Okanagan Eco-Noggin  

A burning crime

There must be a better way.

That's what I think every fall as I stare at multiple slash piles billowing smoke, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide and other compounds in the valley.

Have you ever wondered why, each fall, there are thousands of massive, smoky fires burning across the province?

After harvesting a forest stand, logging companies are required to dispose of the leftover, non-marketable biomass (known as “slash”) to reduce the fire load. And there are basically two options to dispose of slash:

  • Burn it
  • Recycle it.

Slash burning requires a few minutes of labour and a few dollars worth of diesel/gasoline mixture in a drip torch. Recycling the material requires an entire secondary industry to convert the biomass into useful products.

Naturally, nearly all this material gets burned.

However, while burning is obviously the low-effort alternative, it carries major disadvantages. As mentioned above, slash burning creates all sorts of air pollutants.

For at least 40 years, scientists have measured the same harmful compounds in slash fire smoke as in car exhaust and other tightly regulated pollution sources.

The difference is that automobiles are equipped with pollution-control devices, whereas slash burning mitigation primarily entails venting away from populated areas.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, slash piles are not counted toward total greenhouse gas emissions by the provincial or federal governments – despite having ministries with names such as Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

To get an estimate of the uncounted mass of CO2 that is sent skyward, consider that somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 slash piles are burned each year in B.C. Assuming each pile weighs about two to three tonnes, that would create about five tonnes of CO2 per pile.

In total, about two million tonnes of CO2 would be produced by slash burning in B.C. annually. None of this is counted, taxed, offset or mitigated, even though it creates the same molecule (CO2) that is generated by burning gasoline, and that costs you $40 for each tonne that you produce.

In other words, the B.C. government subsidizes slash burning to the tune of about $100 million per year.

Put another way, the B.C. government turns a blind eye to the equivalent CO2 emissions of about 133,000 B.C. residents – basically the annual emissions generated by the population of Kelowna.

According to the B.C. government website,

“B.C.’s carbon tax provides a signal across the economy to reduce emissions while encouraging sustainable economic activity and investment in low-carbon innovation.”

What signal is being sent by exempting two million tonnes of CO2?

Aside from the creation of CO2 and hazardous pollutants like ozone and particulate matter, burning this biomass is simply a waste of resources. Instead, this material could be diverted for beneficial uses.

A few simple solutions include:

  • Chip the material and distributed it back to the forest floor as a source of carbon, reducing carbon emissions
  • Buck the material into piles and post a waypoint online to free firewood; it would be recovered within hours, offsetting wood that would otherwise be cut for heating
  • Recover all wood for incineration in “waste-to-energy” plants

Similarly, the B.C. government has a website and infographic that extol the virtues of biomass recovery and list nearly fifty products ranging from biofuels to engineered wood products to advanced composite materials that, hypothetically, could be created from this material.

When asked what mass of biomass is currently being recovered for beneficial uses, a B.C. government spokesperson responded that they:

"…have partnered to provide millions of dollars to forestry contractors so that some slash will be repurposed in the pulp, paper and pellet industry.”

However, the government could not provide an estimate of how much material has been diverted to re-use rather than being burned – presumably, this is a very small amount.

Ministers Heyman and Conroy, please address this two million-tonne loophole that is wasting our resources and subsidizing pollution.


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About the Author

Jerry Vandenberg is an environmental scientist and owner of Vandenberg Water Science. He lives in the Okanagan region where he is also a paid-on-call fire fighter.

He can be reached at (250) 491-7260; [email protected]; https://www.linkedin.com/in/jerry-vandenberg/

Website: www.vws.ltd


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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