Waste-to-energy plans raise concerns in Metro Vancouver

Metro Vancouver's plan to build several new waste-to-energy plants is raising concerns amongst residents who are worried the plants will funnel more air pollution toward the Fraser Valley.
The Burnaby waste-to-energy plant has been operating since 1988. ((Metro Vancouver))

Metro Vancouver's plan to build several new waste-to-energy plants is raising concerns amongst residents who are worried the plants will funnel more air pollution toward the Fraser Valley.

The waste management committee of Metro Vancouver says the proposed plants are a better way to deal with solid waste than landfills because they will convert garbage to gas and steam, which can be sold for cash.

The North Shore, the North East and the South Fraser areas of the Metro Vancouver regional district are already being considered as sites for the incinerators.

But critics such as Abbotsford Coun. Patricia Ross worry that emissions will blow further eastward into the Fraser Valley Regional District, like much of the region's air pollution, where the mountains will trap them, making an already bad situation worse.

"Even if you chose a very, very best of technology, the most current out there, it will still be a very significant new source of pollution in this airshed. There's just no way around that," said Ross.

Abbotsford Coun. Patricia Ross says Fraser Valley residents will suffer ill effects from the proposed waste-to-energy plants. ((CBC))

Residents of Fraser Valley communities, which are not part of the Metro Vancouver district, don't have enough information about the potential impact of the plants, she added.

"Based on just a few sound bytes of propaganda they've heard so far, they might say, 'Oh well, sounds fine to me,'" she said.

"These things will be built, up and running, they will realize the pollution from it and they will start saying, 'Why didn't somebody warn us?'" said Ross.

That's why Ross organized a public meeting featuring Paul Connett, a chemistry professor from St. Lawrence University in New York and one of the world's leading critics of waste-to-energy plants, at SFU on Monday night.

Connett's own chemical analysis of the byproducts of waste incineration has motivated him to take his campaign to stop the plants to 44 countries around the world, he said.

"I predict right now [that] if you do this silly thing, you'll increase the number of respiratory problems. You'll increase the number of nano-particles in the environment and we know there's a strong relationship between small particles and respiratory problems and debilitating diseases," said Connett.

No decision yet: Metro Vancouver

Marvin Hunt, chair of the Metro Vancouver waste management board, said no decision have been made yet on the plants. ((CBC))

But Surrey Coun. Marvin Hunt, the chair of Metro Vancouver's waste management committee, says all the concerns are premature because the committee hasn't decided on the exact type of waste-to-energy plants it wants to build.

"There's a lot of technology out there and I don't perceive them all to be one technology.  But again, that's a process we want to go through over the next year-and-a-half to two years, to look at the technologies and to see what makes sense for Metro Vancouver and what doesn't make sense," said Hunt.

Metro Vancouver says everyday the Burnaby plant takes in:

  • 830 tonnes of garbage.
  • 6 tonnes of lime (to control acid gas emissions).
  • 50 megawatt-hours of electricity.
  • 850 kilograms of ammonia (to control nitrogen oxide emissions).
  • 144 kilograms of activated carbon (to control mercury emissions).
  • 2200 kilograms of phosphoric acid (added to stabilize leachable metals in the fly ash).

And everyday the Burnaby plant turns out:

  • 960 tonnes of steam sold to nearby paper plant.
  • 400 megawatt-hours of electricity.
  • 135 tonnes of bottom ash (used in road building and landfill cover).
  • 28 tonnes of fly ash (disposed at landfill).
  • 27 tonnes of scrap metal (recycled into reinforcing steel).

He adds there has been no opposition to a similar facility in Burnaby that's been running for 20 years, and the technology has advanced significantly since it was built.

The regional board is already looking at a proposal to clean up the methane created by the plant to allow it to be used in heating homes.

"We actually take waste digest and we get methane. That methane gas is used to make power," said Hunt.

The existing Burnaby waste-to-energy facility opened in 1988 and burns about 20 per cent of the Lower Mainland's garbage, mainly from the North Shore, Burnaby and New Westminster, according to Metro Vancouver.

Cash from the sale of steam and electrical produced by the plan are used to reduce the costs of handling the rest of Metro Vancouver's solid waste, the region says.

Every year, the facility turns approximately 280,000 tonnes of garbage into 900,000 tonnes of steam, a portion of which is sold to a nearby paper recycling facility to eliminate the use of fossil fuels.

A turbo generator installed in 2003 uses the rest of the steam to produce electricity, which is sold to BC Hydro, Metro Vancouver says.

Public meetings planned

Ross and Connett will be holding two more public meetings to air concerns with the plans to build the plants. They will take place:

  • Tuesday in New Westminster at 7 p.m. PT at the Knox Presbyterian Church Hall.
  • Wednesday in Vancouver at 7 p.m. PT at the Coast Plaza Hotel, 1763 Comox St.

The Metro Vancouver regional board held a series of public meetings on its new solid waste management plan in May and April.