Storing railway ties along river a dumb idea

It is ironic that the Armchair Mayor suggested once again ("ACC had provincial approval and was deemed to be no threat to the environment," May 8, 2012) that the ACC project would not have been a threat to the environment on the same day that the Auditor General of Canada issued its report on the 22,000 sites in the Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory.

Storing millions of contaminated railway ties over the life-time of the project so close to the Thompson River was a dumb idea, even if the gasifier might not have been a problem.

In addition to the creosote, a recognized carcinogen, in used railway ties, the railway ballast and ties are a repository for a wide range of contaminants, including brake lining particulates, coal dust, pesticide residue, and hydrocarbons.

In addition to the gasifier component, the ACC proposal included initially three to four acres of storage and tie chipping on a gravelly and sandy flood plain near the Thompson River.

Unless measures would have been taken to prevent the railway ties from contaminating the soil, the ACC site would likely have turned into the same contaminated sites that are evident for rail tie storage in French Island, Wisconsin and Radford, Virginia. Incidentally, the former rail tie storage site in Radford is finally being cleaned up at considerable expense, after the former owner declared bankruptcy.

The reason why the potential contamination of an area subject to flooding and a high water table was not a front page issue during the debate about the ACC proposal is because the Ministry of Environment did not have a permitting and assessment process for this concern. In fact the B.C. government ignored the issue of locating a hazardous waste facility on an area subject to flooding contrary to its own regulations.

Incredible as this may sound, the explanation given by Jason Bourgeois of the Ministry of Environment in a March 3, 2010 email to me about the flood plain issue was as follows: "Since in or about 1992, the intention of section 1(p) of the Hazardous Waste Regulation was to reflect Ministry policy that rail ties treated with wood preservatives (i.e. creosote) are not considered hazardous waste in British Columbia."

So by simply decreeing a material that is universally considered a hazardous waste to not be a hazardous waste, the B.C. Government exempted the ACC project from the flood plain regulations.

If there is any scientific validity to this policy, this begs the question of why used railway ties need to be dealt with at all by incineration or any other waste management process. Why not simply leave them scattered along the railway berm if they are indeed not a hazardous waste? Why was public money raised from a surcharge on our electricity bills (the ICE fund) being allocated to a problem that the B.C. government does not consider to be a problem?

As for the Armchair Mayor's claim that ACC was "run out of town" by "pure fiction" (Jan. 8, 2012), the documents I obtained about the ACC project under the Access to Information Act from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), the federal agency that was partly funding the Kamloops ACC project (still listed on the SDTC website as being located in Ashcroft, Manitoba), suggest a more complex set of reasons for the failure of the project.

On Sept. 30, 2009, an internal SDTC email stated: "as you may be aware, the subject Project has experienced a number of setbacks in project execution besides the recent adverse publicity."

On Oct. 15, 2009, a letter was sent from SDTC to ACC with questions regarding why the problems with the variability of the tar content was not anticipated at the onset of the gasifier design, why it will require an additional year to complete the design, and what confidence there is that the technical challenges will be met.

A Jan. 4, 2010 internal SDTC email stated that "Timon (an SDTC employee) will be the lead in addressing the technical and related assessment" This suggests that technical issues relating to gasification were still unresolved.

On March 9, 2010 SDTC sent ACC a letter stating that the SDTC "will not disburse any further funding until the issues identified are resolved to our satisfaction." These issues cited were: site issues; resolution of permitting for the selected site; re-scoping of the project to a more feasible schedule and financing plan; and the securing of necessary funding to complete the project.

Ten days later, Kim Sigurdson announced that he was pulling the project out of Kamloops. He mentioned there were several factors that led to his decision, but only elaborated on the public opposition to the project. He mentioned nothing about SDTC's decision to stop funding. He also mentioned nothing about the loss of the contract to supply chipped ties to the cogeneration plant at Williams Lake, partly due to the fact that the Williams Lake plant had a surplus of chips from beetle killed wood.

If the Armchair Mayor wishes to review the documents I received from SDTC he is welcome to do so.



Editor's note: The Armchair Mayor says you make some interesting points. He does not disagree that the storage of railway ties is an important environment issue. The gasification technology proposed by ACC was presented as a way to provide environmentally safe disposal rather than the current practice of stockpiling the ties or, worse, simply burning them. Public concern about the project was based in large part on the perception of air pollution through the gasification process, not just on storage at the site. Thanks for a very informative letter.

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