Too Busy!

This is another in my semi-regular series of excuses for not updating this blog in a timely enough manner. I have been busy.

To clarify what that means, I think people know I have a job. Regular take-a-lunch-box-to-the-office 5-days-a-week three-weeks-vacation fill-out-timesheet type stuff. Fortunately, my employer has adopted a fortnight flex day schedule for all employees (meaning I work 7.75 hours for 9 days every fortnight, and get every second Monday off) and my employer has agreed to a small concession of unpaid leave for alternate Mondays when I have New West Council duties (which turns out to only be about 12 days a year). This still means I spend (on average) 35 hours a week completing Comfort Letter requests, administering dewatering agreements, reviewing Site Profiles, managing contaminated sites investigation and remediation projects and coordinating the technical aspects of PS3260 Accounting Standards compliance. It is fun and I work with a great team of people, so no complaints on my part. But it does eat into my time.

This week (as an aside, but to demonstrate the general chaos of my life right now), I took a couple of hours of my vacation time (with prior approval from my boss) to have a morning meeting with representatives from The Shops at New Westminster Station, Fraser Health, TransLink Police, NW Police Department, and New West Bylaw Enforcement to do a walkaround at New Westminster Station and the surrounding bus loops, retail areas and sidewalks to discuss a collaborative approach to making the area a more inviting pedestrian and public space, with an emphasis on how the various Provincial and City anti-smoking bylaws could be applied to address one of the primary complaints about the area (see pic above). Wow, that was a long sentence. I hope to be able to report an update on that meeting soon.

After work most nights, my schedule is rather chaotic. This week, I had a frustrating committee meeting with the Royal Lancers on Tuesday, and pinch-hit for Councillor Harper to chair a much more positive and productive Residents’ Association Forum on Wednesday. Thursday is free (hence me writing this), but I have, since Monday’s Council Day, received about 50 e-mails to my Council address, which will take some time to triage and decide what requires a response. Some may even require multiple e-mail exchanges with staff or others to gather the data required for a useful response. If you e-mailed me and I have not responded yet, my apologies. I have read it, and will try to get back to you as soon as practicable. And on Friday, I receive the Council Package I need to review in detail before Monday. I also have to organize my Jane’s Walk for Saturday, so that will have to be done tonight or Friday night, as I work Friday. I will probably get something figured out by Saturday Morning.

This is not meant to be a whine. I chose my path (and as has been joked, I went door-to-door begging for it!). So this is more an explanation why my blogging and other correspondence is, occasionally, less timely than I would like it to be. There are a few “Ask Pat” posts in the queue, and I am late assembling the April 27 Council Report. It also explains the lack of copy editing on this blog – any attempts at scanning for typos likely occurred after midnight.

On the plus side, I did get a great bike ride in on Sunday morning, and the New West Lit Fest last weekend was a great event, so it isn’t all toil. Actually, I am loving it.

What’s with abandoned Gas Stations? Part 1

One of the things I do in my professional life is deal with contaminated sites.

In the same way that whenever I tell anyone I am geologist they ask me about when the next earthquake is going to happen (short answer: I have no idea), when people find out I work with contamination, they always ask about old gas stations. Why are there all these old gas station lots with nothing on them but weeds and white pipes? Or more commonly: what is going on with the old gas station at the corner of XXX and YYY?

All of the images in this post are straight screen captures from GoogleMaps.
I spent 5 minutes scrolling around local communities looking for examples of
White Pipe Farms. I presume they are all former gas stations, but I do not actually
 know the history of most of the sites I found just by surfing. Nothing I say below
should be specifically related to the sites I took images of – every site has it’s
own history, and every owner has their own motivations.

It is a long story, and regular readers know how much I love long stories.

In British Columbia, there are two pieces of related legislation – the Environmental Management Act and the Contaminated Sites Regulation – that control how contaminated land in the Province is managed. Municipalities have very limited powers over contaminated lands, unless of course they own the lands. It is the form of the EMA and CSR that cause these valuable urban commercial lots to sit empty for years.

A contaminated site becomes a capital-letter Contaminated Site when the owner of the property applies to the City for one of 5 specific permits named in Section 40 of the EMA: Subdivison, Rezoning, Development, Demolition or Soil Removal. The City is required by the EMA to collect certain information from the owner and send that off to the Ministry of Environment prior to issuing a permit. This makes sense, when you think about it. Those 5 permit types will change the character of the site – evidence of past property uses disappear when one of those 5 permits are issued. The Province wants to take that opportunity to document whether there is any contamination before evidence of that contamination disappears. If the site is contaminated, then the Ministry will most often prevent those permits from being issued until someone deals with the contamination.

So if you have a gas station, and you want to tear it down and put in condos or a In-and-Out Burger, you need to demonstrate to the Ministry that the land is not contaminated before you change the use. If it is contaminated, you need to either clean that contamination up or demonstrate through a rigorous science-based “Risk Assessment” that the contamination is contained, isn’t impacting your neighbours, and will not cause harm to human health or the environment at any time in the future. If the contamination is not stable, or if it could possibly cause harm, then you are not getting your permit, and your condo-building or burger-schlepping dreams will have to wait.

Cleaning it up can mean a lot of things. Sometimes, you just go in there with an excavator and dig out all of the contaminated soil and throw some ORC in the hole to cause hydrocarbon-eating bacteria to bloom in the groundwater. Bob’s yer uncle.

However, if the contamination is a long way down, it can be really expensive to dig it out, especially on an urban lot. Sometimes the contamination has migrated to include the neighbouring property, and the neighbour doesn’t want their building to be excavated. Disposing of this contaminated soil can be expensive. The cost of a complicated excavation can easily exceed the value of the land.

Alternately, in most cases the contamination will not last forever. Gasoline spilled in the ground will migrate downwards until it hits groundwater, then sit on top of the groundwater like Cointreau on top of a B-52. Some of it evaporates and moves back up through the soil, some is dissolved in the groundwater and flows away- diluting with distance. Some simply breaks down chemically in to less harmful compounds, while some gets eaten up by natural hydrocarbon-metabolizing bacteria. All of these degradation processes can be helped along from the surface.

You can stick wells in the ground and blow air down into the hydrocarbons and groundwater (“air sparging”). This breaks up the hydrocarbons so they dissipate, increases the evaporation, and provides fresh oxygen that encourages bacterial decomposition of the gas. You can also stick tubes higher in the ground and suck out the vapours, accelerating the dissipation. You can stick chemicals down the wells that will accelerate the degradation (but this is tightly controlled by the Water Act – you cannot stick the kind of dispersants they used in the Deepwater Horizon spill into a well in BC- things like Milk of Magnesia are typically used to boost oxygen levels).

Regardless, this type of in-situ remediation can take years or even decades, and in the meantime we can end up with a vacant lot, surrounded by a rental fence, with white pipes sticking out of the ground everywhere. Those white pipes are monitoring wells, which are used to keep track of the groundwater conditions, or the air sparging or vapour extraction wells for in-situremediation systems.

Or, of course, the owner can do absolutely nothing. (In reporting, this is what they call “burying the lead”). You see, nothing in the Environmental Management Act or the Contaminated Sites Regulation actually forces the owner of a contaminated site to clean it up.

That’s right. The owner is limited by what (s)he can do with the contaminated land (because they can’t get those municipal permits), but unless they have a compelling business reason to do something about the contamination, there is no law or other requirement saying they need to take any action towards cleaning it up. So the weed-covered empty lot can sit there literally forever.

It is at least theoretically possible for the Director of Waste Management (the senior bureaucrat in the Land Remediation Section of the Ministry) to order an owner to clean up contamination, but that power is very, very rarely exercised. In practice, the Ministry only does this if there is an imminent risk to persons or property caused by the contamination. Not unprecedented, but very unusual. There is no sign the Ministry is interested in increasing this power. And there is nothing a City or neighbouring properties can do to compel the Ministry to take this action.

So why is it (apparently) always abandoned gas stations? Near as I can tell, there are three reasons for this:

First, pretty much every gas station built before 1980 is a contamination nightmare. The old technology of buried single-walled steel tanks almost invariably leaked after a few years in the ground. Since gas was so damn cheap before the 1970’s oil crises, it was of little concern to most station owners if they lost a few gallons a day to leaks, presuming they even noticed. It was cheaper to let it happen than to dig the tanks up and replace them. A few gallons a day can, however, add up to a hell of a lot of hydrocarbon in the ground over several years. Then there was the waste oil and solvent disposal methods from the 60s. At a time when PCBs were used to clean carburettors, let’s just say housekeeping to protect the environment was not standard practice at Cooter’s Garage. This is no longer the case, I hasten to note. Modern gas stations use double-walled vacuum-sealed plastic underground tanks with automatic leak detection systems, and are very careful to recycle their valuable waste oils and solvents, mostly due to tougher laws. The legacy of old practices still haunts us.

A second factor is that there are far fewer gas stations today than there were 40 years ago. The smaller two-pump Mom’n’Pop operations have been replaced with larger multi-bay major company franchises. This means many of the former stations from the Century of the Car have been closed in the last couple of decades, and they all probably have contamination issues.

The third factor is that the closed stations usually belong to large multi-national oil companies. These companies have a lot of assets, and are in no big rush to divest themselves of fiddly little assets like a block of City land. The minuscule cost of paying property tax on an empty lot in New Westminster disappears when these companies are making multi-billion-dollar revenues. Commonly, the cost and hassle of cleaning up the land isn’t offset by the selling price they could get for it. They can sit on it for years, maybe the contamination will get better with gradual degradation and dissipation. Or not.

One thing they do not want to do is sell it without cleaning it up first, and that is, again, because the CSR does not allow for the “persons responsible” for the contamination to sell that liability. Nothing (except for your bank’s loan officer) prevents you from buying a contaminated site, but you cannot legally “buy the contamination”.

This actually makes sense. The last thing we want is for every owner of a contaminated site to sell that liability to some numbered company registered in Belize. That company could buy up 10 contaminated sites then go insolvent and disappear, abandoning the land for the Province to clean up. No-body wants that.

So the person who caused the contamination will always own it, as long as they exist. The big oil companies plan to exist for a long time. If they sell you their contaminated land, they no longer control what you do on that land. You could go back and clean the contamination up, and send the bill to the Oil Company, but if they wanted to spend that money themselves without you being the unaccountable middle-man. You could even conceivably do something that harms yourself or others with that contamination that belongs to the oil company, and the oil company will be responsible for some of that harm. Oil companies hate risk, so they would rather just own the land, put a fence around it, say “no trespassing” and do whatever due diligence is required to keep anyone from messing with their contamination. Just to be on the safe side.

So too often, the most rational business case is to just let that white pipe farm sit there, contributing nothing to the community for perpetuity. And there is nothing the City can do about it.

Some time in the next week or two, I will write Part 2 – about what the Province, Cities and neighbourhoods can do about these sites.

Just an update

It’s been a while since I wrote anything in this space here, but I’ve been busy. Work is busy these days, but so is everything else!

Since writing my last post, I have attended a Master Transportation Plan Advisory Committee meeting, an Emergency Advisory Committee meeting, and played a couple of curling games (one loss, one win, thanks for asking).

I also spent some time visiting family and friends, eating turkeys, and practicing chainsaw technique, all on Saturna Island. I’ll report more on that at some later date, but can I can admit to having turned a couple of dozen little scrappy pine trees into future fence posts, and to have not cut any important parts of my body off with the saw. Not bad for a first time behind the business end of a Stihl.

In fact, I will write a whole bunch more about Saturna Island in the future; it is a magical place. For now, I will only mention that it has the greatest departure lounge in the entire BC Ferries System.

The entrance to the Saturna Lighthouse Pub is about 20 feet from the ferry ramp, and the deck features unquestionably-full pints,

a killer nacho plate and spectacular pizzas, and one of the greatest views on earth.

Aside from such recreations, I also attended a TransLink consultation meeting here in New West (a write-up from which I am about 90% through writing – watch this space).

On the same night as TransLink, I attended another great NEXT New West meet-up, this one at the Northbank project presentation centre. Peter Newall from Ballenas Project Management talked about the project, with insights into his previous projects in New West (The BC Electric Building / InterUrban and the refurbishing of the New Westminster Police Station and attached condos), and his apparent ability to foretell worldwide financial disasters. We were also given a short presentation and Q&A session with Councillor Jonathan Cote, where he talked about the MUCF/Office Tower issue. I have gone on about this issue in the past, but it was good to hear from someone with actual knowledge about the project talk about the decision train that took the City down the road to building a commercial office tower. There were a lot of business leaders in the room asking him about the options available to the City and the business case around the development, and I think Cote did a good job getting the message across that the decision made was the obvious one when all the factors were considered.

Finally, I am still going through photographs and working on writing up our recent 4-day vacation to San Francisco. I am ¾ of the way through blogging about it. We saw some things while we were there, but I cannot guarantee they are all safe for work. If you are interested in how Ms.NWimby and I spend our vacation time (Hi Mom!), you might want to go here, but you’ve been warned.

I also filled out a couple of local surveys: this one on the next phase of the Pier Park and this one on the City’s Financial Plan. Both close really soon, so you might want to go there and fill them out if you have any opinions. It’s a much more effective way of spending your time than commenting here.

Law of the Instrument

This is similar in tone to an earlier post I wrote regarding the misapplication of technology. In that post, I questioned how “on-line voting” was going to fix the low turn-out rates in elections. The problem of low voter turn-out was not caused by the lack of options or access to polling booths, so increasing that access through the wonder of the Internet was not really a sensible solution. It was the wrong tool addressing the problem from the wrong direction.

This time, I hope to convince you that increasing the volume of traffic is not the solution to the problem of an aging bridge.

In earlier stages of my career, I had plenty of opportunities to work with drillers. Guys (and yes, they were all guys) who operate drilling equipment are a special breed. It is hard work, intensely physical, dirty, noisy, and you are doing it in the rain, the sleet, the snow, and any other unpleasant environment you are asked. Days are usually 12 hours, and you spend much of your off time living in flea-bag hotels on the outskirts of towns you wouldn’t otherwise visit.

I have drilled (actually, stood there watching other guys drill while I sketched on a clipboard and put samples into jars) in pounding down rain in February in Port Alice, in frozen sleet in September in Wells; In heavy snow in Anahim Lake, and on bright sunny warm days while standing on bulk sulphur storage piles. I have even stood on a small barge in Burrard Inlet in the middle of winter with drillers running a Pionjar off the side. With all of these conditions, they are operating a piece of equipment that can kill or maim them instantly if they lose attention. As a result, drillers are tough, skilled, determined, crude and practical: Every edge they have is rough. They all smoke every cigarette like it is their last; I have never seen a group of people so enthusiastic about smoking, and I grew up in a Pulp Mill town.

L to R: me, a notable bridge, a Sonic drill rig.

All that aside, one of the charming things about drillers is their tool kit. It contains two types of tools: hammers, and unused. There is nothing a driller cannot fix with a hammer. If there is, it needed replacing anyway. Every process in the instruction book “Drilling for Dummies” starts with these two steps: 1) Get a hammer; 2) No, a bigger hammer.

As a result, drillers generally have a lot of broken and bent equipment around. When something goes wrong on the drill rig there are two ways it can go: lots of banging and then back to work; or lots of banging then back to the shop. The only shocking past is how often it is the former.

There is a truism called the Law of the Instrument, which is colloquially “when all you have is hammers, every problem looks like a nail”.

When applied to how our province has been operating its roads, and overseeing Translink’s management of the Major Road Network (including the Pattullo Bridge), it could be said that there is no problem that cannot be fixed by building more roads. Never mind what the problem is, or whether this solution has worked in the past, building more roads seems to be the one thing upon which this government has no problem spending taxpayers money.

If the connection isn’t obvious, let me put it this way: At a time when they are cutting back on bus routes and are putting all transit expansion on hold, TransLink is fast-tracking the “consultation” on the Pattullo, saying they need a new 6-lane bridge PDQ. This seems to be the solution to some problem, but there problem isn’t “traffic” or “truck movement” or “growing communities” (the talking points used to justify a 6-lane bridge). Their problem is an aging bridge.

Look at the “Replacement Factors” listed on their website for the project, what do we find? An alliterative list: Safety, Structure, Seismic, and Scour.

“Safety” issues are related to traffic operations on the bridge: lanes too narrow, inadequate railings, too many accidents. If TransLink or the Government was really concerned about driver safety on the bridge, they would put four photo radar cameras on the bridge and enforce the 50km/h speed limit. A revenue-generating end of the problem.

“Structure” arguments are all about corrosion of steel components on the bridge and degradation of the bridge deck, so exactly the same factors that led to the extensive refurbishment of the Lions Gate Bridge. There, things were repaired at a much lower cost than replacing the bridge.

“Seismic” seems pretty straight forward: a 1938 bridge does not meet 2012 earthquake standards. The Sandwell Report done for TransLink in 2007 was pretty clear: “…the bridge is vulnerable to collapse even under moderate earthquakes and is in urgent need of retrofitting.” So what are we waiting for? Let’s get on with that retrofitting and make a safe bridge, at a fraction of the cost of building a new bridge.

“Scour” is the argument that after 75 years, the River is now starting to scour away the sand and silt around the foundations of the bridge. Give me a couple of barges of 1-tonne rip-rap, and we can take care of the scour issue. No need for two lanes of extra traffic to fix this one.

Notably, not one of these “Replacement Factors” justify increasing the number of lanes on the bridge, and most can actually be facilitated at much lower cost by reducing the lanes to three (with counter-flow) like the Lions Gate. As compelling an argument TransLink makes for extensive refurbishment of the Pattullo Bridge, nothing that says we need to accept the negative impacts on the City and the region of increasing road capacity, or the loss of the iconic steel arch span that is part of our City’s heritage and skyline for 75 years. Nor do they justify ramping up a $200 Million refurbishment project into a $1Billion bridge expansion project.

However, bridge replacement and expansion is the hammer that TransLink has. Collecting tolls on the bridge is the force behind that hammer. So no surprise when the problem is an aging bridge, the solution is not fixing it. The solution is to imagine other problems that may be solved by expanding it and slapping on tolls.

Simply put: the Province will not pay $200 Million to upkeep the infrastructure it has, but will throw a bunch of money building other infrastructure with no plan for long-term maintenance costs.

Hardly a model of fiscal prudence in my book.

Hiring an Environmentalist

It happened again today at my work.

I am in a meeting with a guy who wants to do some land improvements on his property that will impact riparian areas. There are Provincial laws around this, and to be complaint with those laws, he needs to get some advice from a Qualified Environmental Professional.

It is kind of like if you want to build a bridge, you need someone trained as a bridge engineer, licensed to practice, and carrying professional liability insurance to sign off that the bridge will not, in her professional opinion, fall down. Similarly, if you need to build something in fisheries habitat, you need someone trained in ecology, licensed to practice, and carrying professional liability insurance to sign off that the works won’t, in his professional opinion, kill fish.

This guy understood this, he assured me. “I hired an environmentalist to check everything out”.

There is a definition problem here.

I’m not even sure where you would hire an environmentalist. “Environmentalist” is not a job description, it is a political philosophy. It is like I asked him to verify his business plan and he replied “I hired a Libertarian!” It doesn’t make sense. But surprisingly often I am at a drilling site, or in a meeting with developers, or talking to my mom about work, and I am called the “environmentalist”.

This is OK, as I happen to be an environmentalist (in that my political philosophy includes considerations for protecting the natural environment, for a variety of reasons). However, in these settings, it is rather more important that concomitant to my philosophical positions, I am an “Environmental Scientist” by training, and an “Environmental Coordinator” by trade. That means I have a lot of specific training and experience in environmental protection, the administration of Environmental Law, environmental engineering, and other subjects that can be loosely bundled together under the subject of “Environmental Science” (to be specific in my case, “Environmental Geoscience”, since I am a geologist, not a biologist or ecologist or chemist, etc.).

This is not semantic. Environmental Scientists (and especially “Qualified Environmental Professionals”) are not all environmentalists, and the vast majority of environmentalists have no training whatsoever in Environmental Science.

? ?

This is not an Environmental Science conference

So when this fellow said he hired an “environmentalist”, I picture Paul Watson standing in his driveway yelling about whales, then I politely correct him and say “Environmental Professional”.  If in a professional setting I am introduced as “the environmentalist”, I often make a joke about “how do you know how I vote?”, then again politely say “I’m the Environmental Coordinator who is working on this file.

So Mom, you can stop calling me the Environmentalist in the Family. At least when talking about my work.

In which our Hero Questions his mind

I had a dream last night that I had a panic attack.
This is interesting for several reasons. First, I rarely if ever remember my dreams. Second, I have never had an actual panic attack when I was awake. Third, I have been, if not half-heartedly, at most two-thirds heartedly studying for my Professional Practice Exam, the first real sit-down-in-a-classroom and fill-out-bubbles-with-a-No-2-pencil closed-book-exam I have had to write in something like 10 years.

Funny part is that it wasn’t the PPE I was panicking about in the dream: it was my 2011-2012 Hockey Pool Draft.

In my dream, it was Poole Draft Day, and apparently, I had drawn first in the draft. I was completely unable to make my first pick. Will the Sedins pull it off again? Which one to pick? Is Crosby back? Why can’t I remember the pre-season? Where did Stamkos end up after free agency? Did he get moved? How the hell to you spell Ovechkin!?! (it seems it was vitally important in my dream pool that the player’s name be spelled correctly). Everyone is staring at me, waiting for mee to fill out the form… in a panic reflex, I write in “Oveckin”. No problem. Plausible deniability. But then the 20 other guys all fill in their picks instantly and I immediately have to decide again. How did they do that so fast, and now they are all waiting for me again. Oh, the curse of the unprepared. Where is my draft sheet? Why can’t I see what they picked? I was completely paralysed in indecision…until I woke up.

Funny, I didn’t feel the least bit stressed about my exam. Maybe I should be?

If nothing else, I have resolved to be fully prepared for this year’s Draft. I’ll have my pick sheet prepared before the pre-season games start. Last year’s stats will be reviewed, all the player moves analysed for strength and weakness. I will make the appropriate adjustments during the pre-season based on how the lines are shaping up. My finish in the basement of last year’s pool will not be repeated.

A man has to set some priorities.

Oh, and I wrote my PPE today. No panic, I was prepared. There were a few very thought-provoking questions, a few that surprised me, but it all went well. I’ll know the results in 8 weeks, just in time for the NHL Pre-season.

Back to blogging.