Pollution alerts – heavy smog – respiratory threats. Those aren’t Vancouver’s problems, but those of Los Angeles or Asia’s mega cities. Right?
“People very often say to me, ‘the air here is so clear [in Vancouver]. Look at Beijing – look at New Delhi.’
“Well, if we don’t care – that’s what we will [become],” said UBC air pollution expert Douw Steyn on Thursday.
The South African-born atmospheric sciences professor has long been highly critical of Metro Vancouver plans to burn half a million tonnes of garbage per year as a solution to the region’s growth woes. And he hasn’t minced words.
“A dangerous thing” and “scandalously stupid” have been part of Steyn’s public comments about building incineration in the Lower Fraser Valley's air shed. Of concern, he said, are the health problems from increasing ground-level ozone pollution.
“This pollutant has severe health effects on young and old, but particularly on heavily exercising people and those with respiratory illnesses,” said Steyn Thursday.
UBC professor Douw Steyn standing next to a campus recycling bin.
He has argued that other healthier and more environmentally responsible solutions are available, including “aggressive” approaches to recycling, urban density, and taxes on large vehicles, such as Hummers and Range Rovers.
The Metro Vancouver regional authority, which controls the garbage flow in the region, is now preparing to accept bids from several corporations seeking to cash-in on the big business of burning trash that cannot otherwise be easily recycled, composted, reused or diverted.
The issue is real: one million new residents are expected to make Metro Vancouver home by 2040, ballooning the population to 3.4 million. And more people, means plenty more trash.
To deal with that growing mountain of garbage, Metro Vancouver is now seeking a home for a mega waste-to-energy incinerator. Proposed locations include Squamish Nation / Port Melon, Delta, Vancouver and Nanaimo. More potential sites will be unveiled in April.
According to Steyn, burning garbage emits a toxic brew of volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen that would only add to the many sources of such pollution that are hard to control: our vehicles, factories, and marine vessels.
The valley’s mountains traps pollution, especially on hot sunny, summer days, he said.
On August 17, 2012, motorists listening on their radios heard that air quality was so bad, that a health advisory was being issued. Maple Ridge, Langley, Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Surrey and Burnaby were put on smog alert.
Despite decades of air quality improvements in the region, new research shows average levels of ozone pollution are starting to level or increase slightly, according to Metro Vancouver.
Worse, global warming is expected to double the number of air-health-alert days from three per year to seven, later this century according to new research.
The effects won’t be even. Steyn, says the changing atmospheric chemistry will mean the harmful plumes will increasingly float east to Chilliwack and Hope.
Residents there who are susceptible to air quality issues can expect increased shortness of breath, inflammation, even death among elderly or those with pre-existing lung conditions, says Steyn.
Speaking out about these issues has cost Steyn funding for his air quality research.
In 2010, Metro Vancouver’s air-quality division pulled its funding from Steyn’s pollution study, saying his objectivity was questioned after he described the region’s incineration plans as “scandalously stupid.”
“They didn’t like the fact that I was opposing incineration,” said Steyn.
“They wanted an excuse to get back at me – very vindictive.”
Steyn, who has studied the Fraser Valley’s air quality for 30 years, has continued to speak out. He lectures internationally, and his “6 Reasons Not to Incinerate” presentation is available on Youtube.
Standing beside UBC’s myriad of recycling boxes, Steyn says we should all ask ourselves if something really is garbage before we toss it into a garbage bin.
In his household of three, he said, he has reduced his trash to just one weekly shopping bag. Mattresses can be recycled, paint cans returned, and metals taken to metal dealers.
His biggest beef though is spent batteries.
“Sorry for going on about batteries, but that is one of the single biggest issues we’ve got to deal with,” said Steyn.
Tossed batteries, he said, put heavy metals in our waste stream, and if burnt by incineration, expose us to toxic pollution.
Workplaces can also do more to divert garbage and encourage car pooling. UBC, which sees 40,000 commuters per day, recently gave all students access to transit passes for just $35 per month. This dramatically increased public transport, said Steyn.
If incinerator must be built
Begrudgingly though, if an incinerator has to be built, build it far away from people, he added.
He suggested somewhere in the Fraser Uplands, about 100km off the highway between 100 Mile House to Quesnel.
He also cautioned Metro Vancouver against any long-term garbage-burning contracts.
“If he have to build an incinerator in the short term, I would be absolutely certain not to get ourselves in locked into an installation that’s going to be with us for 35 years and we have to feed the beast.”
Sources of smog-forming pollution
Graphic from Metro Vancouver.
With files from Mike Chisholm