Air pollution, greenhouse gases on the rise in Whistler 

Engineering department to present plan to council to improve air quality, lower emissions

The mountain air is not what it used to be.

According to a study of air quality in the Sea to Sky airshed, Whistler is literally choking on its success, as a growing number of cars, trucks and buildings pump more and more pollutants into the air.

Combined with the air that travels up the valley from Squamish and Vancouver, the air quality in Whistler can actually be worse here than in communities to the south.

"About two years ago I got a phone call from the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection saying they wanted to meet with me, senior guys from the ministry," recalled Brian Barnett, the general manager of engineering and public works for the RMOW.

"They showed us a slide show on air quality in the corridor. They were concerned that the data for Whistler was increasing in terms of contaminant levels. They said if it continues to increase, the air quality will be so bad in the valley they would – like they do in the Fraser Valley – have to issue activity warnings.

"I said there was no way that this can happen."

Since that meeting Barnett and municipal employees have been working on an Integrated Energy, Air Quality and Greenhouse Gas Management Plan for the Whistler airshed. Barnett presented that plan at the March 4 AWARE meeting, and will ask council to adopt it at their March 15 meeting.

According to Barnett it is the first management plan of its kind in Canada, which means that they had to start with a blank page.

The plan tackles a number of air pollution sources, from transportation to buildings to greenhouse gases emitted from the landfill.

The most common air contaminants in Whistler are the result of Diesel Particulate Matter, including ash and sulfates, which are responsible for most health problems associated with air pollution. An estimated 70 to 90 per cent of cancers caused by air quality are the result of DPM.

Greenhouse gas emissions are also higher, with levels expected to increase by 44 per cent between 1990 and 2020 if we don’t act – the "business as usual scenario". Whistler and its partners have committed to reducing emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels, which the municipality hopes to achieve by reducing energy consumption, switching to natural gas from propane, and diverting more solid waste from the landfill.

"Municipal buildings and vehicles only consume about three per cent of the energy in the valley, and this report recognizes that to move forward we need a community initiative, and it’s going to take a lot of participation to achieve the results desired in here."

According to Cora Hallsworth, the project manager and a consultant with Vancouver-based The Sheltair Group, which worked on the management plan, the primary concern in Whistler is particulate matter, although ozone and greenhouse gases are also important. Particulate matter concentrations do spike from time to time, occasionally exceeding provincial safe levels. They can also be higher than recorded at the Chilliwack airport, which is often used as an example of poor air quality.

"As we know, Whistler is still a relatively clean airship, but what we’ve seen here is a case for actions. There have been spikes (in particulate matter) so preventative action is needed. The time is now to work on these things and that’s part of this integrated plan," said Hallsworth.

One of the actions the municipality would like to see taken is for Terasen Gas to build a natural gas pipeline from Squamish to Whistler, coinciding with the highway construction that is currently taking place. Natural gas burns cleaner than propane gas – propane gives off emissions similar to diesel – resulting in significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter. Propane is a major source of energy in Whistler, used by many hotels and homes for heating.

"We can reduce diesel particulate matter by 90 per cent by switching from diesel to natural gas. We can reduce nitrogen oxides 66 per cent by switching from diesel to natural gas. B.C. Transit is looking at natural gas and hybrid vehicles, which would reduce our emissions even more," said Barnett. "A quantum step needs to take place."

Terasen Gas, which has limited propane storage facilities in Whistler, is currently reviewing the possibility of bringing a natural gas pipeline up from Squamish, and expects to reach a decision in the next month.

The municipality also looked into the possibility of regulating vehicles through the AirCare program used in the Lower Mainland, but rejected it because Whistler residents and organizations only account for a small percentage of vehicular emissions.

If all of the elements of the comprehensive plan are put into place, greenhouse gas will still increase 22 per cent over 1990 levels by 2020 as growth continues, according to Barnett.

"We recognize that a tourism-based community has greater challenges than other communities," said Barnett.

Steps are already being taken to reduce energy consumption, divert solid waste and expand transit in Whistler, and there are options on the table other than natural gas.

With the Olympics on the horizon, companies are looking at Whistler as an opportunity to showcase hydrogen technology, and will build the necessary infrastructure in town. Low emission vehicles are already on the market, including luxury cars. Some local hotels are looking into the possibility of adopting geothermal heating systems, which would reduce their reliance on propane.

With that in mind, the report also has recommendations regarding the propane heaters being used to warm patios around Whistler.

"The study says they should be banned, they should be outlawed," said Barnett.

Copies of the Integrated Energy, Air Quality and Greenhouse Gas Management Plan are available at municipal hall, and will be available soon on the municipal Web site at

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