It’s famous for its winter sports but few visitors know about the high levels of pollution that collect in this idyllic mountain valley. Chamonix’s mayor hopes a raft of improvements, including a new train service, will help clean up the air
My ears pop as the car winds its way up the mountainside. On either side, a sheer, vertical drop of over 60 metres looms. Ahead, just before the Mont Blanc Tunnel, is the picturesque French resort of Chamonix, where over 10,000 people live and almost five million tourists visit every year.
Anyone there to enjoy the pure mountain air may be disappointed. Chamonix, like much of the l’Arve Valley, is home to some of the highest air pollution levels in France.
Chamonix has, in a way, become a victim of its own natural beauty. An idyllic winter wonderland situated at the foot of Mont Blanc, it is one of the oldest ski resorts in France, with unparalleled panoramas and mountain ranges that make it a mecca for skiing, gliding and climbing enthusiasts.
What people often don’t see, amid the excitement of a ski trip or weekend getaway, is the industrial plain of Passy below or the sheer amount of traffic that filters through the area every day. Now, as a result of its V-shaped valley, Chamonix is suffering.
“Last night, we had the monthly council meeting,” says the mayor of Chamonix, Eric Fournier, as we sit down in his office at the town hall. “Everybody – whether it’s the opposition or not – is in agreement that Chamonix has to be a pioneer in our commitment to improving the air quality.”
Fournier is a Chamonix local and the son of a mountain guide, who was first elected mayor in 1995. He has spent the last 10 years trying to find a solution to the town’s pollution problem. “The geographical situation of the valley – the fact that it’s V-shaped – makes it quite encased, so when we have high pressure it basically puts a lid on the valley,” he explains.
Rising levels of pollution in the l’Arve Valley first set alarm bells ringing 15 years ago and have worsened ever since, erupting in 2012 when the EU threatened to sue Chamonix for endangering the health of its inhabitants.
Currently, the pollutants affecting Chamonix mostly include fine particles as a result of residential activity such as heating or burning green waste, and nitrogen dioxide from traffic. Another pollutant reaching worrying concentrations is a cancerous organic compound known as Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP). All of these are regulated by European laws, whose daily limits the valley often exceeds. When levels become critical, the alarm is raised.
“At 10am this morning we were at 17 micrograms per cubic metre [for PM10s, fine particulate pollution] ,” Fournier says, scrolling through a website that lists the stats. “We inform the population from 50 onwards and when it hits 80, it becomes critical and an alert goes out.” At that point, physical activity is discouraged.
Onscreen, a green box indicates that all is ‘bon’ in Chamonix – for now at least.
Some of the steps that have been taken to combat the rising pollution levels in Chamonix are impressive. They include changes to the public transport system, which is now free throughout the valley for both visitors and residents. This costs the municipality around €5m (£3.6m) per annum, but for Fournier and the local environment, it’s worth it. “Public transport carries three million people every year,” he says. “And that number has tripled since it’s been free.”
I’m aware that I am Chamonix’s worst nightmare, having travelled the 80km from Geneva by car. However, most people living locally know how difficult it is to get here by train and willingly take to the roads – even if that does mean a €6 toll.
Now, a new project called Grande Geneve aims to improve the rail network. “At the moment, people can’t really get to Chamonix by train because it’s so complicated,” says Fournier. “You have to change, it takes forever and the Chamonix line is a metric line so the rails aren’t the same width as the main ones. Grande Geneve will make a big difference for us.”
Chamonix’s property sector, too, is being transformed, thanks to a local fund that promises to finance 20% of any renovation work. Tax reductions are on offer for homeowners who install sustainable heating systems and many public buildings, such as the library, have been completely redeveloped. In an area where much of the property hails from the early 1900s, particle filters, solar panels and insulation are nothing short of revolutionary.
But for all his efforts, Fournier knows that he can’t fix the problem without help from the state. External factors like heavy goods vehicles – a major source of pollution – are ones Chamonix has limited influence over.
HGV vehicles, particularly those travelling through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, have been a headache for Chamonix over the years. Between 1999 and 2002, when the tunnel was closed after a transport truck fire, the air quality throughout the l’Arve region improved dramatically. Wild flowers that hadn’t been seen for years suddenly re-appeared. The entrance to the tunnel, blackened by exhaust fumes, became pearly white.
Today, half a million HGVs still pass through every year, but improvements are well underway – 94% of HGV trips through the tunnel are now made by more environmentally-friendly lorries.
As Fournier closes his laptop, I notice three cow statuettes on the corner of his desk. Each one is decorated with the flag of an alpine neighbour – Switzerland, Italy and France. Does he see Chamonix as an example to the world?
“Because Chamonix is such a well-known destination it needs to be an example,” he says, smiling. “This is more than just a commitment. It’s a real duty.”