Opinion: Williams Lake Final Destination for CN’s Garbage?

By Stephanie Bird, on behalf of Rail Ties Be Wise, Williams Lake –

Who stands to gain if rail ties are burned at the biomass power generator in Williams Lake? Certainly, Canadian National Railway (CN) will benefit. The company would have a simple solution to its problem—the trackside accumulation of waste rail ties between here and Québec. And Boston-based Atlantic Power will benefit also, as there can’t be too much (if any) cost in accessing this waste. Perhaps the company’s profit margin would grow? In a 2015 survey from the Railway Tie Association, three contractors reported paying tipping fees to facilities that dispose of rail ties, in the range of US $15 to US $25 a ton. Atlantic Power wants to burn at least 200,000 tonnes of rail ties every year.

We know for sure that the citizens of Williams Lake will not benefit from this project. We know that the City is building a fire guard around its perimeter and there is a lot of woody debris that could feed the biomass plant from this fire guard zone. However, rail ties are much more dangerous. Emissions from burning them would contain sulphur dioxide, which is currently absent in our air, and higher concentrations of PM 2.5. Both of these are hazardous to the health of the very young, the very old, and those who have respiratory illnesses.

Blue sky through the aspen at Scout Island in Williams Lake. Photo: Frances McCoubrey

The geography of Williams Lake presents an additional problem. Our valley experiences air inversions, where weather traps pollutants in our airshed on a regular basis throughout the year. The testing that was done to approve the burning of rail ties did not account for this inconsistency in saturation of pollutants. To make matters worse, at the end of the process the toxic ash will be stored near town and potentially seep into ground water.

Williams Lake doesn’t need the reputation of being polluted with rail tie emissions. Nowhere else in Western Canada burns rail ties. The only other place in Canada that has burned rail ties is Trois-Riveries, Québec, and they do not confirm whether they continue to do so. How will this activity affect our ability to attract doctors, teachers, or other professionals? What about the retired couples that are leaving Vancouver and looking for new homes? Will Williams Lake be able to attract and retain people to keep this community healthy and active?

Fortunately, British Columbia is subject to a Clean Energy Act. This act exists to protect the environment from the types of electricity generation that are not sustainable, or that pollute the surrounding area. This is where Rail Ties Be Wise is focused today. After almost three years of fighting this plan with the Environmental Appeal Board and making modest gains, we are hoping that Energy Minister Michelle Mungall will reject this project on the basis that it violates the mandate of the Clean Energy Act.

Certainly, as was decided in Oregon and Washington State, burning rail ties is not clean, especially in a municipality that is tucked into a valley bottom, using a biomass burner that was not designed for this purpose. At a time when we experience annual forest fires and the resultant smoke keeps us from participating in outdoor activity, we don’t need additional PM 2.5 or new pollutants like sulphur dioxide in the air we breathe.

We encourage all residents to ask that the Minister of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources Michelle Mungall refuse to allow this to happen to us. Sign our the petition linked on the Rail Ties Be Wise Facebook page or send an email to Michelle Mungall at: EMPR.minister@gov.bc.ca. Follow our FB page for updates and visit our website at railtiesbewise.ca for background info. Let’s preserve our health and our healthy outdoor reputation.

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