THE BLOG

Why a Rush To Incinerate Garbage May Burn Metro Vancouver

08/28/2013 11:22 EDT | Updated 10/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Garbage -- or to use the more politically correct term, waste -- is big business. Really big. It can also be a messy business, particularly when politicians get involved.

So no big surprise that the left hand doesn't seem to care what the right hand is doing at Metro Vancouver when it comes to regional waste management.

On the one hand, Lower Mainland municipalities have policies in place to divert up to 80 per cent of waste by reducing, reusing and recycling.On the other, Metro Vancouver has just short-listed 10 proposals to increase its incineration capacity by 370,000 tonnes per year through a new $500-million waste-to-energy incinerator.

And make no mistake, a second incinerator is also being fast-tracked by officials.

The regional authority wants to have a site selected by 2015 and a fuse lit by 2018. One site under consideration is on Tsawwassen First Nation treaty lands and two others on Vancouver Island.

Already the startling dichotomy between Metro Vancouver's two approaches -- recycling versus "burn, baby, burn" -- is raising fears that the region could be put in a bizarre position of having to import waste just to feed the insatiable thirst of a second incinerator.

Which may explain why Metro Vancouver is considering a bylaw next week that some may call a thinly veiled attempt to corner the market on garbage by regulating where waste management firms can dump.

In its rush to incinerate, Metro Vancouver is also running roughshod over numerous conditions set down by the provincial government in 2011, 2012 and again earlier this year.

First, there's that pesky little matter about being a good neighbour.

One of the minimum conditions was that before an incinerator could proceed "Metro Vancouver must establish a working group with the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) on the potential impact to the (common) airshed due to additional waste-to-energy capacity."

Regardless of how ever well-intentioned they were meant to be, the recent dog-and-pony shows put on by Metro Vancouver officials in the Fraser Valley do not substitute for consultation or the establishment of a working group with the FVRD.

Then there are questions over the economic viability of a $500-million incinerator.

The B.C. government's conditions include the requirement that "communities must target 70 per cent waste diversion through reducing, reusing and recycling before they consider waste-to-energy as an alternative to landfilling."

A condition that raises an obvious question: if the target is met will there be enough garbage left over to feed not only Metro Vancouver's existing 280,000 tonne-annual capacity incinerator, but a second one as well?

Keep in mind that Canadians throw away more garbage than any other country in the developed world.

According to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, we produced 777 kilograms of waste per capita in 2009, with more than 75 per cent of it ending up in landfills or incinerators.

That's a lot of potential for recycling before incineration should even be thought of as an option.

But the most critical condition that the B.C. government set down was in 2012 when new regulations were adopted that require all proposed waste-to-energy facilities in the Lower Mainland or Fraser Valley to go through a full and mandatory environmental assessment.

In case that point was missed on anyone, it was reiterated this past February when then-Environment Minister Terry Lake informed legislature that the government had been "very clear that if an in-region, waste-to-energy facility is considered by Metro Vancouver, it will undergo a full B.C. environmental assessment process and full consultation with the Fraser Valley Regional District."

Lighting the fuse by 2018 is beginning to look a lot like wishful thinking.

Ironically, it was only 10 years ago that Metro Vancouver, then known as the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), opposed plans for a gas-fired power plant in Washington state due to "its proximity to a major residential area, the City of Abbotsford" and the "adverse health impacts of plant emissions on local residents."

But that was then and this is now.

This time Metro Vancouver seems intent on marching to the beat of its own drum, paying only lip service to its neighbours and -- if it can get away with it -- the province.