Category Archives: investigative features

Robson Valley land grab threatens farming communities

no trespassing, gate, field, raush valley road, grass, security camera
One of six properties in the valley owned by billionaires Mark Walter and Robert Patton Jr, this one over 300 acres.

Beyond an iron gate, with warning signs of “No Trespassing” and of hidden security cameras, an overgrown driveway stretches past young pines. It ends in a clearing dotted with sand pits where the Lee Road school house used to stand. The fruit trees that stood beside the school house are gone too. Three deer, ears twitching, skittish, keep a watchful guard from across an adjacent field of weeds.

“Dunster’s always been this open community, everybody knows their neighbours,” Chuck McNaughton, a short but burly lifetime resident of the area said. “Now there’s locks and gates and security cameras everywhere.”

A community meeting held June 4 in Dunster was organized to discuss what many in the valley have observed over the past decade or so: large parcels of land bought up and then, to varying degrees, abandoned; property prices as steep and harsh as the mountainsides that flank the valley floor; and how difficult it is for people of ordinary means—often young families—to move into the valley.

“Quite often when the face of a community starts changing, you don’t notice it at first, it has to reach a critical mass,” Linda Fry, who attended the community meeting, said. “I think we do have to realize that change is the face of our communities.”

But change from and to what?

“The ultimate result of abandoned properties is the death of the community,” LelaniArris, president of the Dunster Community Association, said. It’s not change people in the Dunster area fear; it’s the slow strangulation of their farming community as it becomes nearly impossible for new people to move in and find affordable land, while fertile land is left fallow or mostly unused.

“A lot of us are getting older,” Chuck said. “It’s the volunteer labour we’re running short on, and that’s what keeps this community going.”

 

The Mad Land Grab

All over the world, large groups of people and organizations are buying up farmland, says Dr. Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair of Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley. Dr. Newman is tasked with studying the Canadian agriculture industry in the context of global trends.

“We’re in the middle of a global land rush. It’s not just your valley, it’s not just the province—it’s the whole world.”

farm, field, grass, fence, wire, abandoned, absentee
This property in Dunster– not owned by Fraser River Landholdings– was productive a few years ago, but has since been overgrown by trees and hawk weed.

In BC, foreign landowners don’t face any more restrictions than Canadians do.

“There’s a lot of big money sluicing around the world and land is one of the best investments going,” Dr. Newman said. “This incredible pressure on land in BC is pricing it out of the range of everyone who was born and raised here and who makes an average Canadian salary.”

Fraser River Landholdings Ltd is one company with extensive landholdings in the valley. A co-director of the company, Mark Walter, confirmed through a media representative that the company owns at least six properties, totaling about 1,000 acres, between Dome Creek and Valemount.

“The property is planned to be left as is, agricultural and recreational,” the email read.

Walter and co-director Robert Patton Jr. are wealthy American businessmen who, in 2012, bought the LA Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion as part of Guggenheim Baseball Management. Walter is also a founding partner, and current CEO, of financial assets management firm Guggenheim Partners LLC, with over $200 billion in managed assets, according to their website. Walter is also a trustee of the storied and powerful Guggenheim Foundation.

Newman said she doesn’t like to think of it as foreign capital, though. “The reality is there’s lots of people within the country in the same position, with tons of money, buying up land and sitting on it.” Only about 15 per cent of BC land is owned privately and with global capital hungry for investments, Dr. Newman fears the land rush will continue.

In the global village, where global capital permeates the local economy, national boundaries become almost irrelevant. Local community members can invest their time, labour and dreams, and can sow seeds for the future, for their children and the land they become a part of; but how does that stack up against pools of global capital, mostly impervious and ignorant to local community concerns?

“The problem,” says Dr. Newman, “is this idea of parking on the land; using land as a GIC or a safety deposit box.”

 

Old Blood

“If I were king,” Pete Amyoony says, chuckling, sitting in the kitchen of his small cabin in Dunster, sipping tea, “I would make a law that says, if you buy a piece of land and don’t put it to good use, don’t improve it, that you’re not allowed to sell it for more than you bought it.”

Pete Amyoony, Tim Haus, Aziz Haus, garden, farm, land, grow
Pete Amyoony, left, Tim Haus, far right, and Tim’s son Aziz, 3, discuss gardening on Pete’s farm.

A fantastical notion, but one that belies a certain wisdom. Amyoony has called Dunster home for some 30 years, has worked hard to pay off his 10-acre farm and is very active in the community. But circumstances have changed since he first moved into the valley.

“Land has become a commodity: to be bought, sat on, sold for more.”

Arris knows this all too well. She sold the piece of land on Lee Road where the school house sat to Fraser River Landholdings.  She still feels intimately attached to the property: her ex-husband perished in a tragic fire in one of the buildings, and she’s visibly devastated by the absence of the school house.

“I just don’t understand, why did they have to tear down the Lee Road school house?”

Just after selling the lot, Arris wanted to move a shed from the Lee Road property to her home, up the street. She was pulling the shed up Lee Road with a tractor when her realtor called; somebody had seen her, called the realtor, who told Arris that she wasn’t allowed to remove the shed since the sale was already finalized. The shed was sold with the lot, its fate up to the new owners, who evidently tore it down.

Property ownership is absolute: once the transaction is complete, any emotional or psychological value it holds for the former owner is translated into memories and dollars and cents.

“People have a right to sell for whatever reason they have decided to sell, and people have a right to buy, for whatever reasons they decide to buy,” Linda Fry, who works as a notary public, said. “These are individual decisions.”

 

New Blood

aziz haus, farm, garden, kid, child, school bus, bus
Aziz, 3, working in the garden with the school bus he calls home in behind.

A warm burst of fish odour greets you at the door of Pete’s greenhouse this time of year.

“I farm organically, with fish fertilizer,” he explains.

Despite scaling back on farming as he nears retirement, Pete has an exuberance and tireless energy. He hops off his riding lawnmower—“Those clippings will go in my compost”—and points across a rectangular plot, tilled and planted, which stretches about 100 meters away from the greenhouse and ends just before a derelict school bus and the forest in behind.

“That’s the magic school bus,” he smiles. The soft sound of clattering dishes and murmuring voices escapes the open door and windows of the bus. “Tim and his wife Susan are living in there, with their two children.”

Tim Haus, a German native, and his wife Susan Umstot, an American citizen, first travelled through Dunster on a family cycling trip a few years back. They both fell in love with the area, especially the strong sense of community. They met in the Middle East, working for Doctors Without Borders; Tim as an engineer and Susan as a nurse. They decided to make Dunster their home.

“We came here to live in the nature,” Haus says at Pete’s kitchen table with coffee in hand, eyeing his loaves of bread in the oven.  “To live for the nature, and with the nature.” His English is almost flawless.

Haus’ short hair is tousled, his hands slightly soiled. He’s rigged up a container to catch rainwater so his family can shower outdoors. It hasn’t rained much lately, though. “You can live well off the land here,” he says.

“You sure can,” Pete smiles broadly with a hint of pride. “I feel like one of the richest people in the valley when I walk into my root cellar or see my canning cupboard… the food that’s grown out of this place has been amazing.”

“See, even in Pete’s day, people moved here for philosophical reasons, more than economic reasons,” Tim says.

Pete amicably disagrees, shaking his head. “I wanted to find affordable land that I could grow on. Up until the 90s you could buy a quarter section for $25-$30,000, but now it’s $300-$400,000.” Many valley residents, especially farmers, are retiring now, Pete says. “And they sell their land to the highest bidder, and I understand that. They worked their butts off, and that’s their pension.”

“But the next generation, we know we won’t receive a pension, or as much of a pension,” Tim replies. “We have to deal with different parameters; hence we are not able to pay $300,000 for a piece of property because we will never make that kind of money living a lifestyle that we believe is good for the world, and not just good for the pocketbook.”

Haus has talked to some farmers who were willing to sell a portion of their farmland—tracts spotted with gullies and rocks that aren’t really farmable—but restrictions in the Regional District’s Official Community Plan (OCP) on subdividing land found within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) have so far thwarted him.  The Regional District, with delegated authority from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), ensures that farmable land is not divided into parcels smaller than 150 acres, as per the OCP. This way farmland is kept in larger, more productive tracts and intervening subdivisions are avoided.

ALR land stretches on either side of the Fraser River, on the valley floor. Residents mostly agree that the ALC’s aim is positive, but on the local level it makes it difficult to attract new families and farmers into the valley. With soaring real estate prices, larger parcels are that much more expensive.

The ALC includes incentives to farm land within the ALR, Lara Beckett, chair of the Agricultural Land Use standing committee at the Regional District said. “If you actually farm the land and make enough income on it for agricultural status, you can get a significant tax reduction.” But are there incentives to dissuade wealthy landowners who can afford the higher tax rates from abandoning their properties, leaving them unproductive?

“No, not really,” Beckett said. “It’s private land, so to some degree people make their own choices… It’s unfortunate, especially if it’s been productive in the past, to see it being taken over by weeds and trees; it’s a lot of work to get it back into production.”

 

wool, bike, washing machine, gizmo, invention, hippie, green energy,
Tim salvaged the sheep’s wool in the foreground before it ended in the dump. He washes it with the bike-powered machine in behind, then fleeces it to use in a yurt he’s building.

No Blood

Over the past 25 years Chuck and a neighbour have been tracking land ownership for most parcels of farmland in the valley, labeling each subsequent owner on a series of maps. Wielding a pen in calloused, scarred hands of knobby joints – a farmer’s hands – he goes through some of the oldest names in the valley. Chuck can trace his roots in the Dunster area to 1920, when his grandfather bought land—the parcel right beside Chuck’s home, in fact. He brings the maps to the Ice Cream Social sometimes, and to other reunions where people happily regale each other with stories of days past. The maps paint a picture of absentee landowners too.

Sitting in his workshop with high ceilings, various machinery and works of art – paintings, drawings, little wood carvings all the way up the walls– Chuck is quick to point out that “absentee landowners” is too vague of a notion: there are oil-patch workers with land who visit on weekends and plan to return for good once the property’s been paid off; there are others who can’t afford to live on the land they bought, but rent it out to local farmers; these landowners contribute to the community, he says. So which absentee landowners are the real concern?

“The ones that buy it, lock the gate and walk away, and then keep buying more.”

Chuck is drafting a letter addressed to Mark Walter that he plans to bring to the next community meeting on July 15. “There’s a chance that guys like Mark don’t have any idea about this stuff, how they’re affecting our community.”

It’s long been a harsh reality that the economic basis of a community determines whether it thrives or perishes, regardless of history and the sense of home locals may derive. But in the small Dunster community, the economic basis—farming—is still viable. “Every parcel along the river is crucial to this community,” Chuck says. But farming is being undermined by the current land grab, and by a lack of policies that ensure farmland is actually farmed.

Is the value of farming and food security losing out to the power of global speculation? Co-director Patton bought property in Fort Worth in 2005 for $6.5 million, and then sold it two months later for $15.7 million, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported last year. But he’s also a farmer: he’s been buying enormous ranches all over the US, ensuring surplus hay for his cattle during droughts that devastates smaller farmers. He’s managed to keep a low profile despite his enormous wealth, which, in the interview with the Star-Telegram, he attributed to his own community: “If I had grown up in Dallas, it would probably have been different. But this is how you act in Forth Worth.”

Or is farming losing out, as Chuck fears, to hunting grounds for the very wealthy? When asked if Fraser River Landholdings or Guggenheim Partners uses land in the Robson Valley for hunting the company responded by writing, “Guggenheim is not involved with Fraser River Landholding in any way.”

Pete knows it’s only rumours that have been swirling for years about the “Guggenheims” and “the hunters” and he’s eager for some answers. “The thing is, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’d like to know what they’re doing with our community. Why are they buying up land and not using it? There are those that want to use the land but can’t.”

Another community meeting is planned in Dunster for July 15. When asked if a representative from Fraser River Landholdings would be present, the media representative wrote, “We don’t know if representatives of Frazier (sic) are going to the meeting,” spelling “Fraser” incorrectly.

“Everyone’s saying everywhere, small communities are dying. But bugger it, this one’s not gonna die,” Chuck said.

Medicinal marijuana users suffer social stigma, despite new regs

The federal government introduced new regulations on medicinal marijuana last month, but local users still complain of social judgment and stigma.

While researching last week’s story on the new medicinal marijuana regulations, The Goat contacted more than a dozen local users and growers. Four were willing to speak on the issue, but nobody was willing to speak on the record. Even those legally permitted to possess or grow medical marijuana refused to speak on the record.

Pot taboo? or Pot-a-boo!

 Marijuana confiscated by Valemount RCMP in October 2012 after an effort to crack down on drug runners through the Robson Valley. One local contacted for this story who has a license to grow medical cannabis complained of being “harassed” by RCMP. Photo: Laura Keil

Marijuana confiscated by Valemount RCMP in October 2012 after an effort to crack down on drug runners through the Robson Valley. One local contacted for this story who has a license to grow medical cannabis complained of being “harassed” by RCMP. Photo: Laura Keil

One local said they feared being targeted for break-ins by those looking for marijuana, a fear created by the black market. But this local was also wary of social stigma.

“Some people think, ‘Oh, he’s just a pothead getting a free ride.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

This local suffers from debilitating back pain, and medicinal cannabis is the best medication he’s found to alleviate the pain without inducing a host of side effects.

Another local who lives close to a grow-op and dislikes the odour, feared being judged by friends who wouldn’t agree with her opinion that marijuana should not be grown at home.

“It’s a touchy subject for a lot of people, and I don’t want to offend anybody.”

Another comment by this local points to a stubborn social stigma: “Where I come from, it’s people who are lower class that use weed.”

Don Skogstad, a criminal prosecutor in Nelson, says the taboo around medicinal use of marijuana has resulted in ridiculously strict rules about where and when it can be consumed.

“If you look at the rules in US states where it’s been legalized, you can drink in a lot of places, but you cannot consume marijuana anywhere in public view.”

Skogstad said he recently gave a lecture on medicinal marijuana at the University of Toronto, but that the university didn’t want “medical marijuana” and “the University of Toronto” to appear in the same ad.

“And yet it’s a perfectly legal, viable, court-ordered constitutional right.”

Skogstad pointed to a number of documentaries that suggest marijuana was treated with a racist paranoia in the early 20th century, targeting minorities more than dealing with the scientific aspects of the drug.

“And that persists today, that it’s a really bad thing, when in fact it’s got genuine, proven, medical benefits.”

Medicinal value still questioned

“You’ve got Health Canada claiming it’s not a therapeutic treatment, and then you have them asking doctors to prescribe it. They’re asking doctors to prescribe a substance illegal in any other context.” -BC Compassion Club Society.  Photo: Thomas Rohner
“You’ve got Health Canada claiming it’s not a therapeutic treatment, and then you have them asking doctors to prescribe it. They’re asking doctors to prescribe a substance illegal in any other context.” -BC Compassion Club Society. Photo: Thomas Rohner

But the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons does not acknowledge any proven medical benefits. A letter in their College Quarterly publication this past March, written by CEO Heidi Oetter, said “in the absence of scientific evidence, many physicians have been reluctant to authorize its use.” Oetter wrote that the medical community acknowledges possible relief to those suffering from a terminal illness or chronic pain “when conventional therapies cease to have an effect.”

This point is untrue, however, to patients who choose cannabis instead of “conventional therapies”. The local suffering from chronic back pain, for example, says that while he used narcotics prescribed by his doctor, he experienced a series of complications including appetite and sleep problems.

“You can’t take narcotics every day of your life. Otherwise you’re just not you.”

Dr. Paul Hornby, a pathologist from the Vancouver area, has been studying cannabis for 15 years, focusing on its applications for cancer patients for the past six years. He says there’s “tonnes of scientific evidence” on cannabis’ medicinal applications. He says the power of the pharmaceutical industry and their lobbying efforts prevent cannabis from being recognized for its medicinal use.

“As a medicine, there’s no way the pharmaceutical industry can afford to have [cannabis] legal because they’ll lose their analgesic market, they’ll lose their anti-depressant market, and they can’t have that.”

Oetter’s letter says, “If and when appropriate research is conducted, physicians may eventually have accurate information in the form of a clinical practice guideline on the use of marijuana.” But Hornby points out that to develop a clinical guideline, clinical trials have to be run and “we’re not allowed to right now because there’s no licensing for that.”

Jamie Shaw, communications director for the BC Compassion Club Society, calls the letter by Oetter “ridiculous” but acknowledges the difficult position the new regulations put doctors in. She points to the preamble of the new rules which says that nowhere in the world is cannabis acknowledged as a therapeutic remedy.

“You’ve got Health Canada claiming it’s not a therapeutic treatment, and then you have them asking doctors to prescribe it. They’re asking doctors to prescribe a substance illegal in any other context.”

In her letter, Oetter wrote, “It is irresponsible of Health Canada to download the risks, legal and otherwise, to physicians as gatekeepers to marijuana.” Oetter did not respond to an interview request by press time.

Despite the College’s stance on medical cannabis, doctors and nurses can dispense the drug directly to patients under the new regulations.  But as the licensing and regulatory body for all physicians and surgeons in BC they have considerable influence. At least one doctor local to the Valley cited this letter as his basis for refusing to prescribe medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, taboos persist
Shaw says that patients who come to the BCCCS wellness centre often don’t realize the social stigma they’re under until talking to somebody without being judged.

“It’s a huge relief, but they didn’t know anything different.”

Shaw says many patients have medical conditions that already have a stigma attached, like HIV or mental health issues. And many can’t even tell their neighbours or family about their use.

“Their families can’t figure out why they’re doing better. They’re happy they’re doing better, but the patients can’t tell their families a lot of times.”

As long as the social stigma persists, patients using medical marijuana are unlikely to lobby for their constitutional right to the medication.

New rules won’t improve community safety, lawyer says

 “A lot of this is based on the same old emotional, gut-reaction, stigma stuff of reefer madness…” -John Conroy, criminal prosecutor. Photo: Thomas Rohner

“A lot of this is based on the same old emotional, gut-reaction, stigma stuff of reefer madness…” -John Conroy, criminal prosecutor. Photo: Thomas Rohner

Every press release issued by Health Canada on the new medicinal marijuana regulations last month said that Canadian communities would be safer as a result of the new regulations, but none of them said how or why that was the case.

Presumably, the government is implicitly referring to the same-old fears associated with cannabis grow-ops: fire and mould risks and drug-related violence.  But the reality, according to experts, does not support these implied fears nor the government’s assertion that communities will be safer.

John Conroy, a criminal lawyer who has dealt with marijuana cases for 40 years, says he’s talked to a lot of lawyers in different BC municipalities who admit there hasn’t been a single fire from a medical grow-op yet, let alone a death from a fire, but they fear being the first municipality to have either.

“Statistics show that most house fires are in kitchens, and we’re not about to take kitchens out of people’s homes.”

Conroy said if grow-ops were properly inspected and permitted, mould wouldn’t be any more of a risk “than a person with a lot of house plants.” And he doubts the new rules will make Canadian communities safer since it’s the prohibition of the drug that creates the circumstances for violence.

“If you can’t go to the police when you’re ripped off, when you can’t resort to peaceful remedies, presumably you resort to violent remedies. We’ve known that since booze prohibition in the early days of the 20th century.”

As for young people, Conroy says it’s easier for them to access a drug on the black market than on a regulated market.

“The content of the drug is regulated then too, so you don’t have people dying from other stuff put into the drugs. That wouldn’t happen if the stuff was under control. It’s out of control because of prohibition.”

Last year the federal government brought in mandatory minimums for illegal grow-ops. The sentences range from 6 months for five plants up to two years for 500 plants. Conroy says organized crime will just get someone willing to carry out the jail sentence, while “mom and pop” operations will disappear.

“So the effect of mandatory minimums is that they squeeze the market and push the price up. When things on the black market become worth more, people shoot each other more because there’s a greater value when they get ripped off.”

Conroy said the regulations introduced in 2001 created a glut in the black market, mostly because many designate growers are growing beyond their allotment and selling it “out the back door”. The glut has driven black market prices down and subsequently reduced violence, but the government hasn’t acknowledged that, he said. Instead they’ve created regulations based on the exaggerated fear of gang-violence.

“A lot of this is based on the same old emotional, gut-reaction, stigma stuff of reefer madness, exacerbated by people thinking the drug war is still so bad that someone’s going to get shot in the crossfire because of a grow-op at the end of your street.”

Under the new regulations, private individuals can no longer grow in residential areas. Instead Licensed Commercial Producers will operate secure facilities.

Click HERE to read The Goat’s story on the new medicinal marijuana regulations.

New medicinal marijuana regulations will quadruple cost for some users

Marihuana for Medical Purposes, MMPR, Medicinal marihuana access program, medicinal marihuana access regulations, MMAR, MMAP, Conservative Party of Canada, legalize marijuana, decriminalize marijuana
doctors and nurses can dispense the drug directly under the new regulations

Home grown medical marijuana will be a thing of the past under new regulations ushered in by the federal government last month.

The Marihuana For Medical Purposes Regulations came into effect last month replacing Health Canada’s Marihuana for Medical Purposes Program introduced in 2001, but both regimes will be used until April 1, 2014, to allow for a transition. “Marihuana” is how the government spells the drug in its legislation.

According to a press release on Health Canada’s website, the new regulations aim “to treat marihuana as much as possible like any other narcotic used for medical purposes” and to create “conditions for a new, commercial industry responsible for its production and distribution”.

The rules allowing medicinal cannabis to be grown in private dwellings will expire March 31, 2014, replaced by “Licensed Commercial Producers.” The Licensed Producers will operate secure facilities outside of residential areas and courier their product to users and health practitioners. Health Canada will also end its own production and distribution next March.
With the new rules patients will no longer have to apply to Health Canada directly because doctors and nurses can fill out an abbreviated application form. Patients then show this form to Licensed Producers or obtain dried marijuana from doctors or nurses, who are now allowed to dispense the drug directly.
Health Canada currently distributes medical marijuana for a subsidized price of $5/g, according to a cost-benefit analysis it released in December, 2012. The analysis estimates the cost of homegrown cannabis at $1.80/g-$2.80/g. The estimated cost under the new system is $8.80/g, plus shipping, but the market will ultimately set prices. That’s more than a four-fold increase for users who grow themselves.

Reaction to Regs

The BC Compassion Club Society was quick to respond to the new regulations. The Society distributes marijuana to medical users only. It does so illegally, but police have typically turned a blind eye.

The Society, which was consulted by the federal government in drafting the new rules, submitted a number of recommendations to Health Canada earlier this year. One recommendation was to keep personal grow licenses which drastically reduce the cost for patients, “many of whom are already burdened by extensive medical expenses” the Society wrote.
John Conroy, a BC criminal lawyer with 40 years experience in medicinal marijuana cases, said 60-70 per cent of people who apply for medical marijuana are poor.
Conroy is working on a constitutional challenge to the new rules. He says the new rules violate the constitutional rights of marijuana-using patients who will no longer be allowed to grow at home or buy from a home-growing supplier.

“If you have a contained unit, specially built and safe…if you’ve had it inspected and there’s some limits on numbers—instead of saying not at all—that would be reasonable.”

Those who complied with the old rules and invested in equipment and labour to produce their own cannabis are not being compensated under the new rules.

Conroy will challenge the restriction of medical marijuana to only the dried bud. The BC Supreme Court found the restriction unconstitutional last year and acknowledged the safe use of cannabis derivatives like salves and juice, which do not produce a “high.” The court gave the government one year to change the law. The government hasn’t complied.

Don Skogstad, a criminal lawyer in Nelson specializing in marijuana cases, says the continued limitation to cannabis derivatives is a deliberate oversight on the government’s part.

“The government claims that when [marijuana] is put into these derivatives, the THC is hidden. But I’m not aware of anybody who can get the THC back out of the derivative and use it for recreation any more. It’s an ideological decision.”

Jamie Shaw, director of communications for the BCCCS, says the limitation on dried marijuana is irrational and impractical.

“We have patients who are physically incapable of smoking.”

Shaw points out that patients in hospitals will be able to access the drug, but have no way of consuming it.

“You can’t bake it into cookies because you’re in a hospital, and you’re not allowed to smoke.”

Shaw, Skogstad and Conroy independently agreed the new rules don’t create an effective market structure. All three pointed to US dispensary models, where community-based centres can dispense the drug. Licensed Producers, on the other hand, will be limited to secure couriers and healthcare professionals willing to keep a stock. Skogstad points out that Licensed Producers will require a big capital investment and “without a dispensary or even just a pharmacy you could develop a relationship with, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your product to market.”

Skogstad also wonders if compassion clubs will survive the new regulations.

“If you’re [a Licensed Producer and] going to spend $2-million … are you not going to go to the government next April 1st and ask, ‘How do you allow these people to compete with me? How do you expect my business to grow?’”

Skogstad says for now tolerance by the local police force, usually non-RCMP, allow the clubs to operate.

The Valley RCMP detachment under Sgt. Darren Woroshelo couldn’t be reached for comment, despite multiple phone calls and over a week to respond.

Local Reaction

In addition to substantially raised costs, medicinal cannabis users in the Valley may have to travel further to access it.

Standard practise for shipping controlled substances via courier is to get a signature upon delivery. If nobody is there to sign, it gets sent to the closest terminal. Since Valley mail is delivered to post boxes, the closest terminal is either Kamloops or Prince George. Puralator, for example, doesn’t have an agent in the Valley qualified to hold packages of controlled substances. Their closest terminal is in Kamloops. Canada Post is the only local option for obtaining orders through secure courier.

The Goat interviewed a number of local users and growers, all of which requested to be anonymous citing concerns around possible thefts from their homes and fear of social stigma.

One Valley residents lives in the neighbourhood of a grow-op and is overwhelmed with the odour. The smell gets everywhere in her house and car.

“I don’t care if it’s legal or not, as long as it doesn’t affect me or my family.”

She’s been asking local government, along with some neighbours, to have a bylaw implemented.

Another local became a grower when his wife fell ill with terminal cancer in order to be her caregiver. After months of painkiller cocktails and liquid morphine, he started baking her cookies, which were more effective and improved her appetite. He suffers from MS but doesn’t experience enough pain to warrant medication. Should the time come though, he would turn to edible cannabis products.

“I wouldn’t buy any of the government controlled stuff, but good, strong home grown that works.”

A different local has been legally growing for about five years and said he’ll comply with the new rules, but doesn’t know what he’ll do for pain management. Compassion clubs are expensive and the government doesn’t know how to grow good product, he said.

“It’s trash. It may as well be ragweed from Mexico.”

Another local who uses medical marijuana legally for pain relief has switched from compassion clubs to Health Canada, which is subsidized up to 50 per cent. After March 31 he’ll have to find a Licensed Producer at a higher cost, however, and pay shipping fees.

He says going down the illegal route is not an option for him, out of consideration for his family.

Check next week’s Goat for a follow-up story on the social stigma surrounding users and how the government thinks the new regulations will make communities safer.

Sources

For BCCCS reaction to the new regulations, including recommendations, click here.

For Health Canada’s press releases on the new regulations, click here.

For Health Canada’s Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement, including a cost-benefit analysis, click here.

Investigative Feature: tar sands oil poised for west coast shipping, one way or another

DOT-111 tankers, like those pictured, are capable of carrying dangerous goods, according to Transportation Canada’s safety criteria, but transportation safety agency throughout North America admit to safety design flaws.
DOT-111 tankers, like those pictured, are capable of carrying dangerous goods, according to Transportation Canada’s safety criteria, but transportation safety agency throughout North America admit to safety design flaws.

Whether the much-maligned Northern Gateway or the controversial twinning of the Trans Mountain pipelines actually come to fruition or not, heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta are poised to flow to the west coast, according to oil industry experts and negotiations involving rail companies.

Substantial opposition to pipeline projects in BC has proven to be a boon for rail companies, which have experienced exponential growth in transporting crude oil in recent years.  According to data compiled from Statistics Canada, the monthly average of rail cars loaded with fuel oils and crude petroleum in the Western Division of Canada increased by 88.6 per cent between 2011 and 2012, and increased an additional 49.2 per cent in the first two months of 2013.  Canadian Pacific Railway reported record first quarter results in 2013 , citing the crude business as a key driver, and expects to nearly triple its carloads carrying crude by the end of 2015. And the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby group – projects Western Canadian crude exports by rail in the final quarter of 2013 to be nearly triple what it was in the third quarter of 2012.

Oil transported by rail has been in the national media’s spotlight recently because of this sharp growth rate, and because of a string of recent derailments spilling crude oil. CP’s latest spill occurred May 21st outside Jansen, Saskatchewan ; on April 3rd, near White River, Ontario, a CP derailment spilled more than 65,500 litres.

Given these trends, will the Robson Valley see an increase of oil on rail sent through its communities?  Is rail a safer option than pipeline?  Will the communities be consulted or informed about the increase transportation of crude oil (a dangerous good, as defined by Transportation Canada) through their communities?

Crude through the Robson Valley?

Stephen Harper, making a public pitch for the Kestyone XL Pipeline in NYC earlier this month, said he thinks the facts are “overwhelmingly” on the side of approval, according to a CBC story. Harper said he was confident oil from the tar sands would be sent to the US Gulf Coast, if not by pipeline then by rail.

The sentiment of rail being an alternative to pipelines is echoed by BC media mogul David Black, whose company Kitimat Clean Ltd. proposes to build a refinery near Kitimat which would be designed specifically to process heavy crude from Alberta’s tar sands.

“If BC remains set against a pipeline the oil will come to the refinery by rail,” Black wrote in a proposal presentation to the BC Chamber of Commerce in March.  “CN and the oil companies are keen on this.”

Black’s proposed refinery could handle the entire volume of the Northern Gateway Pipeline: over 500,000 barrels a day.

In a phone interview Black confirmed that he’s been in early conversations with CN to transport 400,000-500,000 barrels a day. But his preference is for a pipeline.

“Experts say the pipeline is safer.”

Black recently received the backing of China’s largest bank for his $25-billion proposal, expressed support from Christy Clark and has an agreement with the BC government for 3,000 hectares of Crown land, according to both Black’s press releases and various news articles. If Black’s proposal is to becomes a reality, that could mean 12 more trains a day through the Robson Valley (six northbound and six southbound), Black said.

According to the CN customer service line, the daily number of trains coming through the Valley is currently 40-45.

Black said small towns along the CN route with level crossings would rue having 12 more trains running through every day.

“Obviously there’s more disruptions for people with those level crossings,” Black said on the phone. “Valemount fits that description, I’ve been through there myself on the train a few times.”

Black’s project has been dismissed by some people as lacking support from the major energy companies in Alberta. But in a Financial Post article on June 1, Black responded to the lack of interest from Alberta for his proposed refinery: “I don’t need them to put their money up, and I don’t need their expertise. I can get the money elsewhere and I can buy the expertise.”

Another ambitious project currently under development, by a company called G7G, proposes to build a new rail line from Fort McMurray to just outside Fairbanks, Alaska, where heavy crude from Alberta could then be piped to Valdez.  G7G was awarded $1.8-million from the Alberta government in May, according to a press release on their website, to conduct further research. Although G7G’s proposed route would go north of the Valley, the scope of its ambition points to an increase of oil flowing from Alberta to the West Coast, one way or another. And the exponential growth of CN and CP transports in crude oil –forecasted into the foreseeable future – means that protesting pipelines, whether Northern Gateway or Trans Mountain, may do little to slow the flow of oil down.

Greg Stringham, VP of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said rail companies are currently investigating options to move crude by rail to the West Coast. “We have been removing what we use for diluent from the West Coast into Western Canada already, so [rail companies] have the facilities in place, but I don’t think they’re using them yet,” Stringham said.

Mark Hallman, media spokesman for CN, said there are no fixed plans to transport heavy crude from Alberta to the West Coast at this time.

Hallman notes, however, that CN started testing movement specifically of crude oils in 2010; in 2011 they moved around 5,000 car loads of crude oil, then in 2012 they moved more than 30,000 car loads of crude oil to various North American markets.

“We believe the company has the scope to double that scope of business in 2013.”

“Our corporate policy is not to engage in speculation,” Hallmann added.

CP Rail is already transporting 5,000-8,000 barrels per day to the Burnaby refinery, Ray Lord, manager of public and government affairs at the refinery said.

“We’ve just initiated deliveries here by crude, started in late May … given the fact that the pipeline is over subscribed.”

Any options involving CN rail transporting crude to the west coast would inevitably involve the Robson Valley, through which the CN line runs.

Safety of crude transport by rail questioned by transportation safety agencies

The safety of rail cars to transport crude oil has been harshly criticized in Canada as well as the US.

An American Press story published late last year revealed that over two-thirds of the continental fleet uses a model called DOT-111 to transport dangerous goods.  DOT-111’s are easily recognizable by their soda-bottle-shape and wide-range use across the continent. And an email correspondence between Greepeace Canada and Transportation Canada – shared with The Goat – verified the same is true in Canada; perhaps even more so. But transportation safety agencies on both sides of the border acknowledge serious safety flaws.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board released an investigation in 2009 of a 1994 derailment, stating, “The susceptibility of 111 tank cars to release product at derailment and impact is well documented. The transport of a variety of the most hazardous products in such cars continues.” The American National Transportation Safety Board conducted an investigation of a 2009 CN derailment and fire, noting “that DOT-111 tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents … This accident demonstrates the need for extra protection …”

Hallman points out that rail cars are not owned by CN, but owned by shippers or rail leasing companies.

“The standards of the cars are set by regulators such as Transport Canada or the US Federal Railroad Administration … and then car manufactures comply with those standards.”

But despite transportation safety agencies making safety recommendations in both countries on the use of DOT-111’s, the rail industry has resisted the costly changes, according to a number of news reports.

“The tanker companies, they’re not allowed to build tankers like this anymore,” Keith Stewart, a climate change campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, said. “What [the rail industry has] successfully done is to have the old ones grandfathered so that they don’t have to retrofit them to be safer.”

But Hallman says “rail transportation is highly regulated by the federal government. CN complies with existing regulation.”

The American rail industry made a similar proposal to the US National Transportation Safety Board, leaving 30,000-45,000 cars carrying dangerous goods out of their plan to increase rail safety. The proposal is currently being considered by the US Department of Transportation—a process that could take several years. In the meantime, DOT-111’s that have been proven susceptible to rupture upon derailment continue to be used to transport dangerous goods across North America.

War of numbers, nobody winning

The pipeline and rail industries are currently fighting a war of numbers to prove which mode of transportation is safer, with both industries claiming numbers are on their side. Most analysts agree, however, that while derailments are more frequent than pipeline leaks, lower volumes are usually released and are immediately known, while pipeline leaks can spill far higher volumes, may go undetected longer, and may occur in more remote areas, slowing response times.

Which is better for the Robson Valley?

Residents won’t be asked on the rail option because rail companies don’t face the same obstacles of regulation as pipelines do, including public consultation, according to a briefing note obtained by the Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act last October and reported in a CBC story. Transport Canada officials acknowledged the lack of hurdles facing transport of crude by rail, compared to pipelines, but marine terminals and tanker traffic would still be subject to environmental assessments, according to the story.

When asked if CN conducts public consultation on its proposals to transport crude to the west coast, Hallman said, “No that’s not the case. CN has been shipping various petroleum and chemical products for over a hundred years, in terms of the predecessors of the company.”

Another alternative

With the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion plans progressing, and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Joint Review expected to reach a conclusion by December, the future of oil flowing through Robson Valley – by either rail or pipe – is very much at a crossroads.  But for Stewart, who has campaigned against climate change for over a decade, his perfect world is markedly different than David Black’s.

“The solution to the tar sands can’t be found in the tar sands,” Stewart said. “There’s no technology you can use in the tar sands that can fix the problem…the only way to fix it is that carbon has to stay in the ground.”

“I have sympathy for that myself,” Black said when asked for his response to Stewart’s quote.  “But it’s not feasible today to do away with oil…so we have to be pragmatic about this. We have to move from where we are today to a different place in time.”

“Before we knew about climate change,” Stewart said, “fossil fuels had greatly improved the quality of life, but now they’re putting all of those improvements at risk. What people need is energy, not oil, and we need to make that shift.”

“It’s a worry for everybody,” Black said, “because CO2 emissions are ramping up, not ramping down.”