Garbage burning plan 'dangerous' to health, says UBC expert

Vancouver Observer series on incineration

Expect more coughing, smog and respiratory illness if regional garbage incineration plan goes forward, says distinguished UBC scientist

Air pollution expected to worsen with incineration in Vancouver region
Pollution over Metro Vancouver - photo by Susan Gittins

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.

Douw Steyn on air pollution in Vancouver area

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. 

“I say that the incineration source is an eminently controllable one, and one we don’t need to do.  My argument is, the Lower Fraser Valley is actually a poor place to emit pollutants.”

The valley’s mountains traps pollution, especially on hot sunny, summer days, he said.

Lower Fraser Valley airshed

Tipping Point

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.

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