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Metro Vancouver raises fees on big air polluters

Metro staff said they set the proposed fee increase at 0.5 per cent of the economic costs due to public health consequences from air contaminants. If health were the only factor influencing the cost of pollution, it would be 200 times higher.
Industrial emissions
Big polluters like cement, refineries and saw mills to face still fee increases

Metro Vancouver has raised fees for the region’s biggest air polluters to more than double their current levels over the coming years. 

Board members approved the repeal and replacement of two existing bylaws Friday afternoon after staff said current fees failed to pay for the cost of oversight. 

The plan, which seeks to reduce the burden on Metro taxpayers, will see a phased fee increase starting next year and peaking in 2028 — a timeline that was extended three years after staff consulted heavy polluters. 

Metro staff said they set the proposed fee increase at 0.5 per cent of the economic costs due to public health consequences from air contaminants. If health were the only factor influencing the cost of pollution, it would be 200 times higher.

“Even though the fees are going up dramatically, society is still paying the lion’s share of the cost of air contaminants,” Metro’s director of environment regulation and enforcement Ray Robb told the climate action committee in the lead up to the approval.

The new bylaws represent the first change to air quality and regulation fees since 2008. In the intervening 13 years, Metro Vancouver's air quality department has faced a steep increase in its workload, including a rise in requests from Metro’s 21 jurisdictions and an “extraordinary” amount of time spent dealing with odorous air contaminant complaints connected to a composting facility in Delta.

The new fees will apply to a number of big emitters in the region, including cement plants, an oil refinery in Burnaby and several saw mills. 

As Derek Jennejohn, lead senior engineer at Metro’s air quality and climate change department puts it: The new fees cover any industrial source you can think of that produces dust or emissions through a stack. 

RISING COST TO HEALTH

International scientific consensus has led to increasingly dire warnings over the once overlooked cost of air pollution on human health. 

Staff pointed to an update of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Air Quality Guidelines in September, which noted air pollution is “one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change.” 

Of the six air pollutants the WHO recommend more stringent controls on, Metro is targeting three with the new air pollution fees: nitrogen dioxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SOx) and atmospheric particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5 ).

PM2.5, largely generated by burning fossil fuels in everything from transport, industry and agriculture, has been considered a carcinogen since 2013. Across the world, the WHO estimates almost 80 per cent of the deaths related to PM2.5 could be avoided if its guidelines were followed. 

“There really is no safe level, so we want to keep it as low as possible.” said Roger Quan, Metro’s director of air quality and climate change, of the particles smaller than the width of a human hair. 

In preparing the proposed fee increases, staff examined a history of air quality advisories over the past 25 years. Between the late 1970s and around 2010, overall air quality improved. 

That’s when the trend reverses, with ozone the primary culprit of air quality advisories in Metro Vancouver, outside of wildfire smoke. But ozone needs precursors, things like nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds that come out of vehicle tailpipes, off an oil refinery in Burnaby or out of the stacks in one of the region’s two big cement factories in Richmond and Delta.

When sunlight strikes the surface, the toxic ingredients transform into ozone.

“In the past two years, we have been seeing instances of ground-level ozone increasing,” said Quan, adding the June heat dome was a warning of what climate change can do.

“We know that we’ll have more sunlight and higher temperatures in the summer, which will re-exacerbate the ground-level ozone issue.” 

INDUSTRY PUSHES BACK

The air pollution fee increase sharply divided industry and public opinion. 

Metro staff told Glacier Media the region’s two health authorities supported the new fees. And according to public opinion research completed on behalf of Metro Vancouver, 63 per cent of respondents said emitters should fund the full cost of the region’s air quality regulation services. 

But in the lead up to the vote, industry spokespeople called on Metro to send the proposed bylaws back for further consultation. 

Ken Carrusca of the Cement Association of Canada said the increased fees would jeopardize an industry that supports more than 23,000 direct and indirect jobs in B.C. 

“COVID-19 has highlighted the need for domestic manufacturing,” said Carrusca, pointing to several Metro mega-projects already slated to upgrade the region’s sewer, wastewater and renewable energy infrastructure. 

“Cement is a strategic local asset.”

Along with staff from the region’s two cement factories, Carrusca said the industry is exposed to cheap U.S. imports, which make up roughly 20 per cent of cement in B.C. and aren’t subject to the air pollution fees. 

The price of some pollutants will surge more than others in the coming years.

Take PM2.5. In 2021, Metro Vancouver charged polluters $300 per tonne; next year, the cost of emitting a tonne of PM2.5 in Metro Vancouver will rise to $514, and in 2028 the fee will rise to $1,800, six times the current fee. 

By comparison, provincial waste charge regulations sit at $20 per tonne.

Altogether, the cement delegation said the new fees will cost the Lafarge plant in Richmond nearly $654,000 a year by 2028, a 150 per cent increase on the current annual fee, but less than half the plant’s property tax bill in 2021. 

As the older of the two heavy polluters, the Lehigh plant in Delta will see its annual air pollution fees climb to over $1.2 million seven years down the road, double the current fee and half of its 2021 municipal property tax bill. 

“[Lehigh is] one of, if not the largest payer of fees in this region — but they are also the largest discharger of harmful air contaminants,” Metro’s Robb told the climate action committee before the vote.

“Fees are going to go up dramatically. We expect companies to take a hard look and say, ‘Do we really need this? Can we get by with less? Can we make modifications?’”

Robb also pointed to the Parkland refinery in Burnaby as one of the largest emitters of organic compounds in the region, though he said they have made some progress in recent years.

While a relatively low emitter of air pollution by Canadian standards, its proximity to an urban population also puts it in the worst location in Canada for a refinery, added Robb.

CARBON EMISSIONS NEXT

In sending the bylaws to the board for the final vote, board chair Sav Dawliwal said the companies targeted are the polluters, and so, “rightly should pay.”

City of North Vancouver Coun. Jessica McIlroy urged Metro Vancouver to lead the way. 

“We just keep waiting for others to do something, and nothing happens,” she said.

The latest fee increase on air pollution is part of a wider strategy Metro is taking to fulfil its role as a regulator of air pollution in the region. 

Also Friday, the board passed its 2022 budget, green lighting an over $1-billion operating budget and $1.38 billion in capital expenditures for the coming year.

An average household will pay roughly $595 for all regional services, such as waste disposal, sewer services and water. That’s a $21 increase over the prior year, but $17 less than what staff previously projected. 

The money will also go to help Metro develop its Clean Air Plan, which among other targets, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030.

Per capita, annual greenhouse gas emissions have dropped nearly seven per cent to 5.4 tonnes in 2020 from 5.8 tonnes in 2015. By 2022, the region is expecting that number to fall to 4.2 tonnes.

In raising the fees, Robb said Metro Vancouver has set the bar on air pollution fees higher than anywhere else in Canada. 

“At Metro Vancouver, there’s been a history of demanding cleaner air. And that does come at a cost,” he said.