Secondary links

The Taste of Comox Valley Coal

Jennifer Taynen, Tide Change, Feb 28 2012

For anyone living in the Comox Valley, it can hardly be necessary to restate the threat that the proposed Raven Coal mine will pose to tourism, biodiversity, marine life, water quality, and quality of life in our community. Instead, I’d like to talk about the impact our coal will have on the communities an ocean away who will burn it.

Though I was raised in the Comox Valley, my husband, 13 month-old son, and I are currently finishing up a two year stint in northern China. Both in Beijing and Lanzhou, we experience on a daily basis what it is to live in a coal-powered country. The reality of coal as a fuel source is far dirtier than many Canadians can imagine.

We arrived in Beijing when I was five months pregnant and our first purchase, even before we had located an apartment, was a $2,500 Swiss air purifier that we moved into our hotel room. According to its own (highly suspect) statistics, China has one of the world’s highest birth defect rates, a figure that is regionally correlated to air quality. We had debated whether or not to delay our trip until after Henry was born, but the timing of the trip proved difficult to adjust, and in any case we thought that it couldn’t be as bad as the numbers made it out to be. Unfortunately, we’e found that the reality is literally choking.

When you step off the plane in Beijing on what the Chinese government calls a “non-blue sky day”, there are a few things you will notice about the air. First, there is a distinct taste left in your mouth with each breath, and as you leave the terminal building you may find that your eyes start to itch and water. If it is a particularly bad day, before you make it to the front of the taxi line-up your throat will ache when you swallow. As you drive towards the city from the airport, buildings will loom out of what looks like a dense fog. If your Mandarin is good enough to discuss the weather with your driver, he or she will likely call what you see wu or “mist”. In fact, Beijing has a near desert climate with little to no moisture in the air most of the year, so the cloud that is blocking out the sun is a soup of pollutants containing such toxins as ground level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter. In Beijing, the average day’s air pollution reading is far beyond AQI 100, the point at which a Canadian city would broadcast a public health warning. This and last winter saw quite a number of days where the Beijing readings tipped off the end of the scale, going beyond AQI 500. 

And Beijing is better than many places in northern Asia. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia or Lanzhou (where we are currently living) you can gauge the winter temperatures from in-doors simply by tasting the coal floating in the air, and each morning’s breakfast preparations begin with wiping the last night’s accumulation of soot off of the counter tops.

The Chinese government makes a huge show of posting environmental slogans and publishing pollution statistics that leave out measures of key pollutants. As a result, though foreign residents are keenly aware of the risks posed by the air they breath, most Chinese are under the impression that the perpetual shroud of smog they live in is benign. Knowledge within the expat community means that on particularly hazardous days our home becomes a retreat where expat friends from around the city leave their offices with their laptops to spend the day working in our living room beside the air filter. There is some dawning awareness of the situation among Beijing residents, thanks in large part to a blocked, but well known, air quality monitoring twitter feed based at the US embassy. ( However, even for those Chinese who are aware of the problem, there is no forum for them to voice concerns on this and other environmental issues. In any case, the vast majority of Chinese will tell you with a shrug that they are used to these “mists”, and that these are a normal part of economic development.

But stinging eyes and burning throats should not be normal. Airport closures that last for days due to smog visibility problems should not be normal. Soaring rates of respiratory infections, lung cancer, and birth defects should not be normal. And it most definitely should not be normal for a curious, active baby to be kept indoors for weeks on end because the air outside is too dangerous to breathe.

Our son did not choose to spend the first two years of his life huddled next to an air filter, but he will soon be home. Millions of people of all ages are being subjected to this pollution without their knowledge and without a means of escaping it. There is no such thing as “clean coal”. There is filthy coal and less filthy coal. Canadian coal floating in the air tastes no better than coal from any other country. Rather than pretending that what is done with our coal is something we have no control over, we have a responsibility to help and/or pressure economies at home and around the world to reduce their energy needs. And what should we do with our coal? Why don’t we just leave it were it is – in the ground.

Jennifer Taynen