Valley residents are ready to fight Metro's plan to burn garbage
Serious concerns have been raised about Metro Vancouver's plan to install six waste incinerators around the Lower Mainland: The prohibitive costs, the potential impact on the environment and the inherent disincentive to recycle that comes with incineration.
These are all important issues, to be sure. But there is one issue that is of greatest significance to me and to my constituents: air quality.
Resolving the region's garbage crisis is a complex challenge. There are no easy solutions. What must be understood is that there are limitations to operating in an airshed as extraordinarily challenged as ours.
Given the recent memory of Sumas 2 -- the proposed Washington state project that was defeated after strong opposition based on concerns about air quality -- the air we breathe should be top-of-mind in these discussions.
Instead, Metro Vancouver has chosen to ignore the Valley's legitimate and growing health and air-quality concerns and surge ahead with its campaign to sell us on the benefits of burning garbage for energy. In the process, they have cited the hundreds of incinerators in use throughout Europe, some in the heart of major cities such as Paris and Vienna, as reason to feel secure about the issue of emissions and air quality.
What they are not telling us is that 33,000 European doctors have signed a petition calling for a ban on further waste incineration and the closing of existing facilities for what they believe are serious human health concerns.
In 2007, researchers in the United Kingdom established that there is a significantly higher death rate for young children (up to 12 months) who are regularly exposed to smoke from incinerators. And despite the proliferation of incineration facilities across the U.K., there is vigorous public opposition to the practice of burning garbage for energy, largely due to mounting health issues that can be linked to incineration.
In Nottingham, for example, residents living downwind of the Eastcroft waste incinerator associate its emissions with a spike in respiratory health issues in the community. They call it the "Eastcroft cough."
We know that incinerators produce harmful chemicals such as dioxins that are not only toxic but also persistent and bio-accumulative. That alone should be enough to give us pause, considering the livestock and produce that originate in the valley. But in the case of incinerator emissions, there is also significant risk in what we don't know.
In addition to a number of other chemicals, we know that incineration produces fine particles called nanoparticulates, and we know these particles can pass through the most sophisticated scrubbing equipment.
Research into the impact of these particles on human health is still preliminary, but early indications are that nanoparticulates can be linked to serious human diseases such as cancer. In fact, the health complications caused by nanoparticles have been compared to those of asbestos.
At a minimum, given that nanoparticles are not measured, reported, or required to be, we need to err on the side of caution.
Carried by the winds off Georgia Strait, these dioxins, nanoparticles and other potentially harmful chemicals produced by incineration will find their way into our airshed. Incineration experts have cited European cities with similar mountainous geography to rebut the air quality argument here, but there is no comparison to the Fraser Valley. University of B.C. Prof. Douw Steyn, an internationally recognized air quality expert, says the valley is so vulnerable to incremental increases in emissions that it is pointless and misleading to compare it to cities in Europe when advocating incineration.
As the people in the Fraser Valley know, our geography can be unforgiving when it comes to air quality. In 2001 when the region fought against Sumas 2, Metro Vancouver agreed. In a letter to the National Energy Board, Metro Vancouver declared that, "SE2 is neither an appropriate nor responsible decision to locate within this sensitive airshed or in such close proximity to a major residential area where the air quality is already above levels at which significant human health effects can be observed."
That argument still stands, but today Metro Vancouver is proposing new sources of pollutants.
Last week the region learned a lot about recycling alternatives at the Resilient Cities conference. We know that other waste solutions exist and that these models have been applied successfully in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Each of these cities rejected incineration in favour of a waste management plan that emphasizes reducing, reusing and recycling.
San Francisco, for example, has achieved a 75-per-cent diversion rate and relies on existing landfills as a flexible disposal option. This helps, not hinders, their ability to get closer to zero waste. Compare this to incineration, which demands a steady flow of waste and landfill space to house toxic ash generated by the burning garbage, and the sustainable answer becomes clear.
Metro Vancouver has the time and opportunity to explore waste management options that are sustainable and responsible. The plan favoured by Metro Vancouver is neither.
As the debate continues, you can be sure that residents of the Fraser Valley will continue to fight for their right to clean air and a healthy future.
Patricia Ross is the chairwoman of the Fraser Valley Regional District and an Abbotsford city councillor.