Thursday, April 15, 2004

Cache Creek trust broken in chicken crisis

VICTORIA - The government plan to dump dead chickens at the Cache Creek landfill relied on trust. Local farmers had to believe that the process would be safe. Local residents - and people along the route - had to trust that the governments had exhausted every alternative before using emergency powers to force dead chickens on Cache Creek.
The governments didn't really consult or explain, or justify their actions. We know best, and you can trust us, they said.
Sadly, that's a doomed position. Citizens don't trust governments. That's not a slag on any particular political party. The NDP brought us the fast ferries; Gordon Campbell vowed not to rip up contracts; the federal Liberals brought us political abuses and the sponsorship scandal. Our skepticism is reasonable.
Because we don't trust them, governments have two choices. Act unilaterally and face the consequences. Or make the effort to convince us that they are right, and that the risks are small and necessary.
The governments chose the first course, trying to force their plan through using emergency powers to let them break the written agreements developed as part of the plan to move Lower Mainland garbage to Cache Creek.
It didn't work. The local people - led by Mayor John Ranta, a politician with Liberal ties, and supported by their MLA - blockaded the dump.
The governments' initial misstep made their problem much greater.
Trust had been, once again, broken. Efforts to justify the decision - belatedly - faced a much tougher audience as a result.
So far, the arguments from the people in Cache Creek opposing the transfer make more sense than the governments' defense of the plan.
All precautions are being taken, the governments say. The dead chickens will be double bagged; the bags will be disinfected and then placed in a watertight bin which is covered with a tarp. The trucks that carry the bins will be followed by an emergency clean-up truck in case of accident. At the dump, a layer of bags will be covered with six inches of lime and two feet of clay. A second layer of dead birds will be covered by another six inches of lime and three feet of clay.
Sounds like serious precautions.
But all through the outbreak, a lot of serious precautions have been taken, and the avian flu just keeps on spreading. The newest site is in Cloverdale, well outside the containment zone. Special checkpoints have been set up at ferry terminals and truck inspection stations to halt the spread.
And people in the Cache Creek area note warily that the government so far hasn't identified the landfill at Burns Bog in the Lower Mainland as a chicken disposal site. If the process is so safe, why aren't the birds staying in the region, they ask. How will the government guarantee that a seagull won't rip open one of those bags, or human error won't allow the virus to spread to their farms?
The dead chickens have to go somewhere, but the governments will have to make their case much more convincingly before they can expect to find a community willing to become home to someone else's hazardous waste.
The best method of disposal, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, is on the farm. The carcasses can be composted in the barns, a process which generates enough heat to kill the avian flu virus. In European outbreaks mobile incinerators have been brought around.
The second choice is incineration at other sites.
And landfill disposal comes third.
Meanwhile, the people of Cache Creek aren't going to accept government claims on blind faith. And other communities considering allowing landfill sites - on the basis of promised protections from the province - are now going to see that those promises may be broken too easily.
No one expects a perfect response in a time of crisis. But now it's time for governments to learn from their errors and move on.
Footnote: Our methods of raising and marketing chickens may be partly responsible for this disaster. When millions of birds are being raised in a small area, the stage is set for a devastating outbreak. Our system of marketing boards - limiting the number producers to keep prices high - may be increasing the risk by encouraging centralized production and blocking smaller and regional producers unable to afford to buy quota. It's time for a closer look.

The rich do get richer, and the poor poorer

It's official - the rich do get rich while the poor get poorer.

Especially in B.C.

BC Stats reports that the income gap between the richest and poorest British Columbians has been steadily widening.

"Urban inequality in BC increased over the last two decades, as the gap between the lowest and highest-income earners expanded in both Victoria and Vancouver," BC Stats reported.
The findings come from a Statistics Canada study that compared incomes in 27 urban areas across Canada.

B.C. topped the list both for the income gap and the rate of increase in the chasm between rich and poor.
In Vancouver the poorest tenth of the population saw their real income fall 11 per cent between 1980 and 2000. Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10 per cent had a real income - that's income adjusted for inflation - nine-per-cent higher than in 1980.

Back in 1980 the top 10 per cent of the population had incomes on average 5.3 times as large as their counterparts on the bottom of the economic ladder. But by 2000, they were earning 6.4 times as much as the tenth of the population with the lowest incomes in Vancouver.

Results were similar in Victoria, where the poorest 10 per cent saw their incomes rise two per cent over 20 years. The top tenth of the population had an average increase of 14 per cent.
The gap between rich and poor in Vancouver is the greatest in Canada.

The increasing inequality may be linked to immigration levels, the BC Stats review found. Recent immigrants made up 16.6 per cent of the Vancouver population in 2000, up from 10.3 per cent in 1980.

"New immigrants often experience a period of relatively low income while they establish themselves in the new country," the report said. More new immigrants means more low-income earners.

The study found that new immigrants are increasingly likely to wind up with low-paying jobs. In 1980 about one in fine recent immigrant was working at a low-income level.

"This suggests that new immigrants are becoming increasingly isolated, economically, from the mainstream of society," the report suggested.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Forest communities face huge crisis in 15 years

VICTORIA - The crushing economic impact of the pine beetle disaster is going to slam B.C. communities in 15 years.
The infested trees will mostly be gone, either harvested or too damaged to have any value. The next generation of trees will be decades away from maturity.
Across the Interior and North, forest-dependent communities - that's almost all of them - will be facing annual allowable cut reductions of 20 per cent to 30 per cent. There won't be enough fibre to keep mills operating, or loggers working.
That's the bad news.
The good news, or at least hopeful news, is that we have 15 years to prepare. And communities and government have taken the first step in looking ahead to the grisly problem.
Roger Harris, minister for forest operations, outlined the problem at the last televised cabinet meeting. The cabinet's reaction was a little disturbing. No minister asked about the coming crisis. (They did make sure no extra money would be spent on efforts to prepare.)
But still, the problem was placed on the table. That's remarkable. We're not as a society much good at long-term thinking. It is a huge advantage to begin working now to prepare for an economic crisis 10 years that will come after the Vancouver Olympics.
There's been lots of talk about the pine beetle infestation. An area about six times as large as Vancouver Island has been affected, and thousands of trees are dying.
The immediate focus is on using the infected wood. For 10 to 15 years, depending on the climate, the timber is still useful. Harvesting it before the value is lost will save jobs and protect government revenues. (Targeted harvesting could also slow the infestation's spread.)
But the much bigger problems are about 15 years away, when communities find themselves facing a sharply reduced timber supply.
Harris said across the Interior and North the annual allowable cut will be cut by 20 per cent to 30 per cent.
The impact is enormous. In the Quesnel area the timber supply is expected to be cut by almost one-third. About three-quarters of the 12,000 area jobs are tied to the forest industry. Do the math, and you find that about 2,600 jobs at risk. Multiply that across scores of communities, and you have an idea of the impact. (Imagine a coming economic blow that would see 300,000 people laid off in the Lower Mainland.)
It may not be that bad. But the best predictions are for a huge crisis.
There are no easy solutions. The current efforts are aimed at harvesting the beetle-infested wood before it loses value. Harris told cabinet some 500 million cubic metres of wood will be affected within three years. At current harvest levels about 200 million cubic metres of that timber will be wasted. That's more than three years' harvest for the entire province.
The solution is to use the wood more quickly, But although the government has raised the allowable cut, companies haven't found markets for the wood. Cabinet accepted Harris' plan to try and encourage new uses for the damaged wood.
The effort is worthwhile, but faces huge challenges. Solutions like an OSB plant sound fine, but a plant like the one going into Fort St. John costs $200 million and only uses about one million cubic metres a year, a fraction of the glut.
And no amount of success will change the future reality.
Harris won approval for the first steps. An economic diversification director has been appointed to help communities prepare for the crisis. A community advisory group, including First Nations, municipalities, industry and environmentalists will meet twice a year to review progress.
It's a small start.
But it's an important one, and the Liberals deserve credit for facing the problem.
Footnote: Cabinet asked no questions about the long-term crisis after Harris' presentation. Premier Gordon Campbell and Financed Minister Gary Collins did make sure no extra spending was involved this year, noting that the Liberal commitment to balance the budget has left no room for extra spending.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Citizens' assembly makes Liberal MLAs twitchy

VICTORIA - The citizens' assembly on electoral reform seems to be making some Liberal MLAs pretty nervous.
The assembly is the most important thing that's going to happen to politics in B.C. in your lifetime. A group of 160 randomly selected citizens are getting together to decide if there's a better way of electing governments. If they think there is, a proposal will go to a referendum at the same time as the provincial election in May 2005.
It's a bold democratic move from Premier Gordon Campbell. Not many politicians would tamper with the system that got them into power; fewer would take the risk of handing the task to ordinary citizens. Give Campbell credit.
But not all the Liberals are so confident in the peoples' judgment. (Odd, since it was the people who put them in office.)
The citizens' assembly is independent, but a legislative committee has been appointed to receive its reports, including five Liberals, New Democrat Joy MacPhail and newly independent member Elayne Brenzinger.
And at the committee's first meeting this month, a couple of Liberal MLAs got mighty skittish about this democracy thing.
Kamloops MLA Kevin Krueger, the committee's vice-chair, was especially concerned about the assembly's first public report. That eight-page document set out the results of months of research and study and was intended as a starting point for 49 public meetings around the province in May and June.
Krueger accused the assembly of being close-minded. "I was surprised, Dr. Blaney, that the preliminary statement so clearly demonstrated that the assembly had made up its mind to lean in a particular direction, being proportional representation." (Jack Blaney is the government-appointed chair for the process.)
Krueger pulls one sentence from the report to back his claim, citing a passage in which the assembly says it wants to hear if the public agrees "that a more proportional system would better reflect the basic values of our province's population."
It's a risky accusation. It hardly seems sensible to ask ordinary citizens to bring their common sense, commitment and knowledge to a task only to have the government members sniping at them.
But it's bizarre in this case, because the assembly's report was remarkably balanced, noting the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and potential alternatives. The report was clear to emphasize that the assembly had reached no decision on whether any change is needed. That's why the public hearings are so important.
In fact Gordon Gibson, hired by the Liberals to come up with the assembly process, had suggested a much more specific set of proposals from the group by this point. Instead, they decided to keep the options as open as possible for public discussion.
Krueger wasn't alone in his concerns. Vancouver Kingsway MLA Rob Nijjar said he shared the worries.
And Nijjar had his own complaint, one that revealed something about life in the Liberal caucus.
Nijjar was worried about "a highly politically charged" letter to the editor in the Vancouver Sun from one of the the assembly members. Shouldn't members have to clear all letters or communications with Blaney, Nijjar asked?
I checked the letter. It was five paragraphs long. It opened with an observation that the Liberals' secret caucus suspensions might not be appreciated by constituents of the banned MLAs. And it mainly encouraged people to participate in the work of the assembly if they thought the system could be improved. It wasn't highly politically charged.
Blaney rightly responded that the process involved trust in the judgment of the assembly members.
But it makes you wonder about the Liberal MLAs' view of the world, and if they think everything they write or say has to be run past the party chiefs.
It was a disappointing start for the legislative committee.
The citizens' assembly is an excellent, brave initiative. Check out its web page - www. The project deserves your attention and support.
Footnote: What's odd about the position taken by Krueger and Nijjar is that one of the main results of a shift to a more proportional form of representation would be a strong role for MLAs. We've drifted into a system in which power is concentrated in the office of the premier or prime minister; change offers a chance to give it back to elected MLAs.