Patricia Ross is a city councilmember in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and a fellow with Leadership for Environment and Development International, a training organization committed to sustainability.

Monday, 20 Aug 2001


Monday around my place always starts off with a bang, but today is especially crazy. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since 8:00 a.m. As a politician, I have gotten used to calls from people wanting to discuss issues, but I have noticed that people often seem to wait to vent their anger over their issues until Monday morning. Today’s crisis is over a mailer, more commonly referred to by angry residents as “propaganda,” that the Sumas Energy 2 (SE2) power plant proponents mailed to residents in Washington state and B.C.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

How polluted was my valley?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

SE2 is a proposed 660-megawatt power plant that would be located in Sumas, Wash., right next to the border between Canada and the U.S. It would spew almost three tons of toxins a day into an already polluted airshed. This particular airshed is trapped on three sides by mountains, causing L.A. -style smog in a prime agricultural region. The most closely affected population consists of about 300,000 people on the Canadian side of the border. the plant would be built on a floodplain where flooding has washed cars off roads and damaged homes and businesses. It would also be on top of an earthquake fault.

To add insult to injury, the plant operators want to tie into Canada’s power grid and put 230,000-volt power lines through a residential and business district. Usually, power lines with this high of a voltage would be put in unpopulated areas. Voltage this high is not even allowed in Whatcom County, the Washington state county bordering Canada. The county allows nothing above 115,000 volts due to health concerns, which is only one reason why they want to put this plant so close to Canada, even though much of the power would be intended for the California market. Another reason is that they need Canada’s natural gas supply — and the closer they can get, the less expensive it will be. And most importantly, this type of polluting plant would not be allowed to be built in California, because of the pollutants it would emit into an already polluted airshed — precisely why we don’t want it here.

We have been actively fighting this proposal since March 2000 but have been in the eye of the storm for the past few months, since the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council gave the project a thumbs-down last February. SE2 has now come back with an amended application, but the changes are minor — a mere smoke screen. Things are heating up again now that the application is officially filed, and new hearings are about to begin.

It was disheartening to see it on my doorstep, another reminder that they have so much money to hire high-priced PR people and lobbyists. We simply cannot compete on that scale. We can easily refute what was said in that mailer with fact and science, but we don’t have the money to send it to all the homes they did. It is full of misquotes, things taken out of context, and studies misrepresented. For example, they quote the American Lung Association, giving the impression they are in favor of SE2, but the Washington chapter of the ALA has written a letter of opposition to SE2 to Gov. Gary Locke (D). They quote Canada’s Environment Minister saying good things about the technology, but leave off the part of the statement that says something to the effect of “however, it is still in the wrong location given the existing air pollution.”

We may not have a lot of money, but we have heart. Everybody is doing what they do best, Canadians and Americans alike, and it all fits together like the pieces of a puzzle to create an amazing, united lobbying effort. At the very least, we have shown the polluting corporations not to mess with us!

Tuesday, 21 Aug 2001


Who needs an alarm clock when the phone starts ringing early enough to wake me up? It’s a reporter for a television station, wanting information about this evening’s public meeting on Sumas Energy 2 (SE2). I try to pretend I wasn’t sleeping. I seem to have become the media spokesperson for the side opposing SE2 ,and this is stressful, because I have to be on the ball all of the time. I have to make sure I have the information before them and am ready for their calls, with my response already formulated. I agree to meet the TV crew tonight. Try to think of something brilliant to say to keep them interested. Fortunately, I have a network of people to help me, including my husband, who always seems to have good ideas.

Mt. Baker, lost in the smog.

Although we are not allowed a table inside the information area, at least the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) will allow the side opposing SE2 a table outside the room to show our perspective. The city of Abbotsford and Generations Affected by Senseless Power (GASP) from the U.S. will share a table. We’ve put together a great display of pictures of the pollution already existing in the area, showing the (lack of) view of Mt. Baker — it’s beautiful, but it is becoming more rare. We also have pictures of the topography to show how the mountainous region traps pollutants here, which is one of the reasons, along with poor airflow, why the airshed is so bad. Most of our pollution comes from the south and west, and since SE2 would be located in Sumas, Wash., we would be right in the line of fire of almost three tons of toxins per day.

The response to our information has been good, and most people seem to be opposed to SE2. It quickly became apparent, though, that people coming from the SE2 information area were either misunderstanding or being told things that were misleading and inaccurate, such as that the Fraser Valley people are hypocrites because they have two coal-fired power plants, and the provincial government just approved two new power plants in Vancouver. We have no coal-fired plants here, and the two plants approved are on Vancouver Island, a very long way from here, are cogeneration plants (SE2 is not), and are in an area that has good airflow. It may be a NIMBY thing, but we feel we are justified, because we live in one of the worst polluted airsheds in Canada. We’ve spent millions of dollars to reduce pollution, and have had some success, but SE2 would wipe out those efforts for decades to come.

The EFSEC ruling pointed out several times that SE2 had made statements they could not back up with fact or science. It sure never made that comment about the city of Abbotsford.

Some of the press seems reluctant to talk to us, which I don’t understand, because they are supposed to be fair and unbiased. It’s tough for David to fight Goliath in the 21st century without money or power.

Wednesday, 22 Aug 2001


I managed to get halfway through my cup of tea and newspaper before the phone rang today — what a treat! But this time, no complaints — a woman just wanted to thank me for what I am doing to fight SE2. If it weren’t for people like her expressing gratitude and offering encouragement, I don’t know if I could keep up. I never expected the fight to go on so long. A year-and-a-half so far and the battle will not be over for at least another seven months. I don’t even remember what life was like before SE2, and it’s been exhausting. But I beli
eve in what we are doing, because it will be disastrous for our community if the power plant gets built.

I am feeling the pressure, though, with so many people counting on me. It is quite daunting. It is funny, being known as the “environmental councillor,” I often did not get a lot of respect in the past. But because of this issue, I think people now understand what I am trying to do. It is one thing to say that if we don’t take care of the environment, it will affect our economy, health, and quality of life, but many people didn’t really understand that or believe it. Now, this issue has made people understand that in a very personal way.

I prefer to be known as someone who promotes sustainability, rather than as an environmentalist. For a community or the planet to be sustainable, one must consider the economic, environmental, and social issues equally in decision-making. So often in government, the environment gets left out of the equation. When I try to bring it back in, I’m called an environmentalist. But I can live with that.

This reminds me of a recent national conference I attended on sustainability, where global warming was the focus. Often, a speaker started off by saying, “I’m not an environmentalist, but I do believe global warming is a problem, and we have to do something about it.” After hearing this qualifier one too many times, I finally stood up and said, “Look, I hate to break it to you, but if you believe this is a real problem that we have to act on, then you are an environmentalist. But it’s okay, really — it’s not like admitting you are a mass murderer!” In political circles, though, it seems to be almost as bad. What a shame.

When I first started this fight against SE2, I knew I would be up against a powerful corporation, but I never dreamed I would also have to fight the provincial and federal governments. It is disappointing to see how the government has failed to represent Canadians. Its excuse for not intervening in the EFSEC process was that it did not feel it appropriate to tell the Americans what to do. But we weren’t asking the government to tell the Americans what to do, just to get involved in the process and represent Canadian interests. You can bet that if the shoe were on the other foot, Americans would have the fortitude to get involved and represent their constituents! It is quite appalling that a local government, the city of Abbotsford, was the only Canadian intervener in an international issue of this magnitude until now — British Columbia’s provincial government has finally become interveners.

I have been consistently disappointed in my federal government lately. I had always believed (because I had always been told) that Canadians have the best environmental record worldwide. I have been sorely disappointed to find lately that this simply is not true. Americans may have a long way to go yet to better protect the environment, but they are ahead of Canadians. So far, anyway — President Bush’s short-term thinking scares me. Canadians have fairly decent policies, but they are not monitored or enforced very well. Because of growing public pressure, though, this will have to change.

Regardless of what improvements we in Canada need to make, that does not make it okay to put a power plant in an airshed that will add almost three tons of toxins a day, increase greenhouse gases in the area by 4,000 percent, increase health problems related to air pollutants — even increase the death rate — as well as impair our ability to earn a living and enjoy a decent quality of life. Don’t forget that this power plant is to be built in the U.S., though near the border, and the airshed is shared by Americans, so it will harm them as well. It would be only a few hundred yards from the Sumas, Wash., elementary school.

Thursday, 23 Aug 2001


I’ve promised to get back to a newspaper reporter by today with documentation about the survey of local doctors that shows that 38 percent of them will leave the area if SE2 is built, and that another 58 percent are considering leaving. Why? Because their workload due to current air pollution is already difficult, and if SE2 is built, the additional work would be intolerable. Also, they do not want to raise their families in an area with that much additional pollution. To back up their position, I plan to send copies of letters of opposition to SE2 from the Washington State American Lung Association and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility to Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D).

The Canadian point of view.

I will also mention to him that I am disappointed to see the pro-SE2 lobby turn so viciously anti-Canadian after they were turned down by EFSEC last February. Throughout this fight, we have not allowed Canadians to turn anti-American, although it is an American company — National Energy Systems Company (NESCO) — that wants to build the power plant. This is not about Canadians versus Americans — there are people on both sides of the border fighting SE2. It is about the average citizen fighting a large corporation. We are concerned about our health, our economy, and our environment, and it is heartbreaking to see a campaign try to turn our American friends against us. It is important to remember that EFSEC, which turned SE2 down, is an American council. The changes to the proposal are quite minor. It offers $1.5 million in offsets. But this is to be shared between Washington state and British Columbia, and considering the life of the plant and the impact it will have, the amount is pathetic.

Abbotsford has always had a good relationship with our neighbors in Sumas, Wash., where SE2 is to be built. We have worked on many projects together, such as groundwater protection, stream preservation, and airshed management. A few years back, Abbotsford even helped Sumas out of a bad situation with their sewage.

I am proud that the anti-SE2 lobby has conducted itself with dignity and class. That is part of the reason for its success, but it is also because we are well-researched and back up our statements with facts. The SE2 people have often told the media that our opposition is based on emotion rather than fact. We are emotional all right, but it is because we have researched the facts about SE2 and know what its impact will be on us all — and it is frightening.

Friday, 24 Aug 2001


I always feel so optimistic at the beginning of each week that I will accomplish all my goals by week’s end, but on Fridays I always feel overwhelmed, because it never works out that way. SE2 consumes so much of each day that I’ve had to become a master juggler. Calls throughout the week from people insisting on meetings, interviews, research, and such fill up the hours quickly.

I discover that somehow, I missed 15 emails that were sent a week ago. One from a friend in crisis needing help. Taking a week to answer, I feel awful and write to apologize. Friends — not to mention family — are a casualty in a war that goes on as long as this. Fortunately, they are all supportive of what I am doing. Even constituents that need help on other issues, I reluctantly have to pass on to one of the other councilmembers. I feel blessed with good people around me that understand, but I feel bad all the same.

Today is our SE2 focus group meeting. A local television station wants to come and film us for the 6:00 news, so I arrange the details. Representatives from every possible stakeholder group — health, education, environment, citizen groups, Sto:lo Nation, politicians, and business — attend the focus group meeting. I laugh to myself that the SE2 boys must feel like bowling pins, watching in horror as we, the ball, are headed toward them for a strike! I’m sure they never expected such overwhelming
opposition. As the chair, I find it hard to conduct these meetings with any kind of control, as the members are so enthusiastic and passionate that they find it hard to hold back and not all talk at once.

The television cameraman manages to be discrete, so there is little disruption and I see that the members soon forget he is there. Until, of course, he asks me to leave with him for a moment for a private interview. As I try to get back to the meeting, the mayor and city manager snag me for an emergency meeting; we need to make a decision immediately on legal strategy. Back to the focus group … I apologize (again!) for the interruption.

Thanks to the generosity of West Coast Labels and the David Susuki Foundation, we have had some very effective stickers made up, which we distribute. The pro-SE2 lobby has been telling Americans not to pay attention to the opposition because it is just a few radical Canadians. The stickers contradict that — representatives from both countries contributed to the design.

The group comes up with another great lobbying idea. Since a picture says a thousand words, we will have postcards printed with two pictures on the front. One of Mt. Baker, which you can hardly see through the haze of pollution, and the other showing the unique nature of the airshed with the topography of the mountainous region, which traps pollutants, creating a “chemical soup”. Obviously, adding another point source of pollutants to the magnitude of almost three tons per day would be disastrous. We will add a paragraph of explanation on the back, with room for people to add a note to express their opinion to Gov. Gary Locke (D-Wash.) and EFSEC. These will be put in as many storefronts as will take them, both in Canada and the U.S. Globe Printers offered to do them for free. This not only saves us money but, since we won’t have to fund-raise for them, it also saves precious time.

As the public information meeting put on by EFSEC was so unproductive and many folks were unable to attend, we agree to hold another in early October. This time, though, we will have a panel discussion, so if one party says something inaccurate, the other can refute it. A representative of a local television station also agrees to do a one-hour talk show on SE2’s new proposal.

This dynamic meeting is so productive that I feel better about my chaotic week. I know we are going to win this fight because of the persistence of such incredible people. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”