No wood stove would pass a basic vehicle emissions test, yet the Comox Valley allows them to burn day and night, for weeks and months, with almost no regulation, polluting our air and posing serious public health risks
This article was updated twice on Nov. 2
The Comox Valley has a dirty little secret, and we’ve only recently begun to acknowledge it. The prevalence of wood stoves has made our air quality one of the worst in British Columbia.
It’s estimated that more than a third of Comox Valley households have some type of wood-burning appliance that gets fired up in the fall and then idles all day long, week after week for the next five or six months. And they cause more pollution and risks to public health than any other heat source.
For many, wood burning is part of the northern culture, a lingering nostalgia for living self-sufficiently off the land or a childhood memory of the coziness of gathering around a wood stove. It’s a logger’s ritual of gathering, chopping and stacking wood.
But for others, wood smoke is a nightmare that causes respiratory diseases and increases the risk of heart attacks. It means spending money on air purifiers and medications, or losing money from taking sick time off work.
Comox Valley air quality was among the province’s top 10 worst for fine particulate matter (called PM2.5) for the last six years in a row, according to the BC Lung Association. Courtenay was the only one of 13 communities in the Georgia Strait Air Zone that failed to meet Canadian standards for PM2.5.
The Comox Valley regularly has three or four multi-day air quality advisories every winter, while Vancouver might have one and more often none.
“One only has to drive around older neighborhoods or low-lying areas in the winter, especially in the evening, to see that there is a lot of smoke coming from wood stoves,” says Jennell Ellis, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley.
Comox Valley municipalities have started to address the problem.
Cumberland has banned the installation of wood burning appliances — stove and fireplaces — in all new construction. The Comox Valley Regional District has offered incentives to upgrade old, uncertified wood stoves to cleaner, healthier options. Courtenay Council passed a regulation last winter about moving in this direction (low interest loans, not incentives), but it is not in place.
The Town of Comox has taken no action on wood stoves yet. But Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott announced at an air quality information session this week that he expects that to “change in the next three months.”
“I’m hoping to have it brought up quite soon after the new council comes together,” Arnott told Decafnation after the meeting. “My feeling is that this council will want to act on it … So, while I don’t have consensus at this time I’m confident we can work something out.”
The situation is urgent for many people.
A 2017 multi-year heart attack study conducted in Kamloops, Prince George and Courtenay showed that short-term exposure to fine particulates increased heart attack risk in seniors by 6 percent, and by 19 percent when exposed to wood burning.
Ellis said the young and elderly are most at risk of health problems from wood smoke.
Studies have shown that smoke from a wood stove releases carcinogenic toxins equivalent to 1,000 cigarettes.
“Inhaling wood smoke is secondhand smoke,” Ellis said. She adds that PM2.5, the harmful fine particulate in wood smoke is easy to inhale, but difficult to exhale, which leads to deep respiratory problems.
North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns has yet to mandate any restrictions on wood burning devices, but she has noted their accompanying health risks.
“It’s understanding the fact that there is no healthy level of air pollution. And exposure over time does impact chronic disease progression,” Enns has said.
FURTHER READING: How to read the Comox Valley air monitor readings
Perhaps it’s that pioneering tradition of burning wood for heat that clouds our judgement of its negative environmental impacts.
“There’s no wood stove that would meet a vehicle emissions test, yet we allow many of them to idle where we live, every day and next to schools,” Ellis told Decafnation via email.
“And if someone isn’t burning well, we end up investing taxpayer’s money into education and then enforcement if they still ignore best practices. No other heating appliance requires this kind of ongoing investment. No other heating appliance has so many proven health impacts,” she said.
What are the solutions
Ellis told Comox residents attending one of Breathe Clean Air’s roving information sessions at the Comox United Church Oct. 30, that to make a transition from wood stoves affordable requires a two-part strategy:
One, incentivize and regulate a transition out of wood stoves completely; and, two keep BC Hydro rates down.
But, the overall goal is to really transition people to cleaner heat sources, particularly in populated areas which will require education, incentives and regulation/enforcement. It is also important that people who are being impacted by neighbourhood smoke have bylaws available to deal with that, just as they do with undue amounts of noise or other disturbances.
“The solution is definitely not to move people to newer wood stoves, especially in more densely populated areas,” she said. “A recent study from the UK showed that an eco-certified stove, operating at factory testing levels, puts out more fine particulates than 18 Modern Diesel Passenger cars.”
Ellis diagramed the rating of heating sources for her Comox audience.
Wood fireplaces are the worst emitters of PM2.5, plus they suck the heat of a house, making them the most inefficient heat sources. Pellet burning stoves are slightly better than wood burners. They emit 27 pounds of annual pollution. Oil furnaces emit a quarter-pound of pollution, and gas a sixteenth of a pound.
Electric powered heating devices are the best, emitting zero pollution annually, she said. And electric heat exchanger systems are the best, drawing a minimum amount of power.
Ellis advocates for a Valley-wide approach, with consistent regulations across jurisdictions. Right now, the Valley’s four municipal governments all have different bylaws governing wood stoves and open burning of yard waste.
Cumberland, Comox and Courtenay all ban backyard fires to burn leaves or other debris, but it is allowed in regional electoral areas A, B and C.
Ellis said there are methods for Valley residents to protect themselves, including running HEPA-rated air purifiers inside, and turning off the ‘fresh’ air intakes in homes and vehicles during heavy smoke periods, usually early winter evenings when mini-atmospheric inversions coincide with people stoking up their stoves. Wearing N95 or N99 rated masks may also help when outside, but only if the mask fits very well.
People can also install localized air quality monitors available from PurpleAir.
The Breathe Clean Air event at Comox United Church in Comox was sponsored by SAGE: Sustainability Action Group for the Environment.
Regional District CAO Russell Dyson says a Human Rights Tribunal settlement agreement entered into by the CVRD and Kabel Atwall includes a clause that Area C Director Edwin Grieve did not make any racist comments
Comox Valley Regional District Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson issued an official statement Tuesday, Oct. 30, in response to a lawsuit filed by 3L Developments. The lawsuit, which came shortly after the CVRD denied the company’s application to amend the Regional Growth Strategy, asks the court to set aside the CVRD’s rejection among the multiple court orders it is seeking.
In his statement, Dyson reveals that in a settlement of a Human Rights Tribunal complaint, Area C Director Edwin Grieve denied making any racist remarks about 3L executive Kabel Atwall. The agreement, which includes a confidentiality clause, states “Grieve did not make any such comments,” according to Dyson.
The most recent 3L lawsuit claims Grieve did make such comments, which prompted the CVRD to respond.
Here’s the full text of the CVRD’s statement.
“On October 18, 2018 the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) was served with a petition to the Supreme Court of British Columbia that was filed by 3L Developments Inc., which is seeking nine court orders linked to the CVRD Board’s October 2, 2018 decision to deny the company’s application for a Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) amendment in order to create a new settlement node.
“The CVRD’s solicitors are actively reviewing the petition and accompanying materials and preparing to defend this claim. The CVRD has been committed to a fair, transparent process for the application and will continue to be respectful towards the court process and applicant’s options moving forward.
“Part of the petition filed by 3L Developments Inc. refers to an agreement that was reached following an allegation made to the Human Rights Tribunal in 2014.
“The CVRD received a complaint in January 2014 through the BC Human Rights Tribunal that Director Edwin Grieve, a CVRD Director, had made racist remarks about Kabel Atwall, 3L Development’s representative. The CVRD entered into a settlement hearing to respond to the allegations.
“Director Grieve refutes the claim that he made any such statement. The CVRD and Kabel Atwall entered a settlement agreement, which included a confidentiality clause and a clause confirming that Director Grieve did not make any such comments.
“Generally speaking, decisions to enter settlement agreements are oftentimes made to minimize spending public funds, come to terms with the individual who may have been impacted, allow the parties to move forward, and focus attention on delivering public services, as opposed to defending against such claims that could cost taxpayers significantly more money than a settlement agreement’s costs.
“The Human Rights Tribunal dismissed the complaint in May 2014. As the agreement contained a confidentiality clause, the CVRD intends to uphold the spirit of that clause and not discuss the matter further.”
Will British Columbians embrace electoral reform? Comox Valley residents have already started voting in the referendum to either retain our First Past The Post system of electing provincial governments, or switch to a version of Proportional Representation. Most households have received their mail-in ballots by now, and have until Nov. 30 to return them — postage free!
Readers of Decafnation have been sending us their thoughts on electoral reform. Here are three of them:
Vote yes, so your values and your votes count
By ALICE GRANGE
Too many of us have water that is not safe to drink, air that is not safe to breathe, and food that is not safe to eat; meanwhile corporate profits continue to soar.
I support Proportional Representation, (PR), because I am tired of the rich running and ruining British Columbia. Corporate funded ‘majority’ governments elected by less than 40% of the voters, continue to allow corporations to profit from our water and other natural resources. These same corporations dump toxic tailings into our waterways, incinerate their industrial waste, clearcut our remaining forests, and pollute our soil.
The 90+ Countries that have instituted Proportional Representation use 117% more renewable energy! They also have lower levels of income inequality, they spend less on the military, and are less prejudiced towards LGBTQ2+ and ethnic minorities…. Women are 8% better represented, 12% more of eligible youth vote, and civil liberties are better protected than in non PR countries. https://prorepfactcheck.ca.
I support PR because I want my values, my concerns for my neighbours and the water, air and soil we all depend on, to be heard. Politics has become a corporate money game. No matter how I vote, under the current FPTP system, unless I have oodles to donate, my voice is not heard in the Legislative Assembly and my vote doesn’t count!
We have an opportunity here, to turn the tide. To ensure that nearly everyone’s vote counts towards electing an MLA. The NO side’s well funded spokespeople would have you believe that party hacks will determine who represents you. That is not true. Under all of the systems proposed by the BC government there will be open lists. This means that you vote for who you want, even across party lines. As with the current system, the people on the ballot will be chosen by the party membership; as a voter you will get to put a check mark beside the person/people you wish to represent you and your vote WILL be represented in parliament.
Take the values related quiz at http://referendumguide.ca, as I did, to discover the form of PR proposed on the referendum ballot that best suits you.
And finally, let’s address the lie that PR will bring in more fringe parties. FPTP has saddled Ontarians with Doug Ford with a mandated ‘majority’ of only 41% of the popular vote. Surely we can do better than this with PR?
For more accurate facts on PR and FPTP, stop reading the slick corporate ads against PR and check out the facts. https://prorepfactcheck.ca.
Alice Grange is an Emotional Freedom Techniques (Tapping) practitioner who would love to live in a democracy. She lives in Courtenay
6 advantages of Proportional Representation
By DAVID ANSON
- A party wins seats in parliament according to its share of the popular vote. (In the First Past the Post system, it is common for a party to get a majority of the seats with a minority of the votes cast.) Most “majority governments” were not elected by the majority of citizens. There is only one instance of a government elected in B.C. with a real majority since 1956.
- The great majority of votes count—the great majority of voters elect someone. (In the First Past the Post system, a significant number of votes are wasted—a significant number of voters don’t elect anyone.) In “safe ridings”, where one party always wins, the experience of futility in voting happens repeatedly to the same voters. Voter turnout is 7% higher in countries with proportional representation.
- Voters can vote for what they believe in. (In the First Past the Post system, voters often vote against a party they don’t like by voting for whatever alternative party has the best chance of winning.) This kind of “strategic voting”, even if successful, leads to a lack of representation.
- The make-up of parliament is a close reflection of the diverse points of view of the voting population. (The First Past the Post system does not acknowledge the benefit of diverse points of view and skews the election result in favour of large parties.) Once a riding is won, all of its population is considered to be represented by the victor. This exaggerates homogeneity.
- An election is marked by a general campaign aimed at all voters. (In the First Past the Post system, an election is marked by a specific campaign to influence voters in “swing ridings”.) The desperate effort to pick up votes in swing ridings has led to smear campaigns against opponents and even to violations of election law without significant consequences. There is less likelihood that elections decided by proportional representation will be subverted.
- The government is obliged to work together with other parties to make decisions for the long term. (The First Past the Post system encourages hyper-partisanship in which the winning party follows its own agenda.) Some of the most popular and most enduring legislation in Canada was put into place by minority governments in which parties relaxed their separate agendas and focused on shared values.
David Anson is a Comox resident.
People don’t vote because the system doesn’t represent them
By JIM GILLIS
This November we have the opportunity to vote for Proportional Representation and change our present First Past the Post to an electoral system that represents all voters. We only have to look to the United States to see a two-party system locked in a death grip. In the New Brunswick recent election the Conservatives won by one constituency with 31 percent of the vote over the Liberals with 37 percent of the vote.
Citizens are not voting because they are not being represented in our present system. We need to change to Proportional Representation. Proportional Representation in a variety of forms is the method used by many Western countries. It is not new. It is a tried and true system that works. We as citizens should make a point of finding the facts
for ourselves by reviewing Fair Vote Canada’s fact checker website (https://prorepfactcheck.ca).
Over the last 150 years we have made many changes to our electoral system. In the beginning only rich men and landowners could vote, it was expanded to include all men, in the 20th century women were given the vote and in the last seventy years, Chinese, Japanese and our First Nations were given the vote. Let’s make another change that will include all voters in the final tally.
This November when your electoral reform package arrives vote for Proportional Representation a system that represents all voters.
Jim Gillis is a former Area B representative to the Comox Valley Regional District board, who still lives in Area B.