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.