Clean air advocates call for law changes

A medical health officer, a private citizen and a senior environmental analyst walked into North Cowichan council chambers Wednesday

A medical health officer, a private citizen and a senior environmental analyst walked into North Cowichan council chambers Wednesday afternoon, all with the same message: air quality matters and everyone needs to do their part to ensure the health and safety of all.

“It is one of those things people assume…air is good or it’s bad… but we have no control over it,” Dr. Paul Hasselback, medical health officer at Island Health told council. “We do have an ability to modify that. We do have an ability to keep people healthier.”

He said poor air quality is one of the major contributors to poor health in Canada and it’s probably the most under-rated one when it comes to discussions about what can and should be done about it.

“The reality is any exposure to poor quality air contributes to poor health and the more we look at it, the more we learn that,” he said.

Concerned citizen Jenny Lawson is a member of the Cowichan Fresh Air Team. She echoed Hasselback’s comments surrounding the health impacts the region’s poor air quality have on the community, particularly when it comes to kids.

Smoke from woodstoves is a large contributor to Cowichan’s problem.

“We consistently have air quality advisories every winter and our hospital admissions are a reflection of that,” Lawson said. “We have one of the highest childrens’ respiratory hospital admissions in B.C.”

She said a sewage system incursion onto a neighbour would be addressed very quickly, however with woodsmoke it’s just considered “something we can deal with.”

“We have wood smoke in nearly all of our public spaces in Cowichan for most of the year, in fact, if you know where to find fresh air in winter, please let us know, the Cowichan Fresh Air Team is still looking,” Lawson said. “The volume of smoke surrounding many Cowichan homes is unbelievable. It might be the clearest day of the year but burn a sufficient quantity of wood and the air in the vicinity of your home will resemble a bad day in Beijing.”

Lawson is calling for legislative change.

“We need to ban all outdoor burning now…the initiative needs to start now. Smoke knows no boundaries,” she said, noting that “the sight of a glowing hearth should be about as comfortable as a diesel engine idling in your living room.”

Keith Lawrence, the CVRD’s senior environmental analyst, said the regional district is working on an airshed protection strategy which may work toward driving change.

“We are currently wrapping up the phase of gathering all of the comments from the various agencies that have interests in air quality in the region and presenting that back to the CVRD board,” he said.

Implementation is set to begin in 2016.

“Recognizing that the impacts of air quality are widespread throughout the region, but also that our emissions sources are geographically dispersed, it’s going to take a correspondingly broad collection of agencies to be able to address the air quality concerns that we have,” he said.

Developing a consistent regulatory approach valley-wide is a goal.

“Recognizing that we have a patchwork of different regulations throughout the region — we have some high density areas that have a complete ban on backyard burning and we have some areas that have a partial ban and we have some areas that don’t have any ban,” Lawrence said. “So what can we do to have a more consistent approach is a key area of exploration going forward.”

North Cowichan Mayor Jon Lefebure said further work on the municipality’s own outdoor burning bylaws is slated for 2016.

Lefebure said he doesn’t know if the municipality’s two backyard burning windows, one in the fall and the other in the spring, will ultimately be scrapped to match up with what neighbouring jurisdictions are doing.

“I could only give you my personal opinion, which is: I hope so,” he said. “I would like to see us have similar rules in place to the City of Duncan and Town of Ladysmith but of course that is a council decision and we will have to look at all the information and see what council decides.”