This photo shows the springtime phase of Kinbasket Reservoir when the water table is low, exposing miles of mud flats and sand bars that whip up into dust storms that drift north towards Valemount. /LAURA KEIL

By: Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A petition against BC Hydro’s use of the Kinbasket Reservoir has cropped up in the village of Valemount over concerns about silica dust following the Air Quality Advisory recently issued for the village.

The organizer of the petition, Stuart McKirdy, told The Goat he’s concerned about the health effects of silica dust.

“It’s a serious lung issue. It puts permanent scars deep in your lungs,” he said. “How about the kids that are going to grow up in this for the next 20 years? Long term exposure, that’s serious.”

According to Healthlink BC, exposure to silica dust can cause silicosis, a lung disease that can cause breathing problems and damage the lungs. Silicosis does not have a cure, but it can be managed with medication, says Healthlink BC. 

Exposure to silica dust is particularly a problem for those who work with glass, ceramics, or other jobs that involve crushing rock into fine dust, says the agency. Exposure to the dust can occur indoors or outdoors, and workers in the construction and manufacturing sectors are particularly at risk. However, wearing a mask or other protective equipment can help prevent silica dust from infiltrating the lungs, Healthlink BC says. 

Health concerns about silica dust are why McKirdy has been distributing a petition against BC Hydro in various businesses throughout the Village. He believes that Hydro’s use of the Kinbasket Lake is contributing to air pollution in the area, as low water reservoirs expose more dust that can be blown into Valemount. He also said that he knew of one Robson Valley resident who worked with rock and died from silicosis.

He estimates that his petitions have received at least two dozen signatures. McKirdy said he does not yet know how he will use the petition, but he is hoping to find a lawyer to launch a class action lawsuit against BC Hydro.

However, analyses from B.C. Air Quality show that Valemount’s recent air quality advisories have not been the result of silica dust. Instead, the Village’s poor air quality comes from a high concentration of fine particulate matter, often known as PM2.5. 

PM2.5 is often a mix of smoke, soot, and particles in aerosol, and often comes from wood burning and vehicle emissions, according to Health Canada.  

In an email sent to The Goat this week, BC Hydro cited two different analyses of air quality in the Kinbasket Reservoir which suggested that air quality issues in Valemount are far more likely to be the result of wood smoke rather than silica dust.

The first report, conducted by BC Hydro in 2011 and based on data collected by the Ministry of Environment over a 10-year period, found that PM2.5 levels tend to exceed provincial health guidelines during the winter. 

“This correlates with the use of wood-burning appliances for home heating,” a BC Hydro spokesperson wrote in an email to The Goat. 

In 2013, the Ministry of Environment installed upgraded sampling equipment in the Kinbasket Reservoir drawdown zone with funding from BC Hydro. In 2016, the Ministry used data collected from this equipment to analyze particulate matter, wind speed, wind direction, and temperature. Again, the data showed that most instances of high PM concentration occur in colder months when reservoir sediment is covered with snow and therefore less mobile, BC Hydro said.

Additionally, most days with high particulate matter coincided with low temperatures and low wind speeds – conditions which make it less likely for dust to move into Valemount.

“Local sources of PM are therefore the most likely sources and are primarily smoke from wood burning appliances or open burning, as well as local vehicle traffic,” said BC Hydro. “Reducing the volume of wood smoke being produced in the community could have a significant positive impact on the air quality within the community during the colder months of the year.”

While sand from the Kinbasket Reservoir may impact Valemount’s air quality, these data indicate that it is a minor component of the total particulate matter concentration in the area, the email said.

More recently, a report by Hemmera Envirochem Incorporated commissioned by the Village of Valemount in June 2021 analyzed “dust events” – that is, periods of at least an hour where there was an unusually high concentration of particulate matter in the air, while water levels in the Kinbasket Reservoir were low and strong wind was blowing from the drawdown zone. 

An analysis commissioned by the Valemount Council found that the vast majority of dust events in the village are due to local sources. /HEMMERA ENVIROCHEM INC.

Over the seven-year period analyzed by the report, just 14 dust events occurred. These events only lasted one or two hours, so they did not cause the daily average PM2.5 concentrations to exceed the BC Ambient Air Quality Criteria. Hemmera said that the Village could collect air quality samples during future dust events to quantify the potential health effects of silica dust, but said that dust events from the drawdown zone of the Kinbasket Reservoir will likely be infrequent.

According to Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson, the Village is working with the University of Northern British Columbia and Northern Health Authority to determine how best to proceed with these recommendations.

“With drought-like conditions and lower reservoir levels below average for longer periods, these dust storms will become more frequent,” said Torgerson. “We are working with our partners at UNBC and other communities impacted by the hydroelectric reservoir, like Williston, to see what they have come up with to mitigate concerns.”