November 10, 2014 - 7:29 PM
CONCERNED CITIZENS TO REQUEST ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT AND JUDICIAL REVIEW
VERNON - When Lavington resident Geoffrey Nielsen attended a town hall meeting about a proposed pellet plant in the small North Okanagan community, he brought an open mind. The mechanical engineer and father says he was even leaning in favour of it. Then he read the impact study commissioned by the company and it wasn’t long before alarm bells started going off.
“I dug deeper and deeper and (I’m) still digging and as I go I find more features that are just raising one red flag after another,” Nielsen says.
Pinnacle Renewable Energies wants to build a plant next to its partner-company Tolko’s sawmill to make wood pellets out of the sawdust and shavings. Nielsen, and the group he’s part of, Lavington Is For Everyone (LIFE) takes no issue with that. But the proposed site happens to be 267 metres from Lavington Elementary School.
Nielsen’s youngest son, who has asthma, attends the school, along with roughly 160 other students from Kindergarten to grade 7.
“Our view is it (proposed plant) is in the wrong place,” Nielsen says. “We’ve been painted as Not in my Backyard (NIMBY) but we’re NIMSY—Not in my School Yard.”
The site is also in close proximity to Lavington’s community centre, park, ice rink and residential areas. Nielsen says few, if any, of Pinnacle’s existing pellet plants are located directly next to sawmills. In most operations, he says they have to transport the wood shavings to the pellet plant.
“(Here) it’s minimizing the transportation costs, therefore maximizing their profits. But their increased profits are at the increased risk to the kids at that school and the whole community,” Nielsen says.
One red flag after another
LIFE has major concerns with the technical assessment report commissioned by Pinnacle. For one thing, the study used cloud cover data from Penticton, and didn’t take Lavington’s unique inversions into consideration. Lavington is located in the Whitevale Valley, named after its common temperature inversions and long lasting stagnant air conditions, Nielsen says. Another issue is the wind data was taken from the Coldstream Creek Ranch, where a northerly breeze is common, but in Lavington, southerly winds—which would blow particulate mater from the plant directly at the school—are more typical, he says.
Another serious concern Nielsen has is the plant would emit particulate matter linked to serious cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Some studies have shown exposure to small particulates (PM2.5, or particles less than 2.5 microns, which would be emitted by the plant) may be linked to cancer and reproductive defects.
The assessment report for Pinnacle’s pellet plant used particulate data from the Vernon Auto monitoring station roughly 8 km west of the proposed site. Because that station is surrounded by more vehicle traffic, Pinnacle claims the values represent a higher amount of particulate matter than would be at the proposed pellet site. Nielsen isn’t so sure about that. His concern is the opposite could be true, due to heavy industrial activity already happening around the site.
“Perhaps it (study) is right, but what’s at stake here is our children’s health. In our view, the level of uncertainty doesn’t fulfill the precautionary principle,” Nielsen says.
According to the B.C. Lung Association 2014 State of the Air report, the Vernon area is already among the worst in the province for air quality. When existing background particulate levels are added to Pinnacle’s emission estimates, the total is above the Provincial air quality objectives.
In light of tragedies such as a fatal explosion at a sawmill in Burns Lake, LIFE is also concerned about the risk of fires and the proximity to the school. Pinnacle says it will manage the risk with safe practices, but a look at the company’s history doesn’t bring much comfort.
WorkSafe B.C. fined Pinnacle after inspections at one of its sawmills revealed hazardous levels of dust in the facility. WorkSafe said the failure to control and remove hazardous accumulations of combustible dust that could cause a fire or an explosion was a repeated high risk violation.
What happens next
Despite the community’s concerns, the pellet plant is moving ahead. The Agricultural Land Commission gave its blessing for the land to be used for non-farming purposes, and the District of Coldstream allowed a rezoning application which gives Pinnacle a green light to build the plant. The application now sits with the Ministry of Environment, which will look only at the research provided by Pinnacle because the proposal does not meet the criteria for an environmental assessment. The Ministry could reject the application or allow it or ask for more information or permit it with certain conditions.
LIFE doesn’t see this as the end of the road. It has put the District of Coldstream on notice that they are applying for judicial review of its rezoning decision, and is considering asking the Agricultural Land Commission to review its resolution. The group has also appealed to Environment Minister Mary Polak to put the proposal through a fair, independent and full environmental assessment.
“We’ve been three steps behind Pinnacle the whole time,” Nielsen says. “I had no idea this was even going on until the July 17 open house.... But it’s not over. We haven’t thrown in the towel.”
LIFE is seeking donations to cover legal costs, communications, and to make representations to regulatory agencies. Donations can be made via Paypal at lavingtonlife.blogspot.com.
Image Credit: LIFE
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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2014