Young mothers, seniors, people living with respiratory ailments upset with Council’s decision to extend Ash Street burns
by EVAN MATTHEWS
When Melanie Brown found out she was having premature babies, medical professionals gave her steroids to improve the lung development and capacity of her yet-to-be-born twins.
Having just arrived at their new home on 14th Avenue, the babies have yet to experience the smoke of the Ash Street slash piles.
With the Village’s go-ahead to light up, the Ash Street burn contractor will move forward with the controlled burns in order to dispose of the wood waste once and for all, but only when the Venting Index (VI) will allow for it.
At its Mar. 14 meeting, Valemount Council voted in favour of granting an Open Air Burn Permit to the property owners and burning contractor of 202 Ash Street.
Though the property owners have yet to speak publicly or address the issue head on, Dave Craig — the Ash Street burn contractor — spoke to Council at its last meeting.
“I feel I’m being crucified for what I’ve done,” said Craig, referring to the December 2016 burn. During the first 12 days in December, the VI read as “poor,” meaning Craig was bound by Provincial legislation not to burn until the VI read good.
When The Goat reached out to 202 Ash Street representative Shirley Sander for comment via phone and email, she did not respond by presstime.
During this stretch, Valemount experienced its longest Provincially-issued air quality advisory which lasted seven days. When conditions were at their worst, the air quality was listed as hazardous and were worse than Beijing’s.
“I’m sorry, we had a very cold temperature inversion which dropped the smoke levels to cause a bunch of problems,” said Craig.
Many residents including mothers with young babies and people living with respiratory ailments were in attendance to oppose, in addition to having submitted written letters to Council.
“It’s just common sense that no baby should have to breathe in smoky air,” says Brown.
Brown can see the slash piles outside her bedroom window.
“My parents live outside of town, so as soon as I see a fire started I’m packing a bag,” she says.
“The medical staff suggested if I smell any smoke in my house to find a different place to stay with my babies,” Brown says, adding that as long as there is smoke — whether because of an active fire or smouldering slash pile — she won’t be returning home; even if it means waiting until Jun. 1.
During the December burns, Brown says the family’s clothes and linens smelled like smoke. Not surprisingly, Brown isn’t the only mother on 14th Avenue concerned for her kids.
Courtney Lewis lives on 14th Avenue and is a mother of two. Now with a two-week-old-newborn, she writes in a letter addressed to Council that she doesn’t trust the burn contractor or Village’s experts to follow and enforce regulations, after witnessing the December burn.
During the first 12 days of December 2016, the Ventilation Index (VI) read as poor. Bound by Provincial regulation, the contractor was not to burn unless the index was “good” on the day of the scheduled burn, and “good” or “fair” on the second day the debris is anticipated to release smoke.
A burn took place, contributing to Valemount’s “hazardous” air quality at the time, in addition to wood stoves and a thermal inversion.
The Goat learned this week the B.C. Conservation Officer Service charged both the burn contractor and the property owner for burning within 500 metres of a public institution during the December 2016 burn.
On Mar. 3, in a private presentation to Council, Provincial Air Quality Meteorologist Gail Roth presented preliminary air quality data from 2016. She presented charts and graphs showing Valemount being the worst air quality comparatively to other communities, noting the major source of pollution to be wood burning, notably residential stoves.
Beth Maclean lives on 7th Avenue, and says while she’s had asthma all her life, she had been nearly symptom free for 25 years prior to December.
“It’s unconscionable,” says Maclean. “My asthma has never been so bad. When they burn I’m waking up at 2:30 AM unable to breathe. If I was older, I would be dead.”
Many others submitted written accounts of health complications, asking the Village to put onus on the property owner to find an alternative solution.
During the most recent February burn, the VI was again listed as poor.
The VI is issued by Environment Canada comes out of McBride, which is the closest location with equipment to provide a VI index to Valemount. Provincial regulations say the Venting Index must rated “good” on the day a burn is started and forecast to be “good” or “fair” on the following day.
“People have called the Ministry and they’ve been out on site and they’ve been monitoring everything,” Craig continued.
In December, smoke from the slash piles socked in the town and contributed to hazardous levels of particulate matter. The burn permit was revoked, but the piles still need to be discarded before the heat of summer makes them a fire hazard.
Wait just a second…
The Village’s Open Air Burning bylaw reads, “Permits will only be issued from Nov. 1 to Mar. 1 for land clearing projects.
“For land clearing projects commenced during periods other than cited… land clearing material and wood debris shall be hauled to approved land fill or transfer sites,” it continues.
Valemount resident Gord Peters says even after being slapped with a fine, the contractor disregarded the VI most recently during the February burn, in which the VI for Feb. 28 read poor.
“The Village is allowing an extension on a contract to a contractor who has contravened the bylaws and regulations?” Peters asked.
Peters lives on 8th Avenue, just a few blocks from the burn site.
While spending time combing through the legalities and regulations, Peters stressed his main priority is emphasizing the importance of public concern, as he cited health complications of many, the overall benefit to children’s health and wellbeing, and effect on quality of life.
“I live here. I’m allergic to wood smoke, but I get by despite what goes on in the town normally. My eyes get a little red, but whatever,” says Peters.
“But when the town is under siege, there is just no where to go. It has to be stopped. The reason the bylaw was put in place was to protect the residents open air burning, or excessive wood smoke,” he says.
Some within the community, including Peters, have said they will be seeking legal counsel.
The Goat learned this week that Craig and the property owner were charged during the December 2016 burn for burning within 500 metres of a public institution, though Conservation says the contractor had breached a number of Provincial burning regulations. Fines generally range anywhere from $200 to $600, according to Conservation, saying the tickets act more as a warning than a punishment, though in certain instances a contractor would have to appear in court.
A person who contravenes the Open Burning Smoke Control Regulation is liable on conviction to a fine of up to $200,000, according to Conservation.
The property owners and contractor were charged under the Provincial Open Burning Smoke Control Regulations.
Now aware the Provincial requirement states burns cannot take place within 500 meters of schools in session, the contractor — in working with Bylaw Officer Dean Schneider — selected Mar. 11-27, as students will be on Spring Break, and won’t be in school.
As of Tuesday, Mar. 21, despite being granted the burn permit extension on Mar. 14, the Venting Index has not allowed for the contractor to conduct a control burn, legally, though the extension lasts until Jun. 1.
Moving forward, the contractor can choose any day up until Jun. 1 to burn the slash piles, providing the Venting Index (VI) is good and class is not in session. Providing regulations are followed, the property owners nor the contractor would be in violation of any Provincial regulations or Village bylaws, according to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, though the students go back to school on Monday, Mar. 27.
The main thing for the property owner and contractor this time around is to make sure they are in compliance with regulations pertaining to the VI, as well as regulations pertaining to appropriate distances between the slash piles and existing structures, according to Conservation.
Becoming a trend?
Wood stoves are necessity for many, and a major concern of the community is this burn permit extension won’t be a one-time deal, according to Peters.
“There are other projects happening — like the WhisperCreek Homes project at the end of Dogwood Street — they’ve got 30 acres of trees and slash piles to burn, but they’ve been waiting,” says Peters.
“Does this case (on Ash St) set a precedent? Does anybody who has a perceived fire hazard get special permission to burn?” he asks.
However, to avoid this issue in the future, CAO Adam Davey says the Village is working to amend the Open Air Burning bylaw, so it is based more on daily environmental conditions than it is on the time of year.
Alternative options explored
Though Peters had prepared alternative options for Council to consider toward the end of his delegation, his 15-minute window came to a close, and Mayor Jeannette Townsend instructed Peters his presentation was over. Peters never went through any alternative options.
At different points, Council asked the “Village experts” about various alternatives to burning, including transporting the piles to a higher elevation and burning there, shipping out of town to landfills, burning in locations outside of town, or even burying the debris.
But Bylaw Enforcement Officer Dean Schneider said none of the alternatives were deemed to be possible — mostly due to liability concerns and cost. According to Schneider, the property owners are aware of the town’s concerns and are working with the Village to ensure what happened in December doesn’t happen again.
When The Goat asked if the Village ever asked the owner of the property to transport the debris at their own cost, Village CAO Adam Davey replied via email, “Yes – many options were explored and attempted over the previous year, however, these options appear to be no longer available to the landowner.”
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.”
One alternative Peters had prepared in his delegation is an innovative technique called air curtain burning.
Many municipalities in B.C. have banned burning within municipal limits, with the air curtain technique being the typical exception.
Air Burners Inc. makes air curtain burners, also called FireBoxes, which were originally designed as a pollution control device. The device’s main objective is to reduce particulate matter, according to its website.
A company called Timber Kings, based in Terrace, rents the units, so innovative accessibility options are available. The Air Burners Inc. website explains what FireBoxes are and how they work.
A FireBox looks like a Sea-Can, and has two sizing options. It confines burning pollution.
“Clean waste wood is loaded into the FireBox, and an accelerant such as diesel is poured onto the wood and the pile ignited.
“Similar to starting a campfire, the air curtain is not engaged until the fire has grown in strength or the air curtain may blow the fire out.
“Once the fire has reached suitable strength, usually within 20 minutes, the air curtain is engaged and then runs at a steady state throughout the burn, while waste wood is loaded at a consistent rate,” it reads, also noting the smallest machines can burn upwards of 2 tonnes of waste wood per hour. Though this was just one alternative, it was left unexplored.
In the end, Council kept coming back to one solution: burn the piles, and while the topic has people on both sides of the fence, Council does have supporters.
Everett Craig, a Valemount resident and son of the burn contractor, says many of the people in opposition to the burn are being hypocritical.
“Is a couple weeks of smoke from a slash (pile) like any worse for one’s health than the accumulation of wood stoves around town for eight months of the year for a person’s entire life?” Asks Craig, noting Roth’s point: residential wood smoke is as much to blame as the slash piles.
“I understand people have had health issues and I’m sorry for them. I understand people’s concern for their loved ones health, but I feel this whole thing has been blown out of proportion,” he says.
Some who share the Craig’s opinion are pointing to people’s willingness to sit around campfires. Isn’t it the same thing?
Not according to Provincial Air Quality Meteorologist, Gavin King.
While the size of the particulate matter from a slash pile or a campfire may be measured in the same category (PM2.5), King says because a slash pile is so much larger than a campfire it will produce more particulate matter.
In essence, King says the size of the pollution is the same, but a slash pile simply produces more pollution than a campfire, translating to poorer air quality.
During the 2015 summer, contractors completely logged the privately owned Ash Street property, resulting in an extensive amount of slash and debris piles. The piles remained on the property through the 2015-16 winter, and again over the 2016 summer. In December 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 within Village limits.
The Village — at the time, acting Mayor Hollie Blanchette — revoked the burning permit and the contractor was ordered to stop burning. Due to 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 at its worst point. The Province said increased wood burning by residents during several minus 30-degree days compounded the smog.
What happens next is up to you
Without minimal resource or “eyes” in the area, B.C. Conservation says it’s up to residents to keep their eyes on the daily venting index, and to report what they see if the contractor is out of compliance.