Garbage incinerator sparks pollution fears

Fraser Valley reps are deeply worried their citizens will breathe more pollution if Metro Vancouver builds a new waste-to-energy incinerator to deal with the region’s rising garbage volumes.

Metro officials intend to call for bids early next year for a new incinerator or other “non-landfill technology” that could consume up to 750,000 tonnes of waste per year by 2012.

Abbotsford Coun. Patricia Ross fears emissions from such a plant will blow east and seriously worsen Fraser Valley air quality.

“We’re very concerned,” said Ross, who chairs the Fraser Valley Regional District environment committee.

“You just don’t put significant point source pollution in confined air sheds where the mountains trap pollution for very long periods of time.”

She raised the issue Tuesday at a joint meeting of the two regional districts’ environment committees.

Ross also said she’s concerned the new incinerator might be located east of Metro Vancouver in the FVRD, where she said provincial government air quality monitoring and enforcement isn’t nearly as stringent as Metro’s.

“That makes us very nervous,” she said.

Metro officials say an additional incinerator or similar facility will be needed even if the region is able to build a replacement landfill to handle capacity that will be lost when the nearly full Cache Creek Regional Landfill closes in 2010.

Even much more aggressive recycling, which is also being pursued, isn’t expected to solve the garbage glut.

The region is also preparing short-term contingencies, including shipping waste to the U.S., in the event no replacement for Cache Creek is ready by 2010.

But Metro Vancouver environment committee chair Joe Trasolini said critics shouldn’t assume emissions from a new plant would be the same as the existing waste-to-energy facility in Burnaby, which handles 270,000 tonnes per year.

He said new technologies offer ways to turn trash into synthetic gas without burning it and generating almost no emissions.

One such system is being proposed by Plasco Energy Group, a Canadian firm that opened a garbage gasification test plant this summer in Ottawa.

“They take the waste and by heating it –  not burning it – they create plasma,” said Trasolini, who has toured the plant.

A synthetic gas is produced that can be burned as cleanly as natural gas to generate electricity.

“From the beginning to producing the gas there are zero emissions,” Trasolini said, adding main byproducts are a slag that can be used in construction or road building and sulphur that goes into fertilizer.

It also promises double the electricity generation from each tonne of waste that the existing Burnaby burner produces.

Because the process doesn’t involve any oxygen, Trasolini said, the waste doesn’t burn and toxic dioxins don’t form.

“The technology is there,” he said. “We have to look at these innovations.”

Ross is skeptical.

“Are the initial levels going to be what they promised?” she asked. “As the facility ages, what happens then? What about the fuel source – what else is going to be in that mix that could change the emissions significantly?”

Ross is also concerned Metro’s urgent need to find a solution quickly may affect the choice.

“Sometimes the fast answer isn’t always the best answer in the long run,” she said.

Another issue is the intense hunt now on for ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

That may lead some policy makers to favour technologies that deliver on climate change but lead to higher emissions of other types that hurt local health, Ross said.

“They’re ignoring the fact some proposals can have very high particulate matter levels even though they have low greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

Improvements on both fronts must be pursued, she said, or else the Lower Mainland risks “sacrificing the health of the few for the greater good of the planet.”

Garbage Strategy

• Find another way to dispose of the 500,000 tonnes of waste per year that goes to Cache Creek Landfill, set to close in 2010.

• Leading options are: a new Metro-run regional landfill near Ashcroft opposed by area natives, expanding Cache Creek, or signing on to a new regional landfill proposed by a copper mine near Logan Lake. More distant options include shipping waste to landfills in northern B.C., Alberta or Washington State.

• Zero Waste Challenge will use aggressive new measures to push the region’s recycling rate from 52 per cent up towards 70 per cent.

• Issue a request for proposals early in 2008 for new waste-to-energy facility that can be in place by 2012.

• After recycling and other diversions, 1.5 million tonnes of Metro Vancouver waste each year now goes to landfills or the Burnaby waste-to-energy plant. That is to grow by two per cent a year, faster than the rate of population growth.

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