Council considers Ash St. burn and air quality

The contractor on Ash Street had its burn permit expire on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at midnight. Council has not made any further decision regarding the contractors open air burns. / EVAN MATTHEWS

by EVAN MATTHEWS

Before slash pile burning at the six-acre 202 Ash St property can continue, the Village of Valemount plans to consult with local medical professionals and the Provincial Air Quality Meteorologist.

At its Feb. 28 meeting, Council received an administrative report from Valemount’s Building and Fire Inspector — and Assistant Fire Chief — Dean Schneider, about an application to conduct open air burning of land clearing debris between Mar. 11 and 27.

The timeframe of the requested burn would fall outside the dates specified in the Village’s open air burning bylaw, which states burn permits will only be issued from Nov. 1 through to Mar. 1 for land clearing projects.

However, a Provincial requirement states burns can not take place within 500 meters of schools in session, which is why the contractor — in working with Schneider — selected Mar. 11-27, as the kids won’t be in school.

From a risk mitigation standpoint, Village CAO Adam Davey said either the Village burns now at a time that “might minimize the risk somewhat” or have the piles remain a fire hazard “into the mid-term.”

Having worked on the file together, Schneider was of the same opinion.

“The burning that’s been taking place at 202 Ash Street… is required as a means of mitigating a potential fire hazard, first and foremost,” Schneider said.

“If those piles remain there through the summer season, given the right conditions, they could pose a significant fire risk to the community,” he said, making note of Fire Chief Rick Lalonde echoing the sentiment.

During the 2015 summer, contractors completely logged the privately owned Ash Street property, resulting in an extensive amount of slash and debris piles, according to Schneider’s report.

In late 2016, the property owners hired a contractor to burn the debris and received a permit, but a thermal inversion trapped the smoke and caused a thick smog increasing particulate matter to hazardous levels. The Village revoked the burning permit and the contractor was ordered to stop burning. Due to their size, the piles smouldered for several days.

Valemount was under an air quality advisory for six days, while the air quality was listed as hazardous. The Province said the smog was compounded by increased wood burning by residents during several minus 30 degree days.

“I will admit the initial burning that took place prior to Christmas… didn’t go off as well as expected,” said Schneider, pointing to the inversions.

“I understand the concerns from residents,” he said.

From a risk mitigation standpoint, Village CAO Adam Davey said either the Village burns now at a time that “might minimize the risk somewhat” or have the piles remain a fire hazard “into the mid-term.”

Some Valemount residents made their concerns known during the public comment.

“We’re becoming known as the community with the worst air quality in British Columbia, if not Canada,” said Gord Peters, who lives roughly four blocks from the Ash Street property.

“We seriously have to look at wrestling the needs of the cost to a developer — who already made money by logging that property and selling the logs — to the health of the entire community,” he said.

Councillor Hollie Blanchette asked Schneider at one point about the piles being shipped away to a landfill near Prince George, to which Schneider responded, “It comes down to (being) a huge financial burden to the landowners.”

Schneider says the property owners are aware of the town’s concerns, and have been working with the Village to ensure what happened in December doesn’t happen again.

“If it looks like things are going south, I have no problem shutting it down rather than compromising everyone’s health,” Schneider said.

Council asked about various alternatives to burning, including transporting the piles to a higher elevation and burning, shipping out of town, burning in other locations, burying, but Schneider said none of the alternatives were deemed to be possible — mostly due to liability concerns.

Councillor Owen Torgerson motioned to grant the contractor its burn permit, but with Councillors Peter Reimer and Sandy Salt absent, the vote fell to Coun. Blanchette.

“My biggest concern is the health of our residents,” said Blanchette.

“People are still going to the clinic with health issues, people are on puffers that never have been before, so I cannot vote in favour of this,” which resulted in the motion dying on the floor.

Council made a motion to defer any decision until speaking with a local medical professional about the number of health incidents related to air quality, in addition to its meeting with Provincial Air Quality Meteorologist, Gail Roth.

The contractor’s most recent burn permit expired on the morning of Mar. 1.

There is also a controlled burn north of Canoe View Place planned for sometime in the near future, according to Schneider, though Council may have to make an exception in order for a contractor to burn outside of the bylaw’s specified dates.