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The Globe and Mail

Metro Vancouver pulls funding plug on air-quality research

Metro Vancouver has pulled out of a $150,000 research project into Fraser Valley air quality, citing critical remarks made by the scientist leading the study on Metro's plans to build incineration plants in the region.

"As we discussed last fall, I hope that you can understand that comments that you have made in presentations, and that have been attributed to you in the media (e.g., "It's a scandalously stupid thing for Metro Vancouver politicians to even consider building incinerators in this air shed") have not been well received by staff or elected officials at Metro Vancouver," said an April 22 e-mail from Metro air-quality manager Roger Quan to Douw Steyn, a professor in University of British Columbia's department of Earth and Ocean Sciences.

"I am not able to take a request through our Board for a grant for your work at this time," said the e-mail, a copy of which was forwarded to The Globe and Mail.

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Prof. Steyn's comments raised concerns about his objectivity, Mr. Quan said Tuesday.

"We support scientific, objective research on this issue, but when Dr. Steyn came out last year with statements like [incineration]is a 'scandalously stupid thing,' we began to have concerns about the objectivity of his research," Mr. Quan said. "How was he able to reach this conclusion without completing his research - he's basically just now embarking on the second year of his research."

Local newspapers quoted him as calling the idea of incineration "scandalously stupid" in October, 2008, and Prof. Steyn Tuesday said he has criticized incineration when speaking as an air-quality expert at public seminars and workshops. A faculty member at UBC since the early 1980s, Prof. Steyn has studied the Fraser Valley air shed for decades and written or contributed to many papers about the region.

He said that such comments do not affect his study, which was designed with input from a steering committee that included senior officials from Metro Vancouver, Environment Canada, the Fraser Valley Regional District and the provincial Ministry of Environment.

"I have tenure, I have jumped through all the hoops, I don't need more research publications," Prof. Steyn said. "I'm doing this because I am passionate about this region. I really want to see us maintain and improve our air quality."

Metro was one of several groups backing Prof. Steyn's two-year, $150,000 study of ozone in the Lower Fraser Valley, which stretches from Horseshoe Bay to Hope and where a pall of smog can blanket some areas on hot summer days. Long-standing concerns about air quality in the relatively confined air shed have been at the forefront of a debate over the region's waste disposal plans, which could feature new incineration, or waste-to-energy, plants. Metro contributed $15,000 to the study last year (the study began in April, 2009) and had been expected to do the same this year.

Prof. Steyn said he would seek other sources of funding to complete the study.

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Metro has been mulling garbage strategies for more than a decade. Plans for a new landfill in the Interior stalled in the 1990s over aboriginal concerns. The Cache Creek landfill, which currently handles about 30 per cent of Metro's garbage every year, had been scheduled to hit its permitted capacity in 2010 but recently won approval for an extension that would keep it going for another 25 years. In its most recent plan, meanwhile, Metro recommends moving away from landfilling and building at least one waste-to-energy facility.

Metro typically provides between $100,000 and $120,000 a year to air-quality studies, often teaming up with other agencies to fund research.

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