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.


I wanted to comment a bit on this story. Kinder Morgan is apparently using an industrial lot in the Braid Industrial Area of New Westminster for staging and equipment storage as part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project. That has caused some people to send me correspondence around why the City is allowing this, people asking me why I am not opposing the pipeline. I replied to a Facebook Post, but I think this issue is important enough for me to expand a bit on it here on my blog.

The site within New West being used by Kinder Morgan is on Port of Vancouver land, not land where the City has any jurisdiction. Council members were very recently made aware this was happening, but we do not have any regulatory authority around land use on Port lands, as only the Federal Government can issue or withhold those permits. We were not involved in the planning for this, and we have not had any formal correspondence on the issue from the proponent or the Port.

This City and this Council have been involved in the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from the onset. The City acted as an intervenor in the NEB review, raised a number of significant concerns during the process, and continues to emphasize these concerns since. Not the least of these concerns is the potential for impacts on the Brunette River and its riparian areas.

We have supported court cases challenging this project and the process towards its approval. The NEB and the Federal Governments (past and present) have demonstrated no interest in our position, nor do I feel they have adequately addressed our concerns. It is actually worse than that, as there were recent hearings in Burnaby to review some of the still-unresolved questions about the routing of the new pipeline along New Westminster’s border (and within the Brunette River riparian zone) and the NEB didn’t even invite New Westminster to attend. I was refused entry to the hearings when I showed up. They were held behind closed doors, and as the routing was some 30m outside of our City, my being able to even listen to the conversation was not seen as relevant. At least the Harper Government invited us into the room to be ignored.

I cannot speak for all of Council, nor is this the “official position” of the City, but I have been involved in this process for several years now. I bring a significant amount of professional and technical experience to this, having provided expert evidence as an Environmental Scientist to several Environmental Assessments in my career. I am concerned about the pipeline, but I am much, much more angry about the unaccountable and unacceptable process that has taken us to this point. In the last Federal election we were promised that the industry-focused reviews brought in by the Harper Government would be replaced; that didn’t happen. We were told that community consultations would be opened up, and that consent from communities would be sought; that didn’t happen. We were told that a new era of reconciliation would be ushered in before we impose unsustainable and  damaging infrastructure projects to unceded lands; that didn’t happen. We were told that subsidies to sunset oil industrial development would end and a new energy vision would be offered; that didn’t happen.

We were lied to, and now we are ignored.

Pipeline Project

There is a lot to grab your attention right now when it comes to local government. Budget deliberations, mobility pricing, the ongoing housing crisis, election 2018; it is hard to pick your battles sometimes.

However, the pending start of construction activity along the proposed Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline Expansion is likely to spend some time in the news this spring and summer. Although directly-impacted local governments such as Coquitlam and Burnaby have taken very different approaches to the project, there have been people in New Westminster raising alarm about the potential impacts on the Brunette River watershed, along our eastern border.

What has not been discussed as much in our local government context, is what this project means to the First Nations along the route and to the indigenous people upon whose traditional lands this project will impose itself. As our own City approaches reconciliation, we need to start thinking more broadly about how we engage the indigenous community when we are evaluating our support or opposition to resource projects – even ones we have little jurisdiction over.

Next week, the Massey Theatre Society is partnering with Savage Society and Itsazoo Productions to present “The Pipeline Project”, a multi-media theatre event and conversation that explores these themes. As part of the Massey’s ongoing “Skookum Indigenous Arts Program

By all reviews, it is a serious, but at times humourous and disarming discussion of pipeline politics, and the sometimes unrecognized push-pull between “environmentalism” and the ongoing fight for indigenous rights. There are even a couple of matinee performances/discussions for those who can’t get out at night.

Here is a (slightly NSFW, but funny when it is) preview:

I think it is pretty timely with where New West, the province, and the nation are on this discussion. It’s gut check time when it comes to defining what kind of place we want Canada to be. This is a good chance to start listening. Get tickets here.


Cursory apology for not writing enough or answering my queued “Ask Pat”s. Things will change in January, I’m not promising much until then. However, something this newsworthy requires comment, and I’m not going to sleep tonight until I write something down. No time for editing, let’s go.

“Cazart!” is a word invented by the Doctor of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. He defined it as “Holy Shit! I should have known.” However that definition lacks the sense of fatal acceptance and calm that the second clause must be spoken with in order to hit the true feeling. It is the shock of surprise at something that was always obvious; we knew it was coming, but perhaps we hoped against.

To quote the esteemed Doctor himself:

“Cazart” goes far beyond mere shock, outrage, etc. If Bill had a better grip on semantics, he would have told you it meant “Holy Shit! I might have known!” Fatalism, I’d say. It’s a mountain word, but not commonly used……In contemporary terms, we might compare it to the first verbal outburst of a long-time cocaine runner who knew he was bound to be nailed, eventually, but when it finally happens he instinctively shouts “Cazart!”

A good friend of mine succinctly summed up in a tweet much of my thoughts  – not just about the approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project, but about the way we continue to dance around the edges of serious issues in this province and this country:


The profundity of that comment needs a whole new blog post. so instead, I’m going to write about the completely predictable failure represented by the approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project.

I am not a distant observer of the Trans Mountain project. I worked on the Environmental Assessment National Energy Board Review. I read and critiqued the Project Description, and the reams of correspondence from stakeholders, intervenors, commenters. I was a participant the Review Process, and could see how the cards were stacked. I attended the protest camp at Burnaby Mountain and wrote about the impacts on New Westminster. I spent a bunch of time converting tonnes to barrels to cubic metres to understand the throughputs of the existing and planned pipelines, what it means for tanker traffic, for our domestic fuel supply in the Lower Mainland, and for Pacific Northwest refineries. I attended emergency planning drills at the Westridge Terminals when they ran boom boats around showing how easy a clean-up was (a very different experience that folks up in Bella Bella had with the Nathan E. Steward spill). I have talked with my colleagues from across the Pacific Northwest at the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance. I attended the Trudeau government “Panel Review” that was meant to get to the bottom of the conflict about the project, and found it wanting.

All this to say my opposition to this project is not uninformed, knee-jerk, or equivocal. Providing a Texas-based tax-avoidance scheme the right to threaten what is most sacred to British Columbia, “Splendor Sine Occasu”, makes no economic, social, environmental, moral or practical sense. It is a betrayal of our communities, of the nations that were here before us, and of the generations that will (hopefully) come after. It is a failure to lead and a failure to dream.

I admit that I believed that when Trudeau’s refreshed Canada walked into the Paris meeting and said “we’re back”, we were telling the world that we were ready to lead again. I hoped (dreamed?) we were ready to take a role respective of our technological and economic advantages, catch up with true global leaders, and begin beating our energy swords into plowshares. At the least, we would begin respecting our commitments to ourselves and the world. Instead, it is clear we are going to continue to subsidize the industry that provides all those fragile eggs to Alberta’s wobbly basket. We will subsidize it directly through our tax dollars, we will subsidize it through infrastructure investments like 10-lane bridges that lock a generation into unsustainable fossil-fuel-dependent transportation choices, subsidize it through forsaking future opportunities and risking the ultimate destruction of everything we value in our spectacular BC coast.

It doesn’t really matter if that destruction comes from a single “72-hour spill response time” incident or from gradual and inexorable rises in temperature and sea levels. We have sold our legacy, forgiven our opportunity, failed to find a vision that would allow it to exist.

Justin Trudeau was elected because people saw something akin to a new vision. We had enough of the stuffy old white guy with the 19th century solutions, and were not compelled by the other stuffy old white guy and his 20th century solutions. Dickens and Steinbeck (respectively) had nothing on Copeland and Klosterman. The promise was a new direction from the new generation. Fresh ideas and approaches, more personal politics, dare I say “Sunny Ways”. Traditional ideas like fearing deficits, letting oil companies tell us what’s what, or keeping your sleeves buttoned at your wrists were tossed aside. Canada’s back, baby, with a sexy swagger. We convinced ourselves that we could dream more hopeful dreams, that our ambitions to be something better would be realized.

Alas, before the election ballots were counted, long-time observers were asking how soon the Liberals would course-correct to the right with hackneyed neo-liberal (made so quaint now by a Trump-based reality) policy decisions that blur the distinction between them and the Conservatives they campaigned far to the left of. Campaign left, govern right, stay the course. It has worked for the Natural Governing Party because that’s the Canadian way, and has been since… well, I’m too young to know any other form of Liberal.

They campaign to govern, and govern to campaign. Perhaps under P.E. Trudeau that meant serious discussions about Public Policy, the Role of Government, and the Meaning of Nationhood. In 2016, public policy is a hassle, because it is hard to sound bite and some noisy people or potential donors might not like the results. The need to break promises of last election are an issue only for the crisis communications department; after all, they present opportunities to become promises for next election! Voter cynicism? A political machine this size, if properly greased, can work that to their advantage. For one more cycle, anyway.

When Trudeau II showed up on the scene, many voters jaded by a series of abusive relationships received a glimpse of a new beginning. The honeymoon is now over for people in BC concerned about the environment, about our natural legacy. It is important to note that we are a little late to the game out here on the West Coast.  The honeymoon already ended for Civil Liberty types, as Ralph Goodale seems to support giving rights to CSIS that the Courts denied them making fights over C-51 antiquated. It already ended for human rights activists as selling citizen-crushing machines to brutal dictators became unavoidable in bureaucratic doublespeak. From the stall on electoral reform, to the laissez faire on TPP and the claw-back of public pensions… the reasons for buyer’s remorse are broad and all-encompassing.

Cazart, indeed.

Naturally, we are seeing the same thing here in BC, and it extends far beyond this pipeline (that we know Christy Clark is coyly equivocal about, as she schemes to assure its development as long as she gets a tidy deficit-reducing revenue cut). The same failure to lead / failure to dream leaves us in a place with an economy that is ostensibly the Greatest on Earth, except for the shocking number of homeless, the working poor being made destitute, then the destitute dying of addiction or violence with no apparent support or escape alongside the creeping failure of our public education, public health, and public transportation systems. Even the financially stable are seeing the cost of living creep up through faux-taxes hidden in the costs of basic services while local governments are scrambling to find the funds to putty over the cracks in the social net that has made us a civil society – if not the Best Place on Earth.

It’s an election year, so casual political observers are going to forget about disability claw-backs, about the past-critical housing crisis, about forgotten promises to make schools safe, about privatization of public assets to meet short-term budget goals, about feet-dragging over regional transit funding, about tax breaks for private schools and forgotten promises to provide family doctors. Instead, we are going to hear a few populist news stories about how the Liberals are claiming a lead in housing or education or health care (“It is time to invest”) and we are going to be distracted from the abject failure to provide not only those things for the last 15 years, but any form of public good through their neo-liberal trickle-down economics. Some of us might be convinced they care about us and a brighter future is just around the corner…

That’s the winning formula when winning the job is more important that doing the job. How long until they, too, disappoint us? Will we say “Cazart”?

ASK PAT: Q’Boro watercourses.

Someone asked—

Hi Pat,
My partner and I live in Queensborough. We are both plant lovers and native plant specialists, and have come to love our little place by the river – such a magical mix of water, plants, and living things… We often take walks along the waterfront and up and down the tattered side roads with their open ditches filled with teeming plant and animal life. We are constantly enjoying the native plant life that has been cultivated and also occurs natively in the area, but have a number of concerns.

First and foremost, we recently noticed that in the last month or so, a large number of big trees and shrubs were removed from the riverfront with no notice. This is the side that faces Annicis Island, and I believe a lot of the trees were deciduous. Willows, Mountain Ash, and other trees were chopped down as well as the other herbaceous and woody plants. This is something we notice happening on a small scale along the ditches as well. Most importantly, we’d love to know why these large trees were cut down, most likely because of disease or pests, but absolutely no signage was placed on the path in the Aragon where all the cutting happened, and we are very curious about the city’s policy on controlling these wild areas, if any. Could you send some information our way please in terms of this? We’d also love to know what the plan is for the large biodiversity of plant and animal species that are consistently being eaten up by the growing development and if these open ditches and waterways will somehow remain untouched. We are looking forward to new development, the Q2Q bridge more than anything and additional retail, but it worries us to see so much changing too. We would also like to know what to do when we see ditches and waterways which are being clearly polluted by the nearby industrial?

Thanks so much for fighting for a better city for us all. We look forward to your responses, and finding a way to make Queensborough more of an example of environmental stewardship. There are few places like this left – water, plants, and living things together – that have the potential for so much life and health, and unfortunately there is much work to do still, and remediation to be completed on what was done long ago.

This is going to be one of those good-news bad-news answers, depending on how you feel about ditches/watercourses. I’m likely to go on at length here, as there are actually several questions here, and I’m going to try to hit them all systematically.

I also love the Queensborough waterfront, especially the south and east sides where the City and developers have invested in the restoration of the waterfront, and have effectively made it a comfortable human space and an ecologically productive space. We just had the 4th (5th?) annual shoreline cleanup along South Dike Road, and the impressive recovery of native species and ecology along the river is always inspiring.


The fate of inland ditches in Q’Boro is, however, one of those political hot-button issues, where someone is going to be unsatisfied whatever the City does. For all the people in Q’Boro who love the frogs, the dragonflies, the ducks and even the occasional stickleback, there is at least another who hates the murky water, garbage accumulation, loss of parking, and general untidiness of having an open ditch in their front yard. I’m not going to opine whether you are outnumbered or not, but you are definitely outvolumed by people demanding that the City get rid of the ditches and install “proper” sewers as soon as possible.

From an ecology point of view, some of the watercourses in Q’Boro are protected by the Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR), a provincial regulation that is, quixotically, managed completely by local governments. Not all “constructed watercourses” are protected, however, as ephemeral and isolated watercourses and those already severely impacted are not determined to have high enough ecological value to receive full protection of their riparian areas. Further, the riparian protection need on some of the larger ones plays second fiddle to the need for maintenance to keep the water flowing and houses from flooding.

The City performed an ecological mapping exercise back in 2010 that, amongst other things, showed the classifications of the watercourses in Q’Boro. Several of the larger ones (Class A and Class B) are protected, and are not likely to be filled in the long-term. There are provisions on in the RAR for preserving and improving the quality of the habitat around them, including trees and shrubs, which can curtail development and prevent them from being filled. When you balance the need to maintain these watercourses as conveyances with the need to protect the ecology, I wouldn’t say they will remain “untouched”, but more that our engineering folks will try to protect the native species and habitats as best they can while keeping people’s houses dry.

Filling in even the smaller, unprotected ditches creates yet another problem, this one purely engineering. An open watercourse can store and transport a lot more water than if a pipe was dropped into that watercourse and it was covered up. To replace the storm water management and flood protection capacity of all of the open watercourses in Q’Boro would require huge pipe infrastructure, and all of the associated catch basins, inspection chambers, and pump infrastructure. To make matters worse, the soils in Q’boro need just as much engineering and densification to hold up a sewer pipe as they do to hold up a housing complex, which significantly increases the cost. Don’t get me started on the shallow water table and the construction/maintenance problems it causes.

Therefore the City has developed a longer-term strategy to plan for, and pay for, drainage infrastructure improvements whee they are appropriate, and addressing the eventual filling of the smaller, disconnected ditches that are not protected by the RAR. New developments in Q’Boro pay into a special DCC earmarked for drainage improvements, separate from the mainland and dedicated to works in Q’Boro. When a developer builds in Q’Boro, we take advantage of the soil densification and drainage planning they are doing to make it more affordable to install new infrastructure.

Residents in the Single Family House neighbourhoods who wish to have the drainage closed on their block can do it through a “Local Area Service Plan”, where they get the work done in a cost-sharing with the City (and pay for it over time through their taxes), as long as it isn’t a watercourse protected by the Riparian Areas Regulation (i.e. Class C or worse). We received a report to council in September 2014 (see page 88 of this lengthy Council agenda if you are curious).

Now onto the trees. We do have a recently-adopted Tree Protection Bylaw that applies to new development, City lands and private lands. I don’t know the details of the tree removal you are talking about, but if it happened after the Tree Bylaw was adopted (January 13, 2016) and didn’t occur on Port-owned land, then there should have been a posted permit. If the trees were hazardous or dangerous (as determined by a professional Arborist) then they will be replaced on a one-for-one basis. If they were simply removed to facilitate development, they will be replaced on a two-for-one basis. It isn’t perfect (two young trees don’t necessarily provide the ecological benefit of one mature tree), but it balances the limits of power a local government can do when approving development on treed lots with our desire to have more trees in our community. When planning for trees, one must have a 20+ year vision.

What to do when you see industrial pollution in ditches? First off, you need to know if it is really “pollution”. The groundwater in Q’Boro is similar to adjacent Richmond, in that it is a product of being a former peat bog. The lack of gradient and boggy soils result in stagnant groundwater that, for a bunch of biochemistry and geochemistry reasons I won’t get into here (did I mention I’m an Environmental Geoscientist working in soil and groundwater protection?) has very low dissolved oxygen, low pH and lots of dissolved metals like iron and manganese. When that groundwater hits our ditches, it is exposed to atmospheric oxygen, causing those metals to precipitate out in to metal oxides (making it murky and rust-coloured), and in the presence of biology, more complex metalliferous organic compounds. What sometimes looks like and oil slick in the water may actually be a natural “metalliferous sheen

That said, all the ditches in Q’Boro connect directly to the Fraser River without any kind of water treatment, so real polluting substances going into the ditches will more than likely find their way into the river. Section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act says you can’t do that, and enforcement of that law falls on Environment Canada. However, response to smaller spills in to fish habitat is a multi-level cooperative effort between EC, the provincial Ministry of Environment, the Coast Guard (if it hits the river) and local governments. In that sense, who you should call first probably depends on the situation.

If you see something curious, but you are not too sure, either use SeeClickFix or contact the City’s Engineering folks, and they will check it out.

If you see what is clearly a spill, and are worried about fish or see potential impacts to ducks or any such concern for wildlife, you should contact the provincial spill reporting phone / app, and they will triage and determine the proper level of response and response agencies.

If you see a dangerous spill, such as an overturned gasoline truck or a dump of dangerous substances where there may be human health or property damage implications, you should call 911 and ask for the fire department. They will be able to determine a safe response strategy, can arrange for evacuations or road closures, and can coordinate with the City’s engineering folks and senior governments whose job it is to stop the spread and coordinate the clean-up in a way that keeps people from getting hurt.

Finally, what can you do to see more ecological protection of Queensborough, and New Westminster in general? You might want to make contact with the New Westminster Environmental Partners. They organize the Q’Boro Shoreline Cleanup every year, and are always looking for interested and knowledgeable people to help with environmental protection advocacy and works. You can also consider joining the City’s Environment Advisory Committee, which advises Council on topics environmental. The application period for 2017 is open right now, and we don’t generally get a lot of applications from Q’Boro for City Committees. Bringing your voice to the table may help the City make better decisions regarding ecological protection of your neighbourhood.

Whoo Hoo! Two ASK PATs in a row that end with plugs for joining City Advisory Committees! People should really apply!

Ask Pat: Airborne Contaminants

Wes asks—

Hi Pat, I’ve been concerned about the airborne contaminants coming off the property that Harvest power urban wood waste recycling occupies in the Brunette industrial area. I remember hearing at a MSRA meeting that the city had told them quite some time ago that they had to move the operation indoors, but have not heard anything in quite some time. My real concern is that they are handling asbestos contaminated demolished products, and have been cited by worksafe in the past for not adequately protecting their employees. Are we as residents in lower Sapperton at risk for the same issue ?

To start off, I probably shouldn’t comment too much on the 2013 fine issued by WorkSafe, because all I know about it is what I read in the newspaper, and I assume that a serious fine like this comes with significant follow-up from WorkSafe BC to assure whatever was going wrong won’t go wrong again. I have (in my work life) dealt with illegal asbestos storage and transportation, and the Province (through the Hazardous Waste Regulation) and Metro Vancouver (through their job managing solid waste and recycling in the region) take asbestos pretty seriously. Businesses like Urban Woodwaste deal with demolition waste all the time, and have pretty strict protocols about how any asbestos they receive is managed.

That aside, air quality protection in the Lower Mainland is regulated by Metro Vancouver. They deal with odours, smoke, dust or any air quality concern. Generally, they require an air quality permit if a business has any point-source emissions. That includes traditional pollutants like sulphur dioxide from an oil refinery to odours from coffee roasting companies or dust from aggregate companies or sawmills. You can see a list of all of the companies that have permits and the conditions attached to those permits at this website. As you can see, Harvest/Urban Wood Waste in New Westminster does not have a permit, which tells me that Metro Vancouver does not consider their operation likely to cause air pollution or nuisance. They have a permit from Metro to operate a wood waste recycling facility (you can see a list of all of those permits here), which means they are on Metro Vancouver’s radar and are subject to regular inspection. I know enough of the Regulation & Enforcement folks at Metro to suggest they wouldn’t ignore the need for an air quality permit if they saw a problem.

If you have questions about Air Quality (and it sounds like you do), you shouldn’t ask random know-it-all bloggers like me, you should contact Metro Vancouver directly. They even have a 24-hour reporting line and on-line complaint form in case you observe (or smell, or suspect) an air quality concern.

Disappointing, not surprising.

The announcement that Fraser Surrey Docks had been approved to ship crappy thermal coal from the Powder River Basin through the Fraser River was not really a surprise, but it was disappointing. During these long drawn out policy discussions, it became clear then very few people in British Columbia agreed with the plan. Every single Municipality that responded to the project, from the US Border to the Fraser River to Texada Island, was against it. Every First Nation that expressed an opinion was against it. Academics, economists, even our regional health officials; people were lining up to raise concerns about this project. This is one of those rare occasions where James Crosty and I agreed on something*. How did it get approved?

Someone suggested that this project “fell through the cracks” between Federal and Provincial Environmental Assessment legislation and the other checks that might have allowed meaningful public input. That is not true. There was no “falling” involved. It was instead jammed firmly into a huge crack that was ripped into the legislation meant to protect our fisheries, our air quality, and our climate in such a way that no amount of public outcry could close the crack again. This was not a mistake or an oversight on the part of the Federal Government- this was part of the plan.

This is also an example of why the public no longer trusts public consultations. Unlike recent consultations by TransLink over the Pattullo Bridge, the Port’s consultations were not meaningfully reported out. They admitted that had received feedback from thousands of people, but they won’t admit that vast majority of that feedback was in the form of opposition to the project for a variety of reasons. Yet somehow the project was approved after these “consultations”. Why even bother asking?

Coincidentally (except it probably isn’t a coincidence), there was other coal news this week, likely just as important, but with much less fanfare here in BC. Turns out yet another proposal to build a coal terminal in the Pacific Northwest to move Powder River Basin thermal coal to jurisdictions where it is still legal to burn it has been rejected by state legislators, after significant political pressure from local Tribal groups, fishers, environmentalists, and community persons who are starting to feel the ethical debate around Climate Change. This brings to a half dozen the number of terminal proposals rejected or indefinitely delayed in the last few years in the Pacific Coast, none of them in Canada.

This is, of course, putting pressure on American coal producers, and is creating some interesting adaptations. For example, American coal industry giant Cloud Peak Energy just last week signed an agreement with the Canadian coal producer Coal Valley Resources, where Cloud Peak pays their Canadian competitor $37 Million to ship the Canadian product north through Prince Rupert. This would free up space at Westshore terminals at Port Metro Vancouver’s Roberts Bank terminal that was allocated for the Canadian coal, so Cloud Peak’s dirty Powder River Basin coal can be shipped through Canada. No Environmental Assessment needed.

It was only a few days ago that the New Westminster Environmental Partners had Kevin Washbrook from Voters Taking Action on Climate Change give an inspiring talk at the stunning Aboriginal Gathering Place at Douglas College. He spoke eloquently about climate change as a moral imperative. The message was clear: Climate change is happening right now, we are causing it, and the results are unpredictable, but almost certainly dire. The more detailed message was about “now” means we keep blowing past the worst predictions of the rate of change we while governments blithely let pass their own commitments to act; how “we” is the richest nations on earth, with Canada and Australia embarrassingly leading the charge; and how the most dire consequences are already being felt in the poorest nations that cannot afford to adapt, and had virtually nothing to do with creating the problem.

But that wasn’t all that took place, because we had a group of a few dozen people who discussed the problem, and talked about the solutions they can see, some in the far distance, some accessible right now, some we are already well into adopting. There was talk of hope: not the type of hope where you sit and wish something would happen, but the kind of hope that if you and everyone around you gets to work, it is inevitable that it will happen.

At this point, with global CO2 blowing through the 350ppm, then 400ppm barriers, the idea that we can limit climate change to a planet-altering 2 degree Celsius warming has gone away; at this point we need to stop much worse levels of warming. No-one is suggesting we can fix the problem anymore, we are now working on how to limit the problem so the impacts are manageable by the next and not catastrophic.

It is late, but not too late. The challenge is real, but it is doable. And British Columbia is one of the most important fronts in this battle. British Columbia is choosing (and yes, it is a choice among many other possible paths) to become a conduit for the acceleration of carbon into the atmosphere. We are seeing pipelines, coal ports, and massive increases in natural gas extraction: all with the intent of making burning carbon for all of our energy needs more affordable through lax regulation and unaccounted environmental impacts so that the practical and reasonable alternatives that exist will not be exploited. For a shitty few jobs (and yes, the Carbon Economy in British Columbia is less that 3% of our GDP, and accounts for less than 1% of our employment) we are helping a few profiteers rake in cash by making the world a less safe, less stable, less liveable place for the next generation.

We need better leaders. We need more accountable Governments. We need a vision to stop destroying the future and start building it.

*James and I have some fundamental differences about the reasons for opposing this proposal, and I took a bit of a humourous dig at his comments in an earlier version of this footnote. In hindsight, it was an unnecessary and not very nice, so I retract. 


This is bad. This may be the worst environmental disaster in BC’s history, potentially much larger than the Cheakamus River spill that happened, coincidentally, 9 years ago today.

And it should not have happened. It is simply unbelievable that this type of failure can occur in an operating mine in British Columbia in 2014. It is too early to tell who is to blame, but it is clear someone (or more likely, many people) didn’t do their job here. The early press reports that the Mine had been warned numerous times over the last three years that their pond was inadequate, and that they had repeatedly been warned by the Ministry of Environment for violations related to releases from the pond, suggest that this was completely avoidable. It is hard for me to write this without swearing.

The company president suggesting the tailings water was safe to drink is, frankly, idiotic, and a terrible dismissive piece of PR. There is no doubt the huge wall or metalliferous slurry that blew Hazeltine Creek from a 4-foot-wide mountain stream into a 150 metre wide mudbog would be, in even the most conservative reading of Section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act, a “deleterious substance”. Plus, blowing the creek out, removing several square kilometres of riparian habitat, while coating the bottoms of two essentially pristine major lakes with potentially quite toxic metal sludge, emulsified chemicals, and entrained fine sediments could pretty safely be deemed a “HADD” under section 35 of the same Act.

Violations of these sections could should result in charges, and this should provide an excellent opportunity for the Harper Government to demonstrate that their “tough new fines” for serious offences under the Fisheries Act were not just for show. For a Corporation the size of Imperial Metals, this event should bring a maximum fine of $6 Million for a first offence (although, based on the record of recent violations, including spills of 150,000 litres of slurry in 2012, this might not be a “first offence”). If this event – 15 Billion litres (read that volume again) of saturated water/sediment full of a toxic brew of metals was discharged in to the spawning grounds of fully 1/3 of the sockeye salmon in the entire Fraser River system, right as the salmon are starting to return – doesn’t qualify for the maximum environmental fine, what would one have to do?

However fining the company is only one approach- it is clear someone didn’t do their job here. Someone can, and should, go to jail.

This is not all on the company, though. Two Ministries are responsible for assuring public safety and the environment are protected here – Mary Polak’s Ministry of Environment, and Bill Bennett’s Ministry of Mines. Did they do thier job? Bill seems mildly concerned in his press release, but isn’t talking to the public or the media. Mary Polak and the Premier are quiet. They should both be pulling out their trusty hardhats – the ones they wear at all of those photo-ops – and tell us, the people of the province, that they are going to get to the bottom of this, and that someone is going to jail here. But I don’t honestly think that is going to happen.

I guess we were lucky. No-one got killed, and the damaging debris flow took place in pretty deep woods where there wasn’t a lot of infrastructure to be destroyed. We avoided the type of disaster I wrote about 5 years ago, cheekily suggesting this could never happen here. Our sludge wasn’t as caustic, and didn’t enter populated areas, but we released almost 15 times the volume of polluting sludge. This will not be cleaned up in any meaningful way, there is just too much material spread over too large an area. The best we can hope for is that the contaminants will be isolated and contained until such a time that concentrations of the toxic materials dissipate, and that the promised record sockeye run (if they show up) can make it past the slightly-too-hot lower Fraser River to find a place to spawn despite this setback.

Who pays for roads?

Once again, a casual conversation I had around a transportation issue led me to look for the data to support my long-held belief. I think I already had this data, as I like to convince myself that data is what most of my long-held beliefs are based on, but I’ve been wrong before, so it never hurts to check yourself, in case you are caught in the same conversation again. Run-on sentences are cool.

In this case, it was a version of the old “There is no need for road pricing, because I already pay for roads through gas taxes” or “Cyclists have no right to the road unless they register and pay a tax” narrative that I was arguing against. The central narrative is that gas-burners pay for roads, ostensibly through Gas Taxes or some other tax that non-drivers don’t pay. My long-held belief has been that gas taxes don’t pay for your roads, nor do ICBC rates or drivers licence renewal fees. The average cyclist likely pays just as much tax as the average car driver, they both pay for the roads (or, more likely, the average cyclist and the average driver are exactly the same person, as pretty much everyone I know who rides a bike also drives a car sometimes… but I digress). It did get me thinking – how much of what the average Lower Mainland driver pays for a car actually goes to maintain the road?

The first part of this is to determine just how much the average Lower Mainlander pays per year to drive the average car. Luckily CAA collects this data on an annual basis, so there is a single source for this number.

Click to make Bigger, borrowed from BCAA, probably illegally. 

Let’s start setting assumptions, lots of people drive compact cars ($9,543 per year) and lots drive SUVs ($12,666 per year), most of the other categories are between these, so let’s pick the vehicle that is closest to the mid-point between these, which is a “Crossover” at $10,745 per year to operate. We have to also assume the average person drives an average amount, and their cost breakdowns are about average. You can see where I am going here, so I am going to try to reduce the use of the word “average” from here on in, and you are not going to use anomalous end-member data to criticize the following analysis. Deal?

Click to make Bigger, borrowed from BCAA, probably illegally. 

According to the Car-Knobbling Council BCAA, your Crossover will cost you about $1,831 a year in fuel, $1,760 in insurance and registration, and about $7,198 (!) in depreciation and maintenance. Neither Esso nor Canadian Tire build roads (excepting, of course, in that they pay taxes, and that goes to roads, but that is true no matter where you spend your money- at the Chevy dealership or the bike shop, so that argument goes nowhere), so we can assume that when we talk about paying for roads through our cars, we are talking about the paying tax for through using things that are part and parcel with using the road. The ICBC part is a special case I’ll have to hit on later, as this is already getting long.

Let’s figure out how much tax you pay to run your car.

For that $1,831 you spend in a year for fuel, the calculator assumes your gas costs you $1.25 per litre, which works out to 1,465 Litres of fuel (I know gas is more expensive now, but I’d rather use numbers from an independent source than make shit up). According to the most independent source I can find, struggling gasoline retailers, $704.42 of this (just over 38%) is taxation at the retail level. This includes $146.50 in Federal excise tax, $97.15 in carbon tax, $249.05 in “transit tax”, $124.53 in Provincial gas tax, and $87.19 in GST.

Per-litre cost of fuel, according to Petro-Canada. Click to read.

These are each individual revenue streams, so I apologize in advance for the complicated stuff below.

The Federal excise tax goes into the Consolidated Revenue Fund – it all gets stuck in a big pile and mixed infinitely with all the other money the federal government collects, from the 16% duties on Ecuadorian wool socks to the income tax that came off your last paycheque. However, the Feds do pull $2 Billion a year out of that fund, (misleadingly) call it the “Gas Tax Fund” and transfer that directly to municipalities through a slightly convoluted allocation formula. Considering about 40 billion litres of gasoline are sold in Canada every year (not including diesel – which has an excise tax of $0.04/L on sales of 17 Billion litres annually), somewhat less than half of the Federal excise on gasoline is reinvested into this infrastructure fund (which makes the name misleading). Of that less-than-50% approximately 28% is spent on local roads and bridges.

So crunching the numbers, the $146.50 of federal “gas tax” spent by the average person, about $20 goes towards roads.

The Carbon Tax is much simpler to work out. Exactly 0% of it goes to roads. The Province has been quick to point out and reinforce that the carbon tax is “revenue neutral” – it only goes to offsetting income and corporate taxes, and to providing a $200 cheque to rural British Columbians who own a house. All that just to kill a few jobs.

The “Transit Tax” is the TransLink gas levy, and some portion of that does directly go to maintaining roads and bridges. Looking at the TransLink Base Plan for 2014, we can see that TransLink collects $331 Million per year on its gas tax (on about 2 Billion litres of fuels sold in the TransLink area annually), which is 23% of its total revenue. Of this total revenue, about $119 Million (or about 8%) is spent on Roads, Bridges, and Cycling. So just as the federal money goes in to one big consolidated fund from which road money is drawn, the money TransLink gets is pooled and re-distributed (otherwise, their road spending would be decreasing as the gas tax revenues decrease, and that is not happening).

So of the $249.05 of Transit Tax, about $19.92 goes to the roads your drive that car upon.

The Provincial tax is much harder to estimate, as it all also goes to General Revenue, as does the GST hit, of which even a smaller proportion is transferred to the Province for roads spending. So let’s ignore the usual whinging about deadbeat have-not provinces and assume 100% of the GST comes back to the Province, and is pooled with the PST. How much does the Province spend on Roads? According to their recent financial plan, the annual Ministry of Transportation budget is about $800 Million, and a further $1.3 Billion on Infrastructure investment for transportation, meaning $2.1 Billion is spent on transportation. Of course that includes roads and bridges, along with cycling, transit, rail, Ferries (coastal and interior), gondolas, and the Mountain Pine Beetle Strategy (!?). This sounds like a lot, but it is only 4.7% of BC’s annual revenue. Given these very, very generous estimates, something like $10 of the average PST/GST cost of the annual gasoline bill goes to transportation.

That’s it: $50. That is the “toll” the average British Columbian pays every year for using the roads through gas taxes. Notably, this amounts to a “road tax” equal to one half of 1% of the annual cost of owning and operating a car.

There are, of course, major flaws with the above analysis, but none of them change the underlying premise.

First, most of the roads you use every day are paid for and maintained by your municipality, whose revenue sources do not include gas taxes (excepting the transfers from TransLink for the Major Road Network, and a portion of that Gas Tax Fund infrastructure money).

Thirdly, this analysis assumes that people who don’t buy gas do not pay even more for roads and bridges through their other expenditures. A daily driver gives $249 a year to TransLink in gas tax, but a daily 2-zone Transit Pass user gives $1,488 to TransLink in the same year. A daily SkyTrain user pays 6 times as much towards TransLink’s roads budget than someone who drives their car on a road every day. Of course, they both use the roads, just like pedestrians and cyclists and squirrels (who get off comparatively Scot free), but only the transit riders uses the Skytrain. Except that being on the SkyTrain gets her out of the way, “freeing up traffic”, which benefits the road driver.

The big exception is that people who don’t spend $1,831 a year on gas – or $7,000+ a year on a depreciating piece metal – don’t usually stick that extra money in the mattress. They usually spend it on other things. Like bicycle parts, or shoes, or peanut butter sandwiches (which is pedestrian fuel) or iPhone apps or pez dispensers or lottery tickets, beer and popcorn. Every dollar not spent on gas is likely spent in other ways, and when spending on things (be they car things or non-car things) they provide revenue in the form of sales taxes and in income taxes of the people who are selling stuff. That is the nature of our economy. Through the magic of “General Revenue”, just as much of those taxes go to funding roads and bridges as the sales taxes on gasoline does. In this sense, the more you use the roads, the less you likely pay for your share of their use.

As a bonus, that money is most likely not spent on things that destroy the atmosphere, as few things in our society have the same atmosphere-destroying capability on a dollar-by-dollar basis, than 1,400 Litres of gasoline.

The Gas Works

There is one site in New Westminster that seems to come and go from the public eye and conversation, but never seems to go anywhere. The empty lot with the decrepit red brick building at the corner of Third Ave and Twelfth Street: the “Gas Works Site”.

The conversation popped up on Twitter this week, and got me back to thinking about it. The last time I had a conversation about the site it was with a business operator in the area who asked over a beer why the City wouldn’t let him park used cars on the site. It made sense to him: the City could get a little revenue from it, and it sure beats the hell out of having it sit there empty and ugly. I started to explain to him the myriad of technical and legislative reasons why the City couldn’t just let him do that, and his eyes soon glazed over, he dismissed my points as “Hogwash”, and we went back to talking about curling. I love this town.

So here is a fuller explanation, best I can figure, and call it hogwash if you like. But first, I need to throw one of my disclaimers out there, in case there is an actual hog being washed.

Everything I know about the Gas Works Site comes from the City’s published documents, most of which you can read here. I have no insider knowledge, nor have I talked to the City to find out if there are unpublished or updated plans for the site. Also, I work with contaminated sites in my professional life, so I know a lot about their technical reality and their legislative challenges, but my knowledge about this particular site is limited to the City’s released reports. Nothing following this should be construed to be professional advice, just informed opinion. The former costs money; the latter is always free!

Gas Works were once common in North American and European cities. These were facilities where coal or coal tar was converted to “town gas”: a mix of methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and various other vapours. The gas was then piped all over town to provide gas for streetlamps and some domestic cooking and heating. This was before the technology of pulling methane out of the ground for the same purpose was developed. The gassification process in the 19th Century also produced a fair pile of by-products, come useful, some not. At the time, there was a general practice of dumping whatever waste you may have wherever it could percolate into the ground and go away, presumably forever (the word “pollution” probably was only applied in the biblical sense at the time).

As a result, these sites commonly have soil and groundwater impacted with a variety of persistent and ugly contaminants – from rather unpleasant monocyclic hydrocarbons like benzene and xylenes through to a nasty collection of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and things like phenols, heavy metals, and cyanide. At the New Westminster Gas Works site, some of these substances persist in the ground even 100 years later. The site is big-C “Contaminated”, and not in the biblical sense.

The building on the site also happens to be one of (if not “the”) oldest extant industrial buildings in New Westminster. It is a bit of an architectural treasure, as long as it is still standing. Problem is, the building is standing on top of contaminated soils that will be hard to remove with a building standing on them. If the City wants to do something useful with the site, it first has to clean it up, and before they can do that, they need to decide how to deal with the building.

The site does not currently belong to the City. As the business that operated the Gas Works is long gone, this is a technically an abandoned contaminated site. The BC Environmental Management Act makes the Province responsible for cleaning up abandoned sites. However, like any other landowner, the Province is not compelled by the Act to clean it up any time soon, as long as no-one is currently being harmed by the contamination.

The situation here is not unlike “white pipe farms” we find around British Columbia. The person who owns the land (in this case, the Province) is responsible for the contamination, and if anyone wants to develop the property, they need to deal with that first. The Province is unlikely to sell the land in its current state, because if they do so, they are still, under the Environmental Management Act, responsible for the liability caused by the contamination and are not permitted to sell that liability. Therefore, they are motivated to sit on it, because if anyone uses that land they may expose the owner to unanticipated liability (by doing something dumb like drilling a well into the contamination zone, or starting a day care in the basement exposing the kids to toxic vapours). Notably, because the City owns the road, if it was really concerned about the contamination under 12th Street, they could go out there tomorrow, dig it up and send the Province the bill. If the Province didn’t want to pay, they could drag it out in the courts for years, but none of this is a very nice way to interact when it is much easier to just make a deal.

Apparently the Province was interested in 2009 in getting this site off its books, and the City was interested in making it happen. According to the City reports, there was an initial agreement or MOU signed between the City and the Province for the City to take over the site with some conditions that the City not sell it for commercial use or market housing, yet the affordable housing component that would have been included in market housing for the site be accommodated elsewhere in the City. This conditions was, it would appear, not an issue for the City. Therefore the City went through a Land Use study and public consultation process back in 2009, to determine the community interest in the use of the site. It seems that some combination of a new Firehall, a park, and a community amenity building (or even community gardens!) was the preferred direction.

From what I can glean from the available reports, a deal was outlined where the City would receive the land as a free crown grant (yes, for free!) from the Province (conditional on it being used for public, not commercial, purposes) and the Province would pay for the cleanup of the site. Remember, the Province is already responsible for this cost, but this deal would have just caused them to take this action sooner, rather than sitting indefinitely on the site.

The Province suggested complete remediation of the site (i.e. digging up and trucking away the contaminated soils and treatment of groundwater if required). The details had yet to be worked out how the excavation under the building would occur, but the lowest-cost and lowest-risk alternative seemed to be inserting a sub-foundation under it to support portions of the building while excavation takes place.

The contamination has also spread under 12th Street, and the Province proposed to “Risk Assess” that. This is a common technique for managing low-concentration stable contamination, similar to the way the “toxic blob” at the Pier Park was managed: you isolate the contaminant, make sure it cannot reach humans, plants or animals in a way that might harm them, then monitor it over time to assure conditions under the ground don’t change. There is a good reason for doing this in a location like 12th Street, as there is a big water main and other utilities under the ground there, and if the contamination is located a few metres below those utilities, it will be remarkably complicated (and therefore expensive) to try to dig it out without damaging that infrastructure. From the report, it appeared the City requested that the Province to do a full remediation under the road, but it is not reported if the Province agreed to this and the increased cost. If the Province really wants to remove the liability related to those contaminants and not be stuck with long-term monitoring costs and potential hassles, this would be a reasonable approach for a piece of land (the road) that they do not own.

So that was 2009; where are we now?

The City and the Province apparently still have some deal-making to do. To remediate and dispose of the land will cost the Province up to $2 Million. This cost will depend on how they decide to deal with the heritage building on site, how they plan to deal with the contamination in the road, and what the final land use plan is (community gardens or institutional buildings may require different remediation standards than open park space, at different cost). Once this work is done, the City will be stuck with a large, highly disturbed gravel lot with a dilapidated building on it. To realize the dreams brought up during the Land Use Study and public open houses will cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, all of which will have to be raised by the City.

Currently, the site is surrounded by used car lots and a church – not huge tax revenue drivers for the City. However that church is currently looking at an ambitious redevelopment, and there are bigger dreams for the longer-term development of the Lower 12th commercial area. Where does this particular Park/Amenity project fit on the priority list for the City? How engaged is the Province in the plan to remediate this site? When will something finally happen to the Gas Works?

The only thing I know for sure is that the old brick heritage building in the middle of it is not getting any younger. The flashing is failing, and there are gaping holes in the wood roof. I hope that the parties can come up with a plan before the “what to do with the building” problem is solved for them by gravity and rot.