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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for January 2014

When the tide goes out, the table is set

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The refinery on Burrard Inlet - squint a bit, you can pretend it's totems poles.

The refinery on Burrard Inlet – squint a bit, you can pretend it’s totems poles.

“Our people have a saying: ‘when the tide goes out, the table is set.’  Here in Burrard Inlet, my grandparents used to dig holes in the sand and build a fire.  They would put clams and cover them with seaweed.  My parents replaced the seaweed with burlap bags, because the seaweed was harder to find.  My kids don’t do that any more – except for crabs, nobody eats shellfish from Burrard Inlet anymore.”

That is what I remember of the introduction of a speech by Carleen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.  The speech was delivered as part of an event organised by the Tyee called “how is climate change reshaping our future?”.  A very interesting event, even if none of the speakers really adressed the title.  Stephen Rees wrote a good summary of the evening (here).

But Carleen Thomas’ words reminded me of a song that I heard a few years ago.  It is played by a band called Fraser Union.  I couldn’t find the song on YouTube (imagine that!) but I managed to get a a bit of audio clip here.  As it turns out, Fraser Union have been active in the movement to protect BC’s water against tankers and pipelines; you can hear them here as part of a July 2012 event in Kitsilano hosted by Mel Lehan and Ben West.

So here goes another entry under “environmentally-themed music.”  It’s a nice, simple song, but it is deceptively simple.  It isn’t just bemoaning pollution (a single line in the last verse); it is really about the sense of belonging to a specific environment that feeds you and gives you a sense of identity. (I wish I had taken better notes, because Carleen Thomas was quite eloquent on the topic.)

 Another of their songs (this one on YouTube) is indeed called “Home, dear home”.  (A studio version of the song Pipeline Blues, with gorgeous video, can also be found here.)  It is certainly remarkable how much the tar sands, pipelines and tankers have inspired indignation among artists.  Speaking about Neil Young’s recent tour (here in The Tyee), Ian Gill noted that “Our national voice has been drowned out for so long that we’ve almost lost the language to express what we want our country to be… who but our artists are capable of stirring our emotions, giving them expression, and releasing the trapped energy in our national psyche?”   

So we need artists, poets and singers to express what is at stake, and who we are.  So, here are some of the lyrics of “when the tide goes out”- a song that answers that call quite well.  (Yes, I know that’s not how you spell gooey-duck.) 

When the tide goes out, the table is set / And the sea serves up her bounty bless’d

Come with me while the sand’s still wet / When the tide goes out, the table is set

I know some people whose minds are stuck / To them low tide means slime and muck

When I go there I’m prepared to shuck / The oyster, the clam, and the gooey-duck

Now go a little further put your foot in the sea / Try wading out, say up to your knees

There are crabs and abalone and even seaweed / Fix’em up right and they’re bound to please

Here we are by Georgia Straight / She’s a part of us, we share her fate

And all this poison, she just can’t take / We’ve got to stop it now before it’s too late

Written by enviropaul

January 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm

Energy news this week

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The Temple University solar project announcement

The Temple University solar project announcement

There has been a flurry of energy news this week, particularly with respect to solar, so instead of cluttering up everyone’s Facebook page, I thought I’d collect them all in a single post (and not clutter up everyone’s facebook feed!).

Science Dev has a nice feature on two elderly women from Cameroon trained in solar technology in India.  They are now working installing solar panels, providing electricity to their village.  If nothing else, this shows the reach of distributed solar electricity; rural regions in the tropic may get electrified without the need of a costly grid.

There was also big news from Kenya; the Guardian announced that the country was planning to generate 50% of its electricity through solar panels by 2016, a highly ambitious plan.  Too ambitious, probably; the news has since been retracted and blamed on miscommunication.  Oh well.

But despite this, solar is very healthy.  China announced that it has installed more solar panels this year than all other countries put together.  This is remarkable, considering that Japan is installing giant off-shore solar farms, that the oil rich Gulf states are embarking on solar in a big way, or that the first solar bridge (Blackfriar’s) is underway in London.  In the US, California is looking at solar to make up for a shuttered nuclear plant, and Philadelphia’s Temple University announced the completion of the first customer-driven, university partnership solar project in the city.

The Blackfriars station solar bridge in London

The Blackfriars station solar bridge in London

In other energy news this week there also a remarkable photo of the world’s largest offshore wind farm circulating over the internet, and a report that Texas is on the brink of a major wind milestone.  Also, a report on magma enhanced geothermal in Iceland, and an article on Växjö in Southern Sweden, with its remarkable biomass-fuelled district heating.

This offshore wind farm, the London Array, provides electricity for half a million Britons.

This offshore wind farm, the London Array, provides electricity for half a million Britons.

Finally, if economics is your thing, there are some articles worth a good mulling over: Slate reports on green investing, and Forbes – yes, Forbes! – endorses the idea of a carbon tax.  This nicely follows the announcement by the UN climate chief that divestment from fossil fuels is essential, which has made ripples in the market (funds managers are afraid of what is now referred to as stranded assets).  But can the market (under the moniker “green capitalism”) ever be effective at tackling climate change?  That is the question adressed head-on by an article making the rounds of environmental circles this week.   

Happy reading! 

Burnaby incinerator and Fraser Valley, round two

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Metro Vancouver's WTE, better known as the Burnaby incinerator

Metro Vancouver’s WTE, better known as the Burnaby incinerator

Seems I touched a nerve.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote a letter to the Vancouver Sun, saying that it’s a bit much to blame the Burnaby incinerator for air pollution in the valley when off-road diesel are not regulated (as opposed to in Metro Vancouver.)

A few days later the paper published my letter (here).  The letter elicited a response from Sharon Gaetz, the mayor of Chilliwack, also published in the Sun (here).  In it, she says:

Metro Vancouver is the only regional district in B.C. that can regulate air discharges. Meaning the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) does not have jurisdiction to implement its own off-road diesel program; responsibility falls with the Ministry of Environment (MOE). While thankful for efforts to reduce diesel emissions, unfortunately we suspect older equipment is entering the FVRD, polluting our fragile airshed. Unable to directly safeguard this ourselves, we will work with the MOE on future options.

She also details other measures the FVRD has undertaken to improve air quality, all of which are commendable.  But since there is a shared airshed between the FVRD and Metro (and a watershed, for that matter), I have to ask: would it not make more sense to merge the two districts for effective action?

It certainly is true that Abbotsford and Chilliwack bear the brunt of air pollution generated in the Metro area; in summer, the sea breeze pushes photochemical smog (aka brown haze) up the valley.  But to claim, as Abbotsford councillor Patricia Ross did (here), that the incinerator plays a large role in polluting the valley is a bit rich.  With respect to NOx, one of the pollutants associated with brown haze, the facility emits only 0.85% of total NOx emitted in the valley, while vehicles (car, off-road, etc) produce about 70%. As for small particles (PM2.5), the incinerator produces only 0.04% of the total (see here).

A little while ago I posted an entry explaining why I thought Ross was out of line (here).  I mentioned that it would be great to have access to real-time data from the incinerator, since continuous stack monitoring is done for the main pollutants like NOx, opacity, carbon monoxide, and a few others.  Maybe Metro will eventually enable this.  But meanwhile, their website contains a wealth of information on the emissions of the incinerator, and, yes, I would live downwind from it without worry (actually, I did, in the 90s).  Dioxins, heavy metals, and other pollutants of concern are barely ever detectable, and are much lower than required by regulation; check the website here or here.

As for elevated cadmium levels in flyash that made the news last year (see here, for instance), that is a serious matter.  This heavy metal is highly toxic and could potentially have contaminated the groundwater surrounding the Cache Creek landfill, where the ash is disposed.  But that is precisely the point: the cadmium is in the waste already, and would have been just as likely to contaminate groundwater if the garbage had been simply landfilled instead of incinerated; incineration concentrates the heavy metals in the ash and provides a method for disposing of it safely (by improving ash stabilization, which Metro is working on).  It is still a concern, but it’s better than the black hole of a landfill.

And an incinerator does recover the energy content of the waste.  Sure, it has a big, visible smokestack, and of  course that is a symbol of pollution.  But look at the actual emission numbers, please, before pointing fingers. 

Written by enviropaul

January 25, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Speak up for science 2013: Dr Thomas Kerr’s speech excerpts

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Dr Thomas Kerr is first on the left among the standing scientists

Dr Thomas Kerr is first on the left among the standing scientists

Last September several scientists gathered on the step of the Vancouver Art Gallery to speak up for science, joining other similar demonstrations across the country.  Among them was Dr Thomas Kerr, and I have reproduced excerpts of his speech below.

The speeches are as relevant now as they were four months ago, unfortunately.  So I’ve collected some excerpts that I’d like to share for the next few posts. My first post of this series was about what Sarah Otto had to say.

Dr. Thomas Kerr is the co-director of the Addiction and Urban Health Research Initiative at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia (Division of AIDS), as well as a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar.

Here is some of what he said:

Our story isn’t about funding or being muzzled. It’s about very high level interference in what should be the natural development of policy. A story about immense human suffering, an effective public policy response and government interference at the highest levels.

Ten blocks from here, in 1996/97, a public health crisis occurred, one of the most explosive spreads of HIV outside of subSaharan Africa. At the same time, there was an increase in the fatal overdoses from heroin, about one person dying in the province each day. The Vancouver Richmond health board was swift in its response: harm reduction with a needle and syringe exchange and a supervised injection site. These interventions worked and there are volumes of research documenting this. In the downtown eastside, HIV infection rates plummeted. So did the epidemic of fatal overdose. How did it happen? Local governments looked at the best available evidence and enacted it here. The WHO and joint UN program on AIDs also call for harm reduction.

Despite the experience in Vancouver, the federal government renamed Canada’s drug strategy as the anti-drug strategy and, for the first time, removed harm reduction as a potential component of the strategy

Then it went to great lengths to close Vancouver’s supervised injection site. After losing decisions in the BC Supreme Court and the BC Court of Appeal, they used your tax dollars to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court judges ruled 9-0 in favour of the continued operation of the supervised injection site. It’s benefits have been proven. Overdose deaths were reduced by 35% in the area.

It’s a very sad in Canada when we have to rely on Canada’s highest court to set evidence based policy for Canadians.

Other cities have planned supervised injection sites, but the federal government tabled Bill C-65 which introduces new requirements that must be fulfilled to open an injection site. The requirements are onerous. They must obtain permission from neighbours and the police. It puts NIMBYism in front of public health and charges police with making key decisions about public health. It needs to be revised to protect human rights of people who inject drugs.

Harm reduction is a rare opportunity to enact policy that is fiscally sound, compassionate, and backed by high quality evidence. We must call for an end of political interference in the natural development of evidence based policy.

The consequences of a failure to do so are obvious. We will bear witness to immense human suffering and death. For this, we will be condemned by future generations.

Speak up for science 2013: Sarah Otto’s speech excerpts

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Sarah Otto, in black, is in the middle of the picture

Sarah Otto, in black, is in the middle of the picture

Last September several scientists gathered on the step of the Vancouver Art Gallery to speak up for science, joining other similar demonstrations across the country.  This has led to a fair bit of media coverage recently, noticeably Silence of the Labs on The Fifth Estate and a clip on Al Jazeera’s The Stream.  (For a good background, read Chris Turner’s The War on Science.  I have it at home, if anyone would like to borrow it…or read a review here)

The speeches are as relevant now as they were four months ago, unfortunately.  So I’ve collected some excerpts that I’d like to share for the next few posts.  (My main source is the Vancouver Observer, here.)

For this post I’ll start with Sarah Otto, a UBC Evolutionary Biologist and MacArthur Fellowship Recipient.  (You can read more about her here and hear her here.)  Here is some of what she said:

I was talking with a government scientist and they told me about their work and then they told me that they were asked not to publish this work. That disturbed me. But even worse was the reason they were told to not publish their work and that was “we want the public to forget about this species.” I don’t want to forget and I don’t think Canadians want to forget. We want to our children and grandchildren to see the diversity of life that we enjoy around us today.

I’m a big fan of industry specific research; it must and should be done. This kind of research aims to solve already identified problems with solutions that we already have a sense of. It is basic research that reveals the unknown problems. It is basic research that identifies solutions that lie beyond our current imagination. Only through basic research do we find new technologies and new paradigms. Reducing Canada’s funding for basic research means that we are less likely to be making the fundamental discoveries, discoveries that help us understand the world around and will help us lead the new technology of the future.

Scientists serve as an early warning system to Canada. We are the ones who are closely watching how the environment is changing, monitoring species, following invading species and following and tracking diseases. Canada can ignore this early warning system but personally I don’t want that and I don’t think anyone else wants that either. We want to know the risks and potential solutions to the problems we are facing. We want scientists to speak their findings and their concerns openly.

Ignoring science risks walking blind into the future, unaware of environmental and health risks. It takes away our ability to avoid problems early before they get so bad that remediation is a challenge if we can remediate at all.

Starting in 2007, scientists in Canada, government researchers, have been told that they may not speak publicly via the press without ministerial permission, permission that is often given too late if at all. Their voices have been muzzled.

Government researchers are the front line of researchers who aim to understand and protect our country from invading pests and diseases, who maintain natural resources and who preserve the great beauty and biodiversity of this country. This frontline group cannot tell you of their discoveries and concerns. This disturbs me. In the past year, scientific collogues who work in government have told me of their increased of being switched from project to project before their work is done, of  being so underfunded that critical research cannot be conducted, prevented from attending conferences to share their results of other scientists even if the conference was going to fund their attendance. They cannot speak to you today which is why we must speak for them.

Earlier this year in addition the DFO also restricted the publication and distribution of scientific papers. They’re not only restricting scientists from speaking with the public. They are also restricting the ability of scientists to share their results with other scientists. Before submission must know have review and approval by the division administration.

First scientists were muzzled from talking to you. Now they are muzzled from talking to other scientists.

Ten years ago Canada committed to protecting our endangered and threatened species by enacting the Species at Risk Act, which is called SARA. Before a species can be protected, its status has to be assessed by scientists. Scientists who do this are on the scientific panel established by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). COSEWIC is charged with evaluating evidence of species declines and risks. When COSEWIC finalizes their report, they send it the Minister of the Environment. The Minister of the Environment then communicates the report and its recommendations to government by sharing the files with the rest of cabinet. If Cabinet then decides to list the species under SARA, measures then begin: how do we act for the recovery and what actions will we take as a country? The law clearly states that the government has 90 days to respond to COSEWIC and nine months to make a decision about whether or not to list under SARA. Recent ministers have entirely short circuited the Species At Risk Act. They have not forwarded the COSEWIC files to the rest of cabinet to even be evaluated for starting the process.

… These aren’t occasional delays. Of the 71 files that COSEWIC put forward in 2011 and 2012, only 2 have been shared with the rest of cabinet. Even those two are telling. In one, COSEWIC had new data to show the short head sculpin was less at risk reducing its status from threatened to one of special concern.  In the second case, it was known that new data about oolichan fish had been uncovered and government knew that COSEWIC had to reevaluate this file. That file was officially received. The other 69 species, the ones that SARA was meant to protect, remain in limbo. Those files remain on the desk of the Environment Minister. Until those files are received, there is no planning for recovery, no meaningful public input, no guidelines for action.

Failing to communicate the files of COSEWIC to cabinet stops the process of species protection.  The Minister’s delays deprive Canadians of our right to contribute to an informed decision about whether and how to protect a species. Which species are we talking about? Species like loggerhead sea turtles, bobolink black birds, several species of lake sturgeons and pollinators that are at risk of global extinction.

Also at risk are three species of bats that have been decimated by white nose syndrome, so much so that the government of Nova Scotia asked that there be an emergency action under SARA so that recovery planning could be sped up. COSEWIC delivered an emergency assessment twenty months ago. That file still sits on the Minister of the Environment’s desk. It has not yet been communicated or officially received.

This disturbs me.

Reduction of science into policy has happened at the same time that there has been a reduction of funding provided to scientists for basic science research. Since 2008 there has been an overall reduction of 13% to basic science funding in real dollars. At the same time there has been an increase in industry specific research  by 34%.

Written by enviropaul

January 19, 2014 at 11:30 am

Environmental crimes in a car-free city

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 ’Are you going to tell me the real reason why you don’t want to go?’ ‘We shouldn’t be doing things like that’, Vianello finally said. ‘Like what?’ ‘Look at those distances’, Vianello said. ‘Just to go and lie in the sand and look at the sea, I mean.  If you’re a neurosurgeon and you have to go somewhere to save a life, then get on a plane and fly.  But not to lie on a beach.  It’s not right.’  ‘Right in an ecological sense?’ asked Brunetti, unable to resist the impulse to take a poke at Vianello’s growing enthusiasm.  Eventually Vianello said, ‘Yes.’

An everday street in Venice, if there is such a thing...

An everyday street in Venice, if there is such a thing…

Inspector Vianello is torn between a possible holiday in the Seychelles, which his wife wants, and his wish for a simpler vacation.  Especially now that he is a member of Greenpeace, policeman or not.

This is a sample of the simple pleasures in Donna Leon’s series of police procedurals with Inspector Brunetti (from The Golden Egg, 2013, in this case).  The stories are fun, well crafted, and Brunetti defies some stereotypes of the genre: he is happily married with children, never had affairs, and enjoys his Prosecco and Grappa without turning into a cynical alcoholic.

I point out this series because it is intelligent, and often includes a few environmental asides.  Brunetti is genuinely  puzzled by all this environmental fuss, and is a good foil for his colleague Vianello or his daughter Chiara, so that the comments are never overly didactic (but remain effective). 

For instance, his colleague Vianello now refuses to eat vongole pasta, since the clams that come from the Venitian lagoon are toxic, and food inspectors corrupt, adding in way of explanation that this is why he joined Greenpeace (A Sea of Troubles, 2001).  His daughter Chiara disapproves of his buying flowers, because of the environmental footprint of shipping them from Africa (Blood From A Stone, 2005).  Brunetti second-guesses what he should do at times: “As he went down the stairs, Brunetti was conscious of the dim view Chiara would take of his crossing the entire city in a police boat when he could just as easily used public transportation” (The Golden Egg, 2013).

These are everyday foibles that everyone who is environmentally conscious in the least recognizes with a smile.  But some of the plots focus directly on environmental crimes: in Death in a Strange Country(1993), two American doctors working at the Vicence US base are killed because of their discovery of illegal dumping of toxic waste. The waste, from another US base in Germany, had nowhere to go since the German government had tightened environmental controls, opening a lucrative opportunity for organised crime in Italy. About Face (2009) also revolves around illegal hazardous waste dumping (a problem all too real in Italy).

So the books are a joy to read if you’re environmentalist: environmental concerns are depicted intelligently, and (in some cases) polluters are apprehended.

But the main pleaseure comes from the setting: Brunetti works in car-free Venice. The reader is treated to descriptions of the beauty and art of the city, sure – but also to the day-to-day reality of what is for most of us an alternate universe, a true car-free environment.  Brunetti is actually comical is his failure to understand car culture – colleagues from Rome who brag about their new cars might as well be speaking Greek to him – and the Brunetti family is truly puzzled by how people can enjoy themselves in the polluted, noisy, dangerous environment of traffic-dominated mainland Italy.

It’s sheer pleasure to follow Brunetti as he walks through the streets and lanes, over canals, stops for an espresso or a glass of prosecco with antipasti, chats with the locals. But it leaves you wishing for a car-free city.    

Abbotsford’s view of incinerators…

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The incinerator debate has resurfaced, recently, because the FVRD is considering taking action against Metro Vancouver over emissions from the Burnaby incinerator (at least, according to Patricia Ross).  I have to smile at that – quite a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Not only are Abbotsford and Chilliwack sprawly towns dependent on cars (with all the emissions that that implies) but the FVRD has refused to regulate off-road machinery, which represents some of the worse diesel pollution around; and the district has also granted variance to large greenhouse growers to use wood waste rather than natural gas, despite the increased emissions that that entails.


This is not to say that there are no emissions from the Burnaby incinerator.  The 2005 emissions inventory (published in 2010 – that’s the most recent I found) shows that the incinerator pumped out 9 metric tonnes of PM10.  If that sounds like a lot, consider that off-road equipment  emitted 157 tonnes of PM10 in the FVRD alone.  (Landfills, by themselves, produced 59 metric tonnes throughout the Greater Vancouver and Fraser Valley area.) 

PM10 are the particles in smoke and dust that are small enough to be breathed in.  They are not the only pollutants emitted, and they are not necessarily toxic.  But they are a good indicator of toxicity since many of the more dangerous substances (heavy metals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, to name a few) are carried into the lungs by these small particles.

Emissions from a modern incinerator do contain materials that are known toxins and carcinogens.  The request of counsellor Ross that emission levels should be transparent and easily accessible in real-time is excellent; this would demonstrate that the pollutants are indeed found – though in trace amounts.  In contrast, the very same toxic substances are spewed in much greater quantities by old diesel engines.  So it seems a bit disingenuous to single out the Burnaby incinerator.

I wrote a short letter about this, which I sent to the Vancouver Sun, in response to the articles.  Hope they publish it!  Here it is:

Marc Jaccard and Gordon Price are right in considering hypocritical the stance of the Fraser Valley Regional District regarding incinerators (Burnaby incinerator emissions expected to fall: engineer, Jan 7th), but there is another reason, aside from sprawl: particulate matter from diesel engines.  These are particularly unhealthy, and there is already significant pollution from trucks shipping garbage to Cache Creek or some future landfill that would be needed if incinerators were to be banned.  But more importantly, Metro Vancouver has regulated off-road diesel machinery since 2011, but the FVRD has failed to follow suit.  All the older polluting equipment that can no longer operate in Metro are now in – you guessed it – Abbotsford and Chilliwack, spewing a far more toxic brew than the incinerator ever will.  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black…


(Note: for whatever reason, the links don’t show up on this document unless you happen to run your cursor over them…I need an infusion of geekiness to fix this!)

Written by enviropaul

January 7, 2014 at 5:36 pm