Thursday, March 06, 2008

What happens in Whistler does not stay in Whistler

IN LINE AT THE CANADIAN BORDER — Unless you're feeling frisky and looking for a full crevice search, you don't dare crack wise at the border crossing these days. But I have my own dream scenario:

Guard: "What's your purpose today in Canada?"

Me: "Headed up to Whistler for the weekend."

Guard: "Bringing anything with you that you plan to leave behind?"

Me: "Nice try with the trick question, eh."

Guard: "Pardon?"

Me: "C'mon. We both know that anything I leave at Whistler is coming right back at me in about a week and a half."

It's a little-known fact. When the world comes to the chic, environmentally conscious resort hamlet of Whistler-Blackcomb, which it will do increasingly for the 2010 Winter Olympics two years from now, it leaves quite a bit of stuff behind — some 18,000 metric tons of trash every year.

But not a scrap of that garbage finds its final resting place in Whistler. Nor does it just go down the hill to Squamish. Nor anywhere else in the Sea to Sky corridor.

Whistler's trash comes to Washington state. All of it. It has since 2005, when Whistler's small landfill, just outside of town, was filled and capped off, making way for the Olympic Athlete's Village now being constructed on top.

With bulldozers humming there, Whistler has opened a new transfer station in the Callaghan Valley, not far from the Olympic venue for cross-country skiing. There, trash is packed into sealed shipping containers to be hauled by truck to Surrey. The containers are stacked two-high on trains and hauled down the Interstate 5 corridor, up the Columbia River Gorge, to the massive Rabanco landfill at Roosevelt, east of Goldendale.

We're all part of the problem. Most of Whistler's trash is generated by tourism. The town has only about 10,000 permanent residents, but at full tourist capacity, it's a city of more than 55,000. A construction boom over the past decade has produced large amounts of building wastes, says James Hallisey, Whistler's environmental projects manager.

A new composting program starting this fall could reduce Whistler's garbage substantially, he says. But there's no long-term solution at hand that doesn't involve trucking trash to Washington.

Whistler wouldn't ship the trash there if it wasn't confident it was handled correctly, Hallisey emphasized.

Indeed, Rabanco's Roosevelt facility, which can swallow up to 5 million tons of trash per year, is considered state-of-the art, as far as landfills go. Owners say the trash is confined in an area where it can't contaminate surrounding groundwater, and Rabanco already is turning methane gas from rotting garbage into electricity.

Rabanco is bidding on garbage contracts for metro areas up and down the West Coast, all the way to Alaska.

One of those is for the greater Vancouver, B.C., area, where Cache Creek, one of two major landfills, will max out around the end of this year. Regional officials are still deciding what to do with that 380,000 metric tons per year — it makes Whistler's contribution look like a relative litter bag — and a leading option is rail transport to Roosevelt.

Bottom line: Come 2010, Vancouver will get the Olympic Games just as its "garbage crunch" gets critical. And Washington may well get all of the Olympic trash.

At least we get a foot in the door somehow. One upside: Transporting all that trash creates jobs in Washington state. Although it's hard to imagine that when local leaders put their heads together to brainstorm ways to get some of the spoils from the Olympics flowing our way, garbage is what they had in mind.

It's also quite ironic, in a gotcha sort of way, that Vancouver/Whistler, which touts itself in tourism pitches and reports to the International Olympic Committee as a dreamy green environment, can't deal with its own trash. (Don't even get us started on Victoria's raw-sewage dumping into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.)

Olympic organizers have pledged to reuse most of what the Games create. And Whistler is trying to do its small part, vowing to boost its current 38-percent recycling rate once its composting operation starts.

Still, it's pretty easy to be green when all your brown goes into a container to be dumped in someone else's backyard.

On the other hand: Who are we to talk? Remember that most of Seattle's garbage — almost 100 railroad cars a day — is likewise shipped out of town on a rail, to Arlington, Ore.

"Out of sight, out of mind" apparently knows no borders. But it'd be nice to know that every Tim Hortons cup we toss out in the next couple of years has a higher purpose.

Please, when you Vancouverites light up that Olympic caldron, make sure it's burning off some of your own methane.