Downtown Vancouver's Mountain of Sulfer
November 26, 2012 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Stanley Park is an urban forest, 1.5 square miles of fir and cedar abutting downtown Vancouver. It features stunning views of the Salish Sea, the North Shore Mountains, the Lion's Gate Suspension Bridge and a giant heap of neon-yellow 99.9% pure elemental sulfur.

Produced as a byproduct at Suncor's tar sands facilities in Alberta, sulfer is transported by rail to a 25 meter high, 160 000 tonne outdoor stockpile at the North Vancouver Sulphur Works. From there it is shipped to markets in Asia for use in manufacturing fertilizer. In the past ten years the price of sulfur has skyrocketed from $20/tonne to over $650/tonne. Elemental sulfur is flammable. A train spill and fire in 2010 led to the evacuation of 500 homes.

- The heap of sulfer
- Scenic view of lighthouse and sulfur
- Mountains and sulfer
- Forest, mountains, suspension bridge and sulfur
- Mountain of sulfur, glowing at night
- Brimstone,acrylic on canvas

Obligatory: Kirk makes gunpowder
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow (28 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I love Stanley Park. And I love the brilliant shout of color from the sulfur piles, which is especially loud on gloomy winter days.
posted by rtha at 1:10 PM on November 26, 2012

As a kid, my dad and I went to some gravel pit or somesuch place on the west side of Indy, and I recall the place having two enormous mountains of sulfur, glowing that crazy bright neon yellow in the sun. Back then, the wives tale was that you should not look at sulfur, for fear of burning your eyes out. I remember the whole place stinking to high-heaven, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:12 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to live near that sulfur pile. I guess I must have gotten used to the smell. Thanks for the backgrounder on it.
posted by acheekymonkey at 1:14 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have been there TWICE and I missed this.

Cloudy both times, so ... I'll blame it on that and not my lack of observational prowess. Thanks for the post; I'll make it a point to look for this the next time I'm up there.
posted by Tevin at 1:18 PM on November 26, 2012

A friends brother snowboarded down the giant sulphur pile which made some great photos, which my google-fu is not finding for me.

When I was a kid we used to collect sulphur that spilled off the trains down there. I don't remember why. Mostly to throw into campfires to turn the flame blue, I think.

I don't think it smelled, at least not that strongly or until you were very close.
posted by Keith Talent at 1:29 PM on November 26, 2012

Well if I had a huge pile of elemental sulfur, that's certainly where I'd keep it.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:29 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to drive cab on the North Shore, which got me right to the foot of the Sulfur pile more than once. Yes, it's even bigger when you're looking up at it. Worth noting -- it's not all powdery or sandlike, but composed of rather larger flakes. At least, it was thirty years ago. I also got rained on by it once -- picking up a fair while they were moving fresh sulfur in via an overhead conveyor. And it was raining real rain at the same time. Made for quite a mess. And it stunk.

But yeah -- picturesque from a distance, in an industrial sort of way.
posted by philip-random at 1:30 PM on November 26, 2012

My wife's father designed the system of conveyors surrounding that great yellow pile of sulfur.
posted by fatbird at 1:30 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I always get the comment from tourists that the view would be so much better without the sulfur piles. No. Not it would not.

It's also a good reminder that Vancouver is a busy working port - not just a series of photo ops.
posted by helmutdog at 1:32 PM on November 26, 2012 [12 favorites]

One of the best times I had in Vancouver was running the perimeter of Stanley Park. I think it's about a 7-mile run (just checked it: 10.5 km, so about 6.6 miles). After the run we walked around the area of the city adjacent to the park. It was a stunning day and the views from the park and the city are stuck in my mind. I would love to go back some day.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:48 PM on November 26, 2012

The North Shore Mountains page links to a nice, large panorama that includes the sulfur piles.
posted by jiawen at 1:51 PM on November 26, 2012

Hey, I remember seeing the sulphur on TV! It was in the Highlander episode Band of Brothers. Looked really dramatic, too.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:55 PM on November 26, 2012

The other cool thing about sulfur is its almost total insolubility in water, hence why it's okay to leave this stuff outside in rainy Vancouver.
posted by scruss at 2:08 PM on November 26, 2012

It's also not magnetic, which makes it okay to store in a pile next to Vancouver's world-famous magnet factory.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:11 PM on November 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

I jumped into a train car full of this stuff once. It was all little pellets like lentils. I had hundreds of them in my shoes. That is all.
posted by Dr. Send at 2:24 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sulphur historically was kept at the port to ship out to the BC (and other) wood pulp and paper making mills. The Kraft and sulphite bleaching processes are a century and more old, and used to be one of the largest sources of pollution in Canada. Pollution laws have pushed many mills to switch to cleaner technologies, which had been reducing demand for sulphur.

Sulphur used to be thought of as the mostly useless and dangerous part of natural gas and crude oil, an almost worthless waste. However, the Asian demand for fertilizer has increased prices by 30x in the past five years. The past few years have just been insane for the sulphur markets.
posted by bonehead at 2:34 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

The sulphur piles at the tar sands facilities are on a scale that's pretty much unbelievable.

This (I know, business insider) claims that 'As of 2006 there were 15 million tons of the stuff piling up throughout the province...'

According to this 'One of the things that happens during the upgrading process is that sulphur is extracted. There's no way to get the sulphur to market (there is no railroad, and trucking is too expensive), so Syncrude has accumulated enormous stockpiles of the stuff; here's a picture of a portion of one of the dozen or so piles that I saw [click link for picture] ... Apparently the stockpile is so large that if they ever did figure out how to get that sulphur to market, it would squash the world price like a bug.'
posted by rider at 2:49 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, we pretty much treat the northern half of our province like a dumpster. Supposedly it will all be cleaned up by the time the oil runs out, but... Fifteen million tons. It's going to be quite a job.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:53 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

They'll probably cover it with a clay layer and a few feet of topsoil, plant some trees and call it a day.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:11 PM on November 26, 2012

Taking the bus from Edmonton, to Vancouver, and seeing all that useless beauty, the pile of sulpher provided a tonic--shocking, modern, coloured in ways that seemed unnatural. The juxtaposition of the two factors--of the hyper modern and the ancient was what struck me as the core of Vancouver, and seeing it initally there, that was the key.
posted by PinkMoose at 3:40 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

rider- wow. Crazy pictures.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:53 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's always been there -- and together with the cargo ships off the Spanish Banks, has always marked the Port of Vancouver as a working, productive, active space.

Like a little neon punctuation mark.

rider, I had no idea! So the problem is that the stuff's unmarketable? Can it be developed on site into something else, like refined fertilizer?
posted by jrochest at 4:40 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Those piles of sulfur have been there since I was a girl. I can't imagine the North Shore without them. And now they're on Mefi! Fabulous.
posted by jokeefe at 4:55 PM on November 26, 2012

I grew up in North Vancouver and lived for a time in the West End. Stanley Park is close to my heart as are the North Shore mountains and even that big yellow pile.
posted by islander at 5:15 PM on November 26, 2012

"rider, I had no idea! So the problem is that the stuff's unmarketable? Can it be developed on site into something else, like refined fertilizer?"

Not rider, but the problem is there's so freakin' much of it. We just don't need that much sulphur domestically. Or rather, we could probably use some of it (In Alberta, 7 million acres are considered S deficient for optimum canola production, and the acreage is increasing.), but it would take centuries to work through the supply.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:55 PM on November 26, 2012

At $650/ton that Ft. Mac pile is worth just under 10 billion dollars. Obviously the price will drop as the pile is sold off, but still.

How much would it cost to joint with the existing railroad lines? It can't be that much.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 6:19 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Been to Vancouver a few times, I really like Stanley Park, and also the great assortment of eateries in the nearby West end.
posted by carter at 6:40 PM on November 26, 2012

I'm not sure about these 'miles' things, it's been so long since the days of roods and hogsheads, but Stanley Park has always felt to me like it would be a heck of a lot bigger than 1.5 square miles.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:30 AM on November 27, 2012

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