local elected officials that get together to discuss the operations of the water and sewer infrastructure of the region and review capital plans for the Metro Vancouver Board. (This has been replaced after the 2018 election with separate Liquid Waste and Water committees). As was our mandate, we were doing long-term planning for the region’s water supply. Really long-term, like 50 – 100 years.

This is important, because major water infrastructure like our three big reservoirs, the dams that support them, and the pipes and pumps and stuff that move a billion litres of water around every day is really expensive stuff. Once installed, it may be in the ground for a century or longer. In a rapidly-growing region with land constraints like Greater Vancouver, big decisions about how, where, and when we invest in this infrastructure are important.

To inform that planning, we needed to include projections about climate change. Beyond just being hotter in the summer, and the potential for less snowpack, we need to consider impacts on ENSO and other global climate systems that may drastically shift when and how much rain falls in our watersheds so we are capable of storing the right amount. We had science types who study this stuff in universities for a living providing models for us.

The subject matter experts were able to, I think, provide a pretty good summary of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know about the climate are we project to 2100, about 80 years in the future. There were several chuckles around the table from comfortable elected people “I’ll be dead then! Har Har!” which is its own telling moment, but I digress.

Scientists being science types, they spent a lot of time talking about uncertainty. There are a variety of models, none of them perfect, and subtle adjustments of what we put into the model can have big impacts over decades. Will the world meet the Paris Agreement goals? Will the economic growth of the last decades continue? Will Elon Musk invent the Mr. Fusion? All of these are external things climate scientists cannot predict, but they can make projections based on different amounts of greenhouse gasses going into the atmosphere. From those they can infer the impact on temperatures, sea and air circulation patterns, feedbacks positive and negative. They have several different models, and into each they can add several emissions scenarios, and they end up with scores or hundreds of different results.

These projected results are not random, though. They cluster. They reinforce each other as often as they differ. In the report we were given, there were three distinct clusters in projecting the temperature impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Greater Vancouver. As is the wont of planners and engineers, they hope for the “best case”, plan around the “middle case”, and have contingencies for the “worst case”.

Looking at a “middle case” for 2100, they made some iterations around our watersheds, how the hydrology of them will be impacted, how spring rains vs. summer rains impact storage need. All to figure how we will assure we can supply water to a City of (I can’t remember the number now, but for the sake of moving the discussion along let’s say it was) 4 Million people. Great, we put our stake in the ground, and have something to plan around. If things change, we will adjust, but this is the point we adjust from.

I put my hand up. “If the annual temperature increases by that much, what does that mean for the trees we are protecting in the watersheds? Can they tolerate that change?”

The answer was “outside of our current scope”. Not the topic of this discussion. We moved on to reservoir design options.

But it doesn’t take much research to discover that, even in the “middle scenario” provided, we are looking at temperatures that are outside of the habitat range of the Douglas fir, the western hemlock, the sitka spruce, the red cedar. The trees will likely die.

Sitting in Metro Vancouver’s offices, you could look over at the North Shore Mountains. It was hard to imagine what Vancouver will look like in 2100 with those trees dead or dying. To most of us, those green mountainsides reaching to rocky peaks define Vancouver. So much so that the City has expensive and complicated “view cone” programs to assure that people’s view of that green expanse is protected by policy. I’m not sure anyone is really thinking about what it means if they are gone.

Maybe it’s too hard to imagine. Just another bummer on the pile, and I’ll be dead by then. Or maybe our current sepia-toned sky should prompt us to imagine why we have made this choice.


Thanks to Mr. Mathew Bond for permission to lament over your photo.

Protectors

There is something else that has been going on in New West (and right next door in Burnaby) for several weeks that is not getting nearly enough attention. There have been a small group of people, led by Dr. Tim Takaro, leading a peaceful occupation of the Trans Mountain Pipeline right-of-way through the Brunette River riparian area. If you live in New West, or if you are concerned about the role your federal government plays in addressing Canada’s shameful climate change legacy, you should care.

It is possible in 2020 that many of us are feeling “protest fatigue”. After the Climate Strikes of last fall, the actions in support of the Wet’suwet’en in the spring, the seemingly unstoppable 24-hour news of protest and counter-protest around Black Lives Matter and Indigenous rights movements, the nation south of us in such a downward spiral, all while we are living under the fogbank of a global pandemic – how many people have capacity for another call to action or protest against injustice right now? For anyone who even gives even the littlest shit about the state of the world and future generations, it can all feel crushing. Not because this doesn’t matter, but because everything freaking matters.

Some people I talk to about this are lamenting (or sometimes celebrating) that the pipeline is fait accompli. The Federal Government has dropped its your money into it, the pipe is bought, the court cases are exhausted. Even as the dark reality of questionable financial viability dawns on us, and the guy who bought the pipeline slinks from office to find other opportunities to mess with global capital, the sunk cost fallacy is pushing us forward into a $12.5 Billion investment in stranded carbon assets. But that’s global macroeconomics and climate denialism, what does that have to do with us here in little old New West?

As I have talked about before, the new Trans Mountain pipeline is going to move more than half a million barrels a day of oil products through the Brunette River, just meters from the New Westminster border, and just before the Brunette flows into New Westminster and discharges to the Fraser immediately upstream of our waterfront. I say the new Trans Mountain Pipeline, because here in the Lower Mainland, they are not “twinning” or “expanding” the existing pipeline, they are routing a second pipeline kilometers from the existing one (which will still pump away as it always does). The new route passes through the most sensitive riparian area of the Brunette: a river that a small group of underappreciated local heroes spent decades bringing back from an industrial sewer to a place that hosts spawning salmon again. The new pipeline is proposed to dig through the very riparian area that supports those salmon and a rich diversity of other flora and fauna, one of the few remaining natural streams in the urban sprawl of the Burrard Peninsula.

So here we are again, another small group of dedicated people protecting a legacy for generations. With time a’ticking and construction equipment staging, they are occupying the space in the hopes that their presence will prevent the felling of trees and clearing of brush and digging of trenches. There has not been much mention of this protest that has been going for more than a month, aside from a couple of early news stories when Dr. Takaro initially went into the trees.

The protest came to the attention of New West council as the occupants were using lower Hume Park for staging some of the activity, it being the nearest open public assembly place to the protest site. Although the actual occupied site is in Burnaby, the crossing of North Road and the Brunette River is a jurisdictionally-challenging spot, where Burnaby, New West, and Coquitlam meet and the federal railways have some policing powers (don’t start with me about how multinational corporations have armed policing powers in Canada –that’s another rant for another time). So it is worthwhile to point out that the three municipalities have taken varying approaches to the TMX expansion.

New Westminster was an intervenor in the Environmental Assessment, strongly opposed the project and its re-location to the Brunette watershed, and have supported legal challenges to the project. Burnaby’s opposition to the project has taken them to the Supreme Court of Canada. Coquitlam has said “show us the money”.

As a City Council, we have received no formal correspondence from the pipeline project team since the federal government took over the project. After formally opposing it for a list of technical reasons in 2017, we received a letter in response from (then) Minister Sohi in 2018 letting us know they received our letter, but they had just bought the entire project, so they are moving ahead.

My reasons for opposition to this project are informed by my participation in the original Environmental Assessment process in a technical role, and honed by my role as an elected official in an impacted community. I have been at this long enough that I remember the Harper-led federal government listening to our concerns before telling us they don’t care, then tearing up the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Fisheries Act to prove the point. In hindsight, that seems more honest than the Trudeau-led federal government lying to us about accountability, promising to end subsidizing oil and gas, and then throwing our chips down on the biggest oil company bailout in Canadian history. I wonder where Minister Sohi is now, after so much was invested in trying to protect his lonely Alberta seat.

Anyway, I’m ranting.

The protest is ongoing in the woods just west of the North Road, south of the Highway 1 overpass, but you may see a few people spending time staging or handing out information in lower Hume Park. Drop by and say Hi if you are in the area, send them some support if you like. Maybe you might want to let your elected representatives know if you think building a pipeline to expedite bitumen sand development in the face of a Climate Emergency is a thing you want them to spend your money on in 2020, or whether you value healthy salmon habitat in your community.

ASK PAT: River Road trees

Denis asks—

Hi Pat, I was cycling along River Road in Richmond for the first time in quite some time this morning and noticed that the trees between the road and the Fraser had been cut along a ~0.5-1 km stretch, perhaps (my memory is fallible!) just to the east of the CNR bridge? I was sad to see that this had been done when I can’t think of any real need — any idea why this was done and whose approvals were necessary? I’m thinking this stretch is actually in Richmond rather than New West, but I figured if anyone would know or could find out about this it would be you!

Hey Denis! Long time no see, hope you and yours are well! This is a little outside of New West, but quite a few of my cycling friends have asked this question, so I’ll take a stab at answering. Besides, I probably owe you a noteworthy number of favours.

Indeed there is a ~1 km-long stretch of River Road in east Richmond just west of the rail bridge where a significant number of trees and pretty healthy looking habitat was recently clear cut. Where this used to be the view riding along there:

It now looks like this:

There is a pretty simple reason for why it was done. The City of Richmond has an ongoing program to improve and solidify the dike system that keeps Richmond (and Queensborough!) livable and farmable, and this is part of that program. With funding support from the Provincial and Federal Governments, the entire dike-and-drain system for Lulu Island is being upgraded. This means raising some areas of dike to meet new 100-year projections for sea level rise and seismically upgrading parts of the dike where sloughing or liquefaction is likely during a significant earthquake. It also means upgrading the internal canal/ditch/watercourse network and pumping infrastructure that not only keeps the rainwater from flooding within the dike, but serves as an important emergency reservoir and drainage system to reduce damage in the unlikely event of a breach of the dike.

I am not an engineer, but my understanding is that there is some stability and lift work being done on this stretch of dike, and the (primarily) cottonwoods were determined to be both a threat to the soil density and in the way of the soil improvement work that needs to occur, so they needed to go. There is more info here at the City of Richmond website.

Your second question is a bit harder to answer, and I can only really answer in generalities, because I was not involved in this specific project, and I’m not a Professional Biologist. So take everything below as referring to “a typical project like this” and not referring to this specific project, because it is complicated and I don’t want to second guess actual professional people who might have been involved in this project. Geologists talking Biology always get something wrong, but I have spent some of my career peripheral to this type of ecology work, so here is my understanding.

The City has rules about cutting trees and protecting habitat. If you wanted to do this type of clear-cut to build a house or a warehouse or a dock, you might run into that. But a City-run project regulated by a provincial diking authority for life safety reasons would likely be exempt from those types of Bylaws.

Provincially, there is a law called the Riparian Areas Regulation that requires municipalities to regulate the protection of “riparian areas”, which are the lands adjacent to a fish-bearing or fish-supporting stream and provide shade, habitat, nutrients, etc. to the critters that live in and near the stream. In general, RAR does not apply in tidal waters, and the Fraser River here is tidal. So that leaves the Feds, and the biggest, baddest, environmental hammer in Canada: the federal Fisheries Act.

This used to be simple. Back in, say, 2011, work like this would constitute a HADD – “Harmful Alteration, Disruption or Destruction of fish habitat”. Section 35 of the Fisheries Act said you couldn’t do that without specific authorization. That authorization was hard to come by, but if the work was important like upgrading dikes, expanding the Port, or building an oil pipeline, you could get approval that would come along with a bunch of restoration work. If you were working in tidal waters or in the riparian areas near tidal waters, the onus was on you to prove to well-trained and independent scientists at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that your work did not constitute a HADD, and if it did, they were going to make you fix what you broke.

Naturally, that was a bummer to some people who liked to build things in and near fish habitat, like oil refineries and pipelines, or if you wanted to hold a good ol’ Country Hoe-Down in a sensitive habitat. So the Harper Conservatives ripped HADD out of the Fisheries Act. Instead of protecting habitat, your only responsibility is to not cause “serious harm” to a fish. They also canned a great many of those well-trained DFO scientists who would actually be the ones able to determine if there was harm. So for several years, reviewing a project like cutting down all the trees on a 1km-long stretch of Fraser River foreshore was left to an on-line triage system run out of Regina, and evidence to support that review could be provided by pretty much anyone – no requirement for a Professional Biologist to provide assessment to determine if this was a bad thing for fish, or any other part of the ecosystem. Some environmentalists complained at the time. 

Now, the Liberal government put the HADD back into the Fisheries Act late last year, and with it there was a return of authorizations under Section 35. There is still an issue with limited resources in the DFO to provide those authorizations, and I honestly have no idea what the triggering mechanism is compared to how it was pre-2012, or whether a project like this would trigger it. It may have received review through the old triage system prior to the changes in the Act, it may have had full DFO Section 35 review.

Anyway, it looks bad now, and to my untrained and non-biologist eye like a HADD, but this is important dike work making Lulu Island safer from flood and earthquake, so it would very likely have received a DFO authorization, and a compensation plan to improve the habitat value of the river would be required. The City of Richmond mentioned a plan to plant more than twice as many trees as were removed, so there will be a habitat win here eventually. Hopefully, they are also looking at improvements to River Road along with the Dike improvements, to make it a safe place to ride bicycles. But that’s a whole different rant.

Shaping our future

Expanding freeways doesn’t remove congestion.

This should not be a controversial statement. But somehow, urban planners, transit advocates, and climate activists still have to point this out to local government and provincial leaders, who have for the most part replied by saying some version of “Yeah, but this one is different”. Denial is an expensive vanity in light of the Climate Crisis.

The world around, growing cities have added capacity to congested road networks to find that the larger road networks are just as congested, and the surrounding areas made less livable because of that congestion. This is not conjecture or legend, it is a measurable certainty well established in the literature. Continued application of lanes has never, ever proven to solve the problem. I risk belaboring the point here, but if you need convincing, spend 5 minutes (or 5 hours!) Googling “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion”, or your pick of paradoxes: Braess Paradox, Jevon’s Paradox, Downs–Thomson paradox. They all, from different angles, explain that adding road lanes makes congestion worse for everyone. Always.

So, taking those things as read, I don’t have to go into the myriad of reasons why the 10-lane bridge plan for the Massey crossing was a bad idea. As I may have mentioned in the past, it was an idea built on a foundation as shaky as Fraser Delta silt. This was obvious during the Environmental Assessment of that lamentable plan. It was found wanting, and required such a contraction of inferred impacts that it literally ignored traffic impacts 100m from the intersection pictured above. It was clear that the only benefit to building it was a political one in a riding held by an independent on the south side of the link. It was no surprise that when the political imperative went away, that half-baked mutli-billion dollar scheme needed to be cancelled.

Here we are two years later. A very-slightly-less-terrible option is being legitimately floated (immersed?), and the same arguments for expanded road capacity are being trotted out like they are long-held truths. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

I’m engaging in a bit of wrathful Patsplaining here because I have been banging this drum for a long time, as an advocate for sustainable transportation, as a professional who worked on the Environmental Assessment process of the previous 10-lane bridge proposal, and as an elected official expected to show leadership in my community. This project has been part of my life for almost a decade, and I lament we still have completely failed to address the underlying issues. After all of this time, the political conversation is no more truthful than it was almost a decade ago. Same as it ever was.

The plan to replace the Massey Tunnel with an 8-lane immersed tube is a bad one. Every bit as bad as the 10-lane bridge. Fundamentally wrong for all the same reasons as the bridge, such that they are effectively the same project. There is no defensible reason to oppose the big bridge and now support the big tunnel. To point: it is a massive waste of money that will not solve the problem it is alleged to solve, but will instead take away from efforts to address real crises in our region.

The current tunnel does not meet current seismic codes, that is not a point of debate. Like a shocking amount of our public infrastructure, even life-critical infrastructure, it was not built with a 21st century understanding of seismic risk. There is something very visceral about being one of the unfortunate dozens in the tunnel at the time of a major earthquake that does not have the same effect when we think about the dozens of schools, office buildings, bridges and other structures that are at risk, so this makes a compelling case for doing something. Upgrading or replacing a piece of infrastructure to meet current risk standards should be a priority, no argument there. We may quibble about where to prioritize a tunnel over, say, the 270 schools still on the “to do” list. However, to continue the unfortunate whataboutism of using schools as a comparison, building a much larger facility to accommodate future growth is a different discussion than whether we should replace or fix up a school. Seismic upgrades do not require doubling capacity.

If building more lanes doesn’t fix congestion, you may ask, what does? Experience from around the world tells us there are only two models to significantly reducing road congestion. The Detroit Model (massive economic collapse and depopulation) is probably something only a few fringy cranks want to promote and I want to be clear I disagree with this model for the Lower Mainland.  That leaves the Nordic Model: road pricing and serious investment in the alternatives. Invest in rapid expansion of rapid transit, and price the roads to pay for it. One will not work without the other, you need to do both. This combination is the only thing that we know will work, anyone telling you otherwise is lying. No government can claim to be progressive, to be addressing road congestion, or to be committed to climate action unless they are doing these two things.

Why do I care, here in New Westminster, and why should you care? I assert that aside from the Port Mann fiasco, this project will be the most important region-shaping project of our generation. More than SkyTrain to UBC or rapid transit to Fleetwood (and likely at much higher a cost), the expansion of road capacity and entrenchment of a Motordom-oriented development model South of the Fraser will define our region. And the current definition makes us look antiquated and negligent. The tunnel will not only shape our region in a less sustainable way, it will take away limited resources that can must be applied to sustainable transportation approaches if we can ever hope to reach our regional livability goals, or Paris climate targets. But who is going to stand up in our region, and show the leadership needed to push back against this bullshit-driven boondoggle?

ASK PAT: Noise bylaws

CG asked—

Noise bylaws. Why are the allowable hours different for construction (which I presume includes homeowners working on their property) and for other noise?

Because that’s the way things have always been! That as bit of a tongue in cheek, but the real answer to why the City (and most other cities) do most things the way they do. However, in this case I can see why the bylaws are set up this way.

The “regular” Noise Bylaw in the City says no-one in the City can make a sound that “…disturbs, or tends to disturb, the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort, or convenience of the neighbourhood or persons in the vicinity” unless that noise is specifically permitted by the Bylaw. There is another part of the Bylaw that says sounds can further not exceed some legislated level (60dBs in the day, 55dBs at night), but the Bylaw is written so that even a sound under those prescribed levels could be considered disturbing.

Most people (including me, but I listen to a lot of the Pixies) have no idea what a decibel is, but there are lots of on-line examples that will tell you 60dB is about regular conversation level, 55dB is about the noise level of a coffee percolator, and 110dB is a jet engine. I’m not sure those help.

There are various exemptions in the Bylaw for things like “power equipment” which can be used within certain hours, so leaf blowers can continue to disturb the many for the benefit of the few. There are also obvious exemptions like emergency vehicle sirens, street sweepers, parades, concerts, and the such, some requiring specific authorization, some not.

Like most Cities, New Westminster has a different Bylaw regulating noise made at construction sites. This is because construction sites are (usually) temporary in nature, and they are places where noise is made outside of the regular standards that would apply in a community. We relax regulations for construction sites because of their ephemeral nature, and because we, in general, want things to be built. However, we limit construction noise hours to those typical of business (daytime and Saturdays). We have recently made some changes to the bylaw to reduce those hours and bring us more in line with adjacent cities, and to more tightly regulate pile driving.


It has taken me forever to answer this, but funny that this ASK PAT raises two different things that have been on my mind a lot recently: whether predictable sleep is more important than predictable traffic, and Oslo, Norway. I promise this will make sense.

A few months ago, I did something I had not done before. I voted against a nighttime noise variance for a road construction project. The City often hands these out to utility companies, Metro Vancouver, or construction companies to allow them to do noise-generating construction work at night because the work involves digging up a major road. The thinking is that the traffic chaos caused by digging up a road during the day is worse for community well being than some people near the construction site not being able to sleep at night. I voted against this one variance because I wanted to challenge that idea – maybe the livability of my community is served more if residents can get a night’s sleep than it is if regional through-traffic is inconvenienced. I made some comment about this being my new position on these variances.

Of course, in governance, when you make a strong proclamation of principles like that, something else comes along a challenges it immediately. In this case it was a request to close Front Street in a way that would impact Quayside Drive and River Market at a time when they are already dealing with significant traffic disruptions that is hurting their business. Is a good nights sleep for one night more important than a day’s traffic chaos *and* another hit at a keystone business in the City already reeling from the impacts of adjacent construction? Then we recently got a request for nighttime work for track maintenance along the Skytrain line which we approved. Is a good night’s sleep more important that providing timely maintenance to a regional transit line where there are literally not alternative routes? In the end, I voted “no” and “no” to those two questions and voted to allow the night work. Then around the same time, I once again said that traffic disruption on Brunette Ave is not reason to keep people living near Brunette up all night for three days, and Council agreed.

This is not to say I was right, it is to say governance of complicated, and guidelines are not standards. I can see how this looks like inconsistency (nay, hypocrisy?), but balancing various community standards is part of the reason why these variances have to come to Council in the first place. The answers ultimately require some kind of compromise of one community standard to satisfy another, and as much as I’d like to think I am consistent on what I think our standards should be, there are subtle differences in every application.

Now, what does this have to do with Oslo? A friend of mine who happens to be the Mayor of another BC City was recently on a tour of Oslo where the city has developed a progressive procurement strategy. The City has said that all City construction sites are going to have to shift away from using diesel equipment. No more diesel excavators or cement mixers. No more diesel generators to spin the hydraulic pumps or air compressors or drill rigs or cranes. Through a combination of wiring up the sites for electricity and battery tech on equipment, they have major building construction happening without burning fossil fuels.

My friend noted one thing first while visiting the site – how quiet it was. Aside from the folks next to the drill rig (busting rock still makes noise), no-one as wearing ear protection. The sound of shovels and nail guns and saws are still there, but the difference was (apparently) profound in how the construction site integrates in to the neighbourhood.

I think we are a decade behind Norway on progressive policy like this. The City of New Westminster doesn’t have the procurement power of the city of Oslo (The “County of Oslo” apparently procures about 10% of the construction in the entire nation), and you know, socialism and all, but it is interesting to challenge our own assumptions about what are reasonable community standards. It is also interesting to think that so many GHG-reduction strategies have spin-off benefits that make our community more livable. Dare to dream.