Manitoba businessman Kim Sigurdson was thrilled when Canadian Pacific Railway signed a contract to provide millions of old railway ties to his company for an innovative green project that would convert biomass into energy, heat and employment.
With the financial backing of the Canadian government and the U.S. Department of Energy, he was feeling pretty optimistic about the future of his company, Aboriginal Cogeneration Corporation. He obtained a permit from the B.C. Environment Ministry to move ahead with the project in Kamloops. It was exactly the kind of green business that the British Columbia government is trying to encourage.
But then the critics began to speak out, turning his first attempt to develop a site for the project into an abysmal failure.
"Everything up to the point to where we wanted to go to Kamloops was fantastic," he said yesterday in an interview.
But hundreds of people in Kamloops vehemently opposed the project. "We tried to explain what we were doing but, you know, it did not matter. It was horrible. We tried to explain to people about the emissions, the water, the ash. No one would believe us."
Mr. Sigurdson had intended to build a gasification plant on an industrial site in Kamloops, adjacent to a pulp mill, next to the Thompson River. The creosote railway ties were to be processed to generate electricity for B.C. Hydro, heat for greenhouses and potash ash for farmers.
North American railways dispose of 25 million ties annually, three million in Canada, and they now mostly end up in landfill, incinerated or stockpiled by the side of the track. The Canadian Pacific Railway contract guaranteed 500,000 ties annually, enough to keep 25 people working at the plant.
The protests began last August, when city hall was asked for its views on the project. Protesters raised concerns about the environmental impact of creosote on the air, the nearby river and the sewage system. About 500 people came out for a raucous community meeting earlier this month. ACC announced its retreat a week later.
Mr. Sigurdson, 54, said he was insulted and humiliated at the meeting. He felt no one was interested in listening to what he had to say.
"It was embarrassing," said Mr. Sigurdson, a Métis who can trace his ancestry to Louis Riel's family.
"I just got shouted down. People told me [that]I was a liar and then it became mixed up with a bunch of racial stuff ... "
He said he believed those who resorted to racial taunts were on the periphery and not the reason for the protest. But he started asking himself what he was doing in Kamloops.
B.C. Environment Ministry officials who endorsed the project told Kamloops residents the gasification process would give off emissions comparable to a wood stove or a truck going through town with a diesel engine, he said, but protesters refused to accept the evidence.
Protesters had lambasted the company for not holding public meetings, but when he was there, at the public meeting, he said no one cared what he said. Afterwards, he wished he had not showed up.
"At the end of the day, it was not about the technology, it was not about the green things we were doing," he said. "It was tough. We looked at this and said, 'Enough is enough. We are not going to respond to any of this stuff any more.' "
Don Barz, a retired federal government employee and a vocal opponent of the project, said yesterday the government agencies that cleared the way for the project did inadequate assessments. He questioned whether stacking the ties on the property would cause environmental damage, whether the ties might contain other contaminants, whether the ash produced during the gasification process was as non-toxic as ACC claimed.
Describing the project as green energy was doublespeak, he said. "This is a huge experiment."
However B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner said the permit issued reflected nine months of work by regional staff who live in the community backed up by the advice of the local health authority, Environment Canada and the U.S. researchers. The project meets the government's environmental standards, he said.
Mr. Sigurdson said his experience in Kamloops has not dampened his enthusiasm for the project.
"We're going to put it some place else," he said.