March 15, 2018

Rail Ties Be Wise continues to fight the burning of contaminated rail ties in our community.  We’re active on several fronts.

Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) With our West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL) lawyers Erin Gray and Bill Andrews, we have pursued our appeal with the EAB to the fullest extent possible in our circumstances.  An oral hearing was scheduled to take place in Williams Lake beginning April 30, 2018 and lasting 4 weeks.  The cost of such a hearing would be far beyond our ability to pay.  Therefore we applied for a written hearing.  Since all the parties have filed their statements of points, all the arguments are already known and we believe a protracted oral process is unwarranted.  It would basically rehash the arguments, a big waste of taxpayer funding for lawyers and scarce Ministry of Environment staff.

Our request for a written hearing has been granted, on the basis that the cost of the oral process would unfairly disadvantage us.

BC Hydro’s contract with Atlantic Power(AP) The current Electricity Purchase Agreement between AP and BC Hydro expires in April of this year.  Hydro applied for a one-year extension of that contract, meaning they have not decided whether they will continue to buy AP’s output long term.  The current contract was completed before the Clean Energy Act was passed, but a new contract would have to conform. Under the Clean Energy Act, BC Hydro is required to meet at least 93% of its load for planning purposes with “clean or renewable” fuel.  Biomass in the form of wood waste is explicitly within the definition of “clean or renewable”, but the BC Utilities Commission must decide whether that includes railroad ties.  In our view, the fact that railroad ties are treated with either creosote or pentachlorophenols clearly makes them neither clean nor renewable.

The extension has been granted, with the proviso that no railroad ties are to be burned during its term.  During this time, BC Hydro will develop a biomass energy strategy and make decisions on longer-term biomass EPA renewals.

Local Politics  Municipal elections are coming up October 20 of this year, but the campaigning is sure to begin any day now.  If a new Mayor and Council were to reverse the City’s endorsement of burning railroad ties, AP would have a much harder time claiming social license.  Candidates need to hear from every person who doesn’t want our town to become the rail tie burning capital of Canada!  They need to hear that contaminating our air to solve CN’s rail tie disposal problem and AP’s fuel supply problem is not acceptable.  They need to hear that Williams Lake does not want to be known as the place where millions of creosote-soaked railroad ties are stockpiled and burned each year. They need to hear that the young families, the doctors, the teachers, the entrepreneurs and the retirees we need to attract to keep our community viable will not move to the rail tie disposal capital of Canada.  They need to hear that many families are actively planning to move away if rail ties are burned here.  They need to hear that the Mt. Polley disaster has destroyed our confidence in regulators to protect our environment from mismanagement and poor oversight.

They need to hear that their position on railroad ties will determine how you vote.  Get active in this election.  Raise the issue at candidate forums, in letters to the Tribune, with your neighbours and co-workers, on social media.


Rail Ties Be Wise Financial Summary

Donations raised from October-December 2016 $ 9149.35
Donations since December 2016 $ 2469.85
Total donations to date $11,619.20

WCEL lawyers have been representing us since our appeals were begun.  Their Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund (EDRF) has covered approximately 50% of billed hours.

EDRF grant $9218.30
RTBW funds paid toward legal costs $9237.71
Donated lawyer hours (approximate) $8116.00
Funds remaining in RTBW Credit Union account $2381.49

Since our Credit Union account and GoFundMe campaign were opened in October, 2016, Rail Ties Be Wise has been active on several fronts.

  • A day-long celebration of clean air on Oct 2 was volunteer-run using totally donated materials.
  • Legal steps, including appeals to Atlantic Power’s permit to burn rail ties, were initiated in Fall 2016.
  • Information pamphlets, website and facebook pages shared information on the rail tie burning issue and developments.
  • Door-to-door canvassing raised awareness.
  • A petition opposing the burning of rail ties gathered 1500 signatures.


We are extremely grateful to WCEL, our donors and supporters for hanging in with us through this slow process.  As a community, we will protect our air and our health from the folly of burning rail ties in BC.




The Clean Energy Act

Dedicated Rail Ties Be Wise volunteers and our lawyers Bill Andrews and Erin Gray have been working hard behind the scenes to prevent Williams Lake from becoming the rail tie burning capital of Western Canada. Our appeal of the permit allowing Atlantic Power (AP) to burn rail ties is ongoing, and now we can tell you about a hopeful new development.

The Clean Energy Act requires that wood burned to produce energy for purchase by BC Hydro must be “clean wood”.  As we read the Act, rail ties simply cannot be clean wood.  Therefore, BC Hydro should be prohibited from buying energy produced by burning rail ties. We have asked the Utilities Commission to consider whether BC Hydro would be violating this Act if it accepts rail tie burning in a renewed Energy Purchase Agreement with AP.  (The current EPA expires in April 2018.)

We have reason to be cautiously optimistic that the Commission will agree with our plain language reading of the Act. In a recent decision, the Commission permitted a new biomass plant to be built, but prohibited it from burning rail ties to produce energy.

If BC Hydro signs an EPA with AP even though AP will burn rail ties, we can argue to BC Utilities Commission that such an agreement violates the Act and should therefore be invalid. Our lawyer Bill Andrews, who regularly appears before the Commission on behalf of the Sierra Club of Canada, has agreed to argue this case.

If we are successful, this will set a precedent for all of British Columbia. The decision will mean that nowhere in British Columbia can a plant burn huge volumes of rail ties to make energy for sale to BC Hydro. The Act is crafted to ensure this, and RTBW is working to make sure that this intent is followed through. Other jurisdictions, such as Washington, Oregon and Saskatchewan, have already banned the burning of rail ties. It’s time for British Columbia to follow suit; the Clean Energy Act’s intent is there and the Williams Lake public certainly welcome this affirmation so we can all breathe easier.

Note: Here’s why we say Williams Lake could become the rail tie burning capital of Western Canada: the Ministry of Environment permit would allow Atlantic Power to burn rail ties as up to 50% its fuel annually.  AP has stated that they will burn at least 15%, which is equivalent to the number rail ties replaced by CN Rail in Western Canada each year.

Study on Rail Tie Disposal: Destination Williams Lake!

Williams Lake is set to be the destination for nearly all of Canada’s waste rail ties, according to University of Victoria Environmental Law student, Andhra Azevedo, who just released the following report on the burning of railroad ties in Canada. Rail Ties Be Wise remains deeply concerned about the impact this will have on our community’s health and reputation. We are also very worried about resulting impacts on property values and future attraction of professionals such as doctors to this community.

Azevedo examines the disposal of rail ties in the US and Canada, mentioning that the safest means of disposal is toxic waste incineration, which burns them at very high temperatures, and is not available in Williams Lake. The definition of renewable energy excludes such practices as burning rail ties in some states, such as Oregon and Washington.

As Williams Lake is situated in a topographic bowl, regular temperature inversions cause pollutants to be trapped in the valley for longer periods and thus increase the concentration of pollutants we breathe relative to other situations, where winds might disperse them better.

Rail Ties Be Wise does not want Williams Lake to consume the waste of toxic rail ties for all of Canada. We seek to protect the air we breathe, our reputation, and our healthy community. This is not clean energy.


Click to read the Azevedo Study

To the Williams Lake City Council

February  6, 2017

To:  Mayor and Council, Williams Lake


We are Rail Ties Be Wise (RTBW) and we are supporting community members in their appeals to both recent permit amendments concerning the burning of rail ties in our town.

The Province has amended two of Atlantic Power’s permits. One process was opened to public input; the other was not.

Permit 8808 allowing AP to burn rail ties.

The permit that was subject to public input, the ‘boiler permit’, authorized the presence of a number of new airshed pollutants as a result of burning railroad ties.  The Province found that the increases to air pollution, while significant, would be within air quality guidelines when rail ties are burned as 50% of the feedstock. Therefore the permit was issued.

One major issue that the appeals to 8808 raise is this: the modelling done by Atlantic Power is based on 2001 trial burns when 100% rail ties were burned for one hour per day for three days. Since AP in its application asked to burn up to 50% rail ties, all the models used the raw data from that trial burn and divided the results by two. The modelling therefore was done based on burning rail ties at a maximum 50% at any given time.

However, the new boiler permit allows for the company to burn up to 50% rail ties per year. Thus, it is entirely legal for AP or any company that buys the plant to burn more than 50% on a given day, so long as the amount of rail ties that they burn does not exceed 50% per year.

This is a significant change from what we have been told during the amendment process.  AP has stated they only want to burn 0.8 – 1.2 million ties / year but they have been authorized to burn upwards of 4 million ties / year.

Of course, we are concerned about the increased varieties and levels of pollutants in the airshed.  A summary of these concerns is also attached to this letter, as they have been previously published on our website: railtiesbewise.ca

Permit 8809 governing the disposal of boiler ash

The other permit regulates the landfill where AP dumps the waste ash from the boiler. This permit has been amended several times with no opportunity for public involvement.

In the 8809 permit amendment process, AP advised the Province that “the agricultural/residential soil standard” for dioxins was 0.00035 milligrams/kilogram (mg/kg). The 2001 trial burn reported that there was a >30-fold increase in dioxin/furan concentrations in ash from 23.8 picograms/gram (pg/g) to 788 pg/g (clean wood vs treated wood ash) when 100% rail ties were burned.   A 50% treated wood fuel supply is estimated to produce ash with 394 pg/g, which is equivalent to 0.000394 mg/kg.  AP subsequently advised that the industrial land use criterion is more suitable, and the rail tie ash is predicted to be below level.

It is undisputed that the ash pile will have a higher concentration of dioxins and furans. Yet neither the Province nor AP ever considered the safety of the ‘fly ash’ — that is the ash that is blown from the ash landfill onto neighbouring vegetation, waterways, residences, businesses and people who frequent the area.

A number of people who live and work near the ash landfill have approached our group. Some residents on 11th Avenue and 12th Avenue report seeing ash land on their cars and lawns in the mornings. Some workers at the mill near the ash landfill tell us that their cars are often covered by ash when they leave work. Residents tell our group that they are concerned that at least some of this fly ash is probably from the ash landfill.

On this basis, we are concerned that the ash landfill will carry elevated concentrations of dioxin/furans such that fly ash may adversely affect nearby residents. No scientific study has been done to determine the safety of this fly ash.

As well, what will happen to the property values of the houses nearby, if the fly ash is found to have adverse effects on people or property? These concerns are not addressed.

The Province has applied to dismiss all parts of our appeals that refer to the ash landfill.


Community concerns

The Province’s permit allows for burning up to 50% rail ties a year, and this will make Williams Lake the main site in Western Canada for burning ties. Waste rail ties from Saskatchewan, where they are not allowed be burned even in their coal plants, will be shipped here. The Province’s permit did not have to consider if, for instance, Williams Lake has the capacity to respond to an operational failure causing excess pollution to be discharged (as happened at the Swan Hills Alberta hazardous waste incineration plant). The Province’s permit also did not consider if the City of Williams Lake is equipped to respond if the ash landfill, with its elevated concentrations of dioxins and furans, were to slide into the River Valley.

To this end, in the appeals that our group is putting forward, we are asking that AP set aside an emergency fund in the case of an environmental disaster. This fund will ensure that if there were an environmental emergency in which clean-up costs exceeded insurance coverage, then there would be funds available to help the town recuperate. (note: Swan Hills clean up costs are currently projected at $71 million)

Finally, we have some questions for City Government:

  • The Province’s permit does not include a risk assessment. Meaning, they did not consider the potential for an environmental disaster and the capacity of the Province or the City to handle any such disaster. This group has been advised by environmental lawyers that such risk assessment is usually done in coordination between the company and local governments, to ensure there is a safety or emergency plan in place. Because this industry is located within City limits, has the City reached out to develop such a plan with AP?
  • In the case of an environmental disaster, could the City be held responsible for the cost of a clean up?
  • The City of Williams Lake Official Community Plan prohibits development within 100m of an escarpment without the approval of an engineer. The area north of the ash existing landfill is a steep escarpment above the Williams Lake River. Has an engineer for the City ever approved the landfill location? Since the ash landfill, under the amended permit 8808, will significantly change in composition once rail ties are burned, will a City engineer review the location of this landfill to ensure that it is stable and safe to remain there? If a landslide were to happen on that escarpment, who would be responsible for clean up? Could the City be liable for not getting an engineer to approve the location of the landfill or to review if its current location is safe?
  • Given that Williams Lake experiences frequent weather inversions which trap pollutants like those that will be emitted from burning railroad ties, will the City require that AP commit to refraining from burning treated wood during those incidents?
  • Given that there are no background data on the ambient levels of some pollutants (e.g. SO2) in our airshed, will the City require that AP establish a more comprehensive air quality monitoring and reporting program to accurately measure the impact of burning railroad ties?

This group loves Williams Lake. Some of us live within City limits and others live outside the town’s boundaries, but we all call Williams Lake home. The Province issued the permits that would make Williams Lake the rail-tie burning capital of western Canada, without considering some important implications (like the fly ash and risk assessments). This designation brings liability that we fear is too big for this town to handle. We are concerned that burning rail ties will damage our reputation as a healthy place to live, and make it harder to attract new families, professionals and retirees.  We want to make sure this beautiful town is able to remain as vibrant and flourishing as it is now.

Please let us know if you have any questions about any of these issues.

Thank you for your attention to this crucial issue.

Respectfully submitted,

Patricia Weber

Rail Ties Be Wise


For background on our concerns about emissions from the ash boiler permit 8808, we are attaching the following document, previously published on our website www.railtiesbewise.ca:

Backgrounder:  How to Make our Inversions Even Worse



For background re the ash disposal permit 8809, we are attaching the following documents.

  1. Permit Amendment 8809 dated September 16, 2016
  2. Ash Landfill Closure Plan dated September 22, 2011. Relevant sections are:
    • Golder geotechnical report at p 55 of the Closure Plan
    • Original permit dated February 22, 1991 at p 35 of the Closure Plan
    • Permit amendment dated October 21, 2010 at p 33

How to Make our Inversions Even Worse

The alarming pall of pollution hanging over Williams Lake and Quesnel last week was a graphic illustration of our vulnerability to temperature inversions. The Ministry of Health issued an Air Quality Advisory “due to high concentrations of fine particulate matter that are expected to persist until weather conditions change.”

So what is this fine particulate matter and how does it affect us? Environment Canada says it is “composed of minute solid particles and tiny liquid droplets that remain suspended in air. It is emitted directly to air from cars, trucks, home firewood-burning, industry, forest fires and waste burning. It can also form in air as a result of reactions involving pollutants such as sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia. ..When inhaled deeply into the lungs, even small amounts of PM2.5 can cause serious health problems… Fine particulate matter can damage vegetation and structures, contribute to haze, and reduce visibility.”


The permit (8808) allowing Atlantic Power (AP) to burn railroad ties in its Williams Lake power plant does not require any change in fuel composition during inversions. Yet, AP’s stack tests demonstrate that burning the creosote-treated ties will introduce sulphur compounds that we have not had to deal with here. And those compounds are among the most damaging fine particles known to science. Other contaminants named above would be added or increased with rail tie burning, so we’d be inhaling far worse than road dust.


Scientists have found that even low levels of particulate matter in the air can heighten the risk of lung and heart disease, even when that exposure is short-term www.bcairquality.ca./health/index.html At most risk are children, seniors, diabetics and those with chronic respiratory diseases.


Looking at the air quality readings for Wed. Jan 25, we discover that PM2.5 concentrations reached the upper limit of acceptable presence in the atmosphere, as established by provincial agencies. So that’s a maximum that’s considered tolerable, not a goal. It can’t even be considered a safe level, because none has been established in scientific studies.


So, what sense does it make to put our vulnerable populations at greater risk by burning rail ties in our narrow, inversion-prone valley?

Do we want to be guinea pigs in a long-term study on the effects of burning railroad ties?

Numerous harmful chemicals and fine particulates will be released into our airshed if Atlantic Power (AP) burns rail ties in their Williams Lake facility. Those same contaminates would be present in the ash added to the existing landfill on Soda Creek Road. The company and the Ministry of Environment (MoE) assure us that concentrations will be so negligible that we are foolish to be concerned.

They are basing this assertion on modelling from a single test burn in 2001. 100% rail ties were burned in that test, and measured levels of chemicals were then divided by two, based on the assumption that no more than 50% ties would be burned at any given time. Because these calculations yielded numbers below provincial air quality guidelines, it is assumed that all is well.

Rail Ties Be Wise has two problems with this. First, the permit allows AP to burn no more than 50% rail ties per year. This does not preclude burning more than that on any given day, so are these calculations valid? Second, is it possible that simply dividing the results by 2 does not give an accurate picture? We agree with the Ministry of Environment meteorologist who recommended that stack testing at the actual maximum burning rate should be undertaken as soon as possible to find out. The permit from MoE does not require this to be done.

We also strongly endorse his recommendation that AP should develop a monitoring system to detect background levels of respiratory irritants (sulphur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and hydrochloric acid) currently present in our airshed. There are no available figures for these. Would adding the “safe” amounts from AP’s stack create dangerous conditions? This too is not addressed in the permit.

A Health Risks Assessment predicted short-term exceedances of air quality guidelines for two dangerous gases, sulphur dioxide and nitrous dioxide, but dismissed their potential for harm. However, Health Canada’s 2016 review of research and information about the effects of sulphur dioxide does not seem to have been considered in that assessment. That information suggests that intermittent spikes in concentrations at lower levels than AP’s permit allows can be harmful to asthmatics, children, unborn children and the elderly. Health Canada recommends that we need new National Ambient Air Quality Objectives.

We agree with Health Canada that further research is needed. In the absence of such research, it makes no sense to subject the people of the Cariboo-Chilcotin to a long-term health experiment.

For a more detailed consideration of these issues, please look at this document. We are grateful to our dedicated volunteers for the many hours they devoted to researching these issues.




Rail Ties Be Wise Responds to Provincial Attempts to Quash Citizens’ Appeal

Williams Lake, BC, Friday January 6, 2017:

Rail Ties Be Wise (RTBW) responded today to the Province of BC’s attempts to strike appeals brought against permits allowing Atlantic Power to burn creosote-treated rail ties as up to 50% of its feedstock in their Williams Lake biomass facility.

Williams Lake residents have every reason to be concerned. Burning creosote-soaked rail ties emits chemicals that pose a risk to human health and the environment. The ash residue will also contain toxic chemicals, as the Ministry of Environment has acknowledged. It nevertheless issued permits without addressing how that ash will be disposed of. There are concerns about the slope stability beneath the current ash landfill; the potential for failure of that ground puts the Fraser River watershed at risk, endangering water quality, salmon and other aquatic life.

The appellants argued that the Province should not have issued the permits without considering all of their implications, and that the appeals should be heard by the Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) in a hearing — not dismissed at this early stage.

The Province specifically argued that parts of the appeals dealing with the rail tie ash should be dismissed on the grounds that these requirements were not significantly changed in the amended permits.  It is precisely because these issues were not considered that the appellants want them raised to the EAB. They want proper scientific investigation before the permits are finalized, and neither the Province nor Atlantic Power has done this.

RTBW is very concerned that the Province is attempting heavy-handed legal maneuvers to thwart Williams Lake residents’ access to the EAB. In response, RTBW is supporting (at their own expense) the appellants in preparing responses to the EAB just to keep the full scope of the appeals alive.

“The actions by the Province are an attempt to out-spend and ultimately outgun residents who don’t want to see Williams Lake become a destination for toxic rail ties,” says RTBW member Patricia Weber. “We love Williams Lake and we want to protect it from a potential environmental disaster.”

It is alarming that the Province is trying to frustrate citizens’ lawful access to appeal this decision. Yet we remain adamant that the EAB needs to review the decisions around burning millions of rail ties here, including the decision to allow more-toxic ash to be dumped on the edge of the WL River Valley.

Rail Ties Be wise continues to organize and prepare for EAB hearings, expected to be announced in the coming weeks. Concerned citizens and supporters can find out more at www.railtiesbewise.ca. Donations to help with the cost of appeals can be made at www.gofundme.com/2q7qdu4 or the Rail Ties Be Wise account at Williams Lake and District Credit Union.

We gratefully acknowledge West Coast Environmental Law for their support through the Environmental Defense Resource Fund.

Province Moves to Strike Ash Pile Appeal


Here is a photo of Atlantic Power’s ash landfill,  located next to the Williams Lake River Valley.

Did you know that when the permit to build the power plant was first granted, the ash landfill was required to be set back at least 60 meters from the slope? In 2012, the ash landfill was at or near its original design capacity. Site plans suggest the landfill was encroaching on this 60 meter set back restriction. So what happened? The Ministry quietly removed the 60 meter buffer during an internal amendment of the permit in 2012 and then they approved a further 15 meter vertical expansion of the landfill. The original 60 meter set back requirement is also missing from the latest ash landfill permit amendment which we have appealed.

This is one reason we are appealing the amended permit regarding the ash landfill. The Ministry have approved toxic rail tie ash to be dumped in a pile that is super close to the edge of an silty embankment where sloughing is a common occurrence. This means the ash could fall into the Williams Creek and go into the Fraser River. The heart of our appeal of the ash permit is that the Ministry should have at least considered these factors when deciding to renew AP’s permit this past fall.

What is the Province’s response to our concerns? They are asking the Environmental Appeal Board to dismiss our appeal of the ash landfill permit on the grounds that the composition of the ash landfill is not going to change when rail tie ash is dumped into the ash landfill. However, tests commissioned by AP (RWDI Modelling Study, Table 8) contradict this assertion.

We are fighting the Province’s application to deny our right to appeal. West Coast Environmental is helping to cover expenses for Erin Gray, our lawyer, to respond to this application. We will probably need more funds. Right now, we are updating our gofundme page and Patricia is in the process of writing up exactly how much we need and why. Also, she will explain what we’ve spent and why. This is a bit of a delay because we are all working on this during our free time. We hope to get something out soon.

Please help if you can with donations to Rail Ties Be Wise at the Williams Lake and District Credit Union or a donation via gofundme at:https://www.gofundme.com/2q7qdu4?ssid=818784996&pos=7