By Sage Birchwater –

Clean air is a gift we have to stand up for and protect. It’s not something we can take for granted.

For those of us involved in the Rail Ties Be Wise campaign, the horrendous wildfire season of 2017 has steeled our resolve to protect our air quality. For long stretches of time during the fires, air quality in Williams Lake soared to over 40 on a scale of one to ten.

We observed firsthand how smoke gets trapped in the valley and builds up because of temperature inversions that don’t allow proper flushing.

Treated_Railroad_Ties (Large)
Treated railway ties. Photo: By Singinginmycar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The smoke-choked air quality was bad enough, but what if that lingering smoke also contained dioxins and furans from burning rail ties?

The Rail Ties Be Wise committee is adamant that Williams Lake not become the rail tie burning capital of Western Canada. The proposal by Atlantic Power Corporation of Boston to import and burn up to four million rail ties per year in its Williams Lake biomass-fuelled energy plant is simply not acceptable.

Satellite images show how smoke from Cariboo-Chilcotin forest fires filled the valleys that make up the topographic landscape of the province, then flowed down these valleys to the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Toxic air created in Williams Lake would follow that same pattern.

I feel more strongly than ever that if Atlantic Power Corporation wants to keep its Williams Lake energy plant solvent, it must do so by burning uncontaminated wood waste produced by the logging and sawmilling industry, not by burning toxic rail ties.

It is easy to see the charm of fuelling the power plant with rail ties for Atlantic Power’s bottom line. Having a higher octane fuel delivered to your door with possible monetary incentives thrown into the mix would be very difficult to refuse. It is also easy to understand the dilemma of railway companies faced with an ever-increasing stockpile of used, decadent rail ties piled alongside train tracks from Winnipeg to Vancouver.

For the citizens of Williams Lake, giving the company permission to burn 50 per cent of its 600,000-tonne annual biomass fuel capacity as rail ties is unacceptable. This would impose an intolerable risk to the community’s health. It would make Williams Lake an undesirable place to live, work, play, and retire. It would be a ticking time bomb waiting for trouble to happen. The smoke choking the valley reminds us of this.

There are a couple of arguments put forward by proponents of the bid to burn rail ties that I refute.

1) Proponents say the equipment at the Williams Lake energy plant is top of the line and is so efficient that very little poisonous material would be emitted into the environment.

2) They also argue that government regulators classify rail ties as non-toxic waste.

On the first point, we all remember what happened at Mount Polley on August 4, 2014. That’s when one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history spilled millions of tonnes of mining effluent and toxins into Quesnel Lake, previously one of the cleanest bodies of fresh water in Canada. This happened under the watchful eye of the BC government, who because of economic constraints and cutbacks, didn’t have enough feet on the ground to do a proper job of monitoring the Mount Polley tailings facility. The fox managing the hen house fell asleep on the job.

For the burning of rail ties and the management of smoke and ash in the Williams Lake valley, we are being asked to trust this same government oversight. What happens when the equipment in the energy plant wears out or becomes less efficient? It is already 25 years old. Is that same wily fox going to be watching?

What happens to the mountainous ash storage facility on the edge of the Williams Lake river valley escarpment? It is already a concern with mostly “clean” ash from the energy plant boiler poised to erode into the Fraser River drainage. What if this ash contained dioxins and furans from burning rail ties?

A friend took film footage of the ash pile recently buffeted by a windstorm. Despite efforts to methodically cover the ash with dirt and gravel, her film documents significant amounts of ash being dispersed by the wind.

And then there is water erosion caused by the occasional deluge of rainfall that impacts our region from time to time. Last spring rivulets of ash were seen streaming down the side of the ash mountain heading for Williams Lake river valley and the Fraser system. Add unfriendly toxins to this cocktail and catastrophe looms.

On the second point of rail ties being classified as non-toxic fuel, this is scientific buffoonery. Weasel words, smoke and mirrors, flawed reasoning, political gymnastics. Officially classifying rail ties as non-toxic fuel doesn’t mean they are any less egregious. It just means there is a problem with the regulatory and classification system. Give us a break. You still don’t want to breathe the smoke from burning rail ties and you certainly don’t want to spread the ash residue on your garden. That’s because they are toxic.

With the aftermath of the worst wildfire season in living memory, our lungs feel heavy from breathing so much smoke.

Questions arise: what if this smoke was laced with toxic particulate matter from burning rail ties? What if there were stockpiles of rail ties in Williams Lake for consumption by the energy plant and wildfires overran the city and caught the ties on fire? This was an immediate thought of many Rail Ties Be Wise committee members.

There are many unknowns, and many questions.

How will the wildfires of 2017 impact the Williams Lake timber supply? How will this massive amount of burned timber affect the volume of saw logs available to the lumber industry? What impact will this have on the availability of sawmill waste and logging waste available to the energy plant?

These are questions that need to be wrestled with as the provincial government ponders Atlantic Power Corporation’s request to burn railway ties.

Our Rail Ties Be Wise committee feels the company doesn’t have the social licence to burn toxic material in its Williams Lake energy plant. The facility was designed and sanctioned by the community to burn uncontaminated wood waste produced by local sawmills. Let’s keep it that way.

The jury is out on whether incinerating discarded rail ties is the best way to dispose of them.

If burning old rail ties must occur then it should take place in a geographic location away from an urban population where the topographical folds in the earth don’t trap toxic smoke for days and weeks at a time.

Swan Hills Alberta is a toxic waste disposal site chosen for that very reason. The facility there has a social licence to process poisonous material. The air flushes freely dispersing the effluent.

Atlantic Power Corporation should do the right thing. As a good corporate citizen, it should voluntarily give up its application to burn rail ties in its Williams Lake power plant, and not jeopardize the health and future of the community.

The British Columbia government and BC Hydro need to work with the company to allow this to happen.

Despite the horrendous wildfire season, resource industry experts are convinced there is plenty of non-toxic wood waste in the Cariboo-Chilcotin to support the energy plant for decades to come.

Rail ties for bio-fuel are not needed and not wanted in Williams Lake.

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the opinion of other RTBW members, or TheGreenGazette.


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