By Andru McCracken

Valemount has an extraordinary air quality problem. We have the worst air quality in the province, and we’re putting the region and our province on the map. In red. Geography, weather and available heating methods have conspired to create a toxic situation.

Thankfully, it is easily fixed.

Some background: Valemount’s pollution is not the fault of industry. On cold winter nights when the air quality is worst, the problem is caused by smoke from people’s homes.

No evil industry here, just people trying to stay warm.

Asking people to switch to a cleaner fuel is stupid. Asking them to season their wood, or to build a wood shack is stupid. Living in our valley is like living in a teepee that doesn’t have a flap to open to let the smoke out. Slight reductions won’t help when the flap is closed.

Heating with propane? Heating with electricity? Clean, sure. But these are options for people living in super-insulated homes or for people who have money to burn.

In Valemount, reliable heating fuel is available for free, right outside our doorstep. We live in the forest, so we burn wood.

The Province is now encouraging us to do better and promising help. I hope we don’t see another public education gambit, dubious attempts to ‘raise awareness.’

You don’t try and educate people about fire safety when their house is on fire. You break down the door, pull the people out and douse the fire.

Illustration by Arthur Tanga

My gut feeling is that, left to Province’s usual devices, there will be workshops on clean burning (which few attend), and pamphlets about the risk of smoke (which people will use to start a fire), and we will all die of emphysema by the time there is a measurable impact.

An (un)natural solution
If we had access to natural gas like so many other communities there would be no issue. People here, like everywhere, are equally thrifty and lazy. Give them convenient heat at a reasonable cost and they will pony up for it. But we don’t have the thrifty, easy option of natural gas. Plumbing every home for natural gas, digging up every residential alley, and installing appliances in every home is no quick solution, and it’s nothing close to being less expensive than propane. Its not our solution.

A viable short term solution
We need a quick emergency response that corresponds to the magnitude of the problem. When the air quality is so poor as to affect the health of citizens we need an emergency response: an emergency rate for electricity. At least until such time as the hazard is abated.

We need to do the opposite of what the province and BC Hydro has done with Two Tier Hydro. We need to incentivize heating with electricity when air quality is bad in Valemount. We have the technology, thankfully, with smart meters. We know how much electricity every home uses every hour, we also have constantly updated meteorological data, and air quality data. When air conditions are poor, we issue a stop burning order, and implement the emergency rate. The rate applies to additional electricity used by a household for the duration.
How do stop burning during those times? Simple, fines. If there is an affordable, accessible option, there is no excuse to jeopardize the health of the community.

No doubt, many people will be sore that they can’t burn when an inversion is suffocating the town, the same way smokers were sore when they could no longer pollute schools, then restaurants, then bars. The reality is public health trumps the right to burn, but only when the other options are not crushingly oppressive.

When the province considers the ramifications of exposing an entire population to poor air they will find the missing electricity revenue. It’s in the health budget.

We don’t need to wait to see a spike in respiratory illness and death to confirm this. We shouldn’t have needed the Walkerton Water Tragedy of 2000 to ensure municipal drinking water is safe. In Valemount, young kids, the sick and the elderly shouldn’t be made to suffer needlessly.

As a community we have carried water for the Province on the hydroelectric file for 50 years. We gave up a rich fertile valley for their hydro electricity scheme. Daily, we export our resources, water and timber, without any expectation of return. Surely, on this we can get a break in the interest of our health.

There is a tendency to blame the victim, to blame our community for the problem, to blame the people that find burning wood is the only affordable way to heat their home. But without better options, that blame doesn’t do anyone any good. The province has offered help, they can show they are serious by implementing an emergency hydro rate this winter.