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Smoke choking B.C. skies another reason to oppose pipeline, says doctor

Where there’s smoke, there’s wildfires – and a grave reminder of the threat climate change poses to public health, according to a local environmentalist and physician.
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Where there’s smoke, there’s wildfires – and a grave reminder of the threat climate change poses to public health, according to a local environmentalist and physician.

“Right now, parents can’t let their children outside because it’s not safe to breathe this air for any amount of time. Newborns cannot go outside at all because they’re too young and vulnerable. People who have chronic health conditions can’t go outside and have to wear masks if they urgently must. Older people have been dying of their health complications because the air is dirty.”

 Dr. Stephanie von Dehns says the wildfire smoke blanketing the region is a reminder that climate change threatens public health.Dr. Stephanie von Dehns says the wildfire smoke blanketing the region is a reminder that climate change threatens public health. Photograph By KELVIN GAWLEY

That’s the message Dr. Stephanie von Dehn wanted to send from a protest outside the Trans Mountain Westridge marine terminal Monday. The terminal is being expanded to accommodate more oil tankers, as part of Kinder Morgan’s planned twinning of the pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby that would nearly triple its capacity.

Von Dehn, a family practice doctor from the Lower Mainland, was among a few dozen people at a Monday morning demonstration who looked on as five people were arrested for blocking the terminal’s driveway. Organizers billed it as a doctor-led protest meant to highlight the various health impacts of an expanded pipeline. It was the first in a week of planned “bold action” demonstrations led by different groups.

“When my own friends’ homes are just about to be burned down, and my own neighbours can’t breathe and can’t let their kids outside, and my own patients have to go the hospital because they can’t breathe despite all the puffers and best efforts – that’s why I’m here. You can’t just stand by, at least I can’t,” von Dehn said.

According to von Dehn, the connection between the wildfire haze choking much of the province and the Trans Mountain pipeline is simple – an expanded pipeline means expanded tar sands, which will lead to more greenhouse gases, more climate change and more wildfires.

That connection is very real, and backed by science, according to SFU professor Tim Takaro.

While the causes and conditions of a particular fire or wildfire season are myriad and complicated, he said there’s no denying climate change has worsened conditions and led to some of the worst fire seasons in record in recent years.

“The bottom line is, increased temperatures and dry conditions increase the risk of wildland fires. What increases temperatures and dry conditions? Climate change.”

Those dry conditions turn our forests into pools of gasoline, Takaro said.

Nearly 2,000 fires have burned more than 600,000 hectares of B.C. so far this year.

“This is the new normal and that new normal is driven by climate change,” he said.

Von Dehns said she has already purchased an electric car, moved to an apartment with electric heating and stopped eating dairy and meat. The next logical step was to reduce her medical practice hours to commit more time to environmental activism, she said.

“This is far too important. This is the crisis of our century. This is not a fight we can sit out,” she said. “We can’t just let the air quality get worse and worse and worse like this.”

While von Dehns stood aside while fellow protesters were arrested on Monday, she has joined past direct action blockades. In May, she was taken into custody for violating the court injunction forbidding interference with work on the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Criminal contempt of court charges were later dropped, thanks to a mistake made by the RCMP, she said. But she said she “absolutely” is willing to put her freedom on the line again to prevent the pipeline project from going ahead.

After marching, chanting, writing letters and signing petitions, she said, “The only thing left for me to do is get arrested, because that gets one more bit of attention to this incredibly important issue.”

Trans Mountain did not respond to questions from the NOW about the connections between its pipeline, climate change and wildfires.