A waste-to-energy “gasification” plant proposed for Hamilton’s north end has generated a lot of questions in the community.

The proposal by Port Fuels and Material Services Inc. is suggested for development on Sherman Avenue, north of Burlington Street. But not a lot is known yet about the project and how it would work.

Here are the answers to six important questions about the plant and what it would mean for Hamilton.

Are there other plasma gasification plants in Ontario?

There are, but not at a full size. In October 2011, Plasco Trail Road Inc. received approval to operate a plasma gasification demonstration facility in Ottawa that isn’t built to commercial scale. According to the Ministry of the Environment, Plasco has begun the environmental screening process for a new facility to be located at the same site.

Ottawa and Plasco Energy Group signed off on a contract in 2012 to divert residential waste from landfills and use it to produce electricity. The 20-year, $180 million contract could see upwards of 300 tonnes of residential waste per day diverted from landfills, converted to gas and burned to generate electricity for the city's grid. The new facility has the purported capacity to handle 130,000 tonnes of waste annually.

Public meeting

A public meeting on the proposed plant is taking place Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Museum of Steam and Technology at 900 Woodward Avenue in Hamilton.

Questions about the project and the technology it uses still remain in Ottawa. As of September 2012, Plasco had processed just 3,600 tonnes of waste.

There are other energy from waste facilities in Ontario that use other types of technology other than plasma gasification. Algonquin Power runs facility that includes conventional incineration technologies in Brampton. It’s the only full sized operating energy from waste facility in Ontario, according to the MOE.

Does Port Fuels and Material Services Inc. run any other plasma gasification plants?

Yes, but again, not at a full scale. Project head Robert Clark told CBC Hamilton that the company does have one other plant running in Swindon, England.

That plant is being used as a pilot program that’s been running for five years, he says.

Clark didn’t offer any other information about the project.

How does plasma gasification work?

The process uses gas plasma technology with extremely high temperatures to break down waste into its atomic elements and turn it into a gas that can be used in engines and turbines and as a substitute for natural gas.

The waste is first mixed with superheated oxygen and steam, which transforms about 80 percent of it into a mixture of gases that are sucked out of the system. The remaining waste then goes through a plasma conversion process that cracks compound molecules into simple molecules and transforms it into a useable gas.

The inert physical material leftover from the process is called “plasma rock,” and can be sold after the fact as a commercial product for the construction industry.

Lots of different types of waste could be used: like construction materials, institutional waste, bio solids and municipal solid waste. Port Fuels and Material Services Inc. says hazardous waste is not part of their current permit process for the facility.

Project head Robert Clark says the process takes place in a closed system with almost no air emissions.

But according to a report from the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, plasma gasification emits comparable levels of toxic emissions to conventional mass burn incinerators. The report lists emissions like particulate matter, heavy metals, dioxins and carbon monoxide as part of the process.

What will be the approval process for the project through the Ministry of the Environment?

According to spokesperson Jennifer Hall, the ministry has not received any formal applications for the proposed facility from Port Fuels and Material Services Inc. The city also says it has not received a planning application for the site.

When seeking approval, the company will have to complete the Environmental Screening Process under the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act. That way, the ministry can ensure the project follows the proper environmental assessment requirements for a waste management project and assesses potential environment impacts.

“If the ministry is not satisfied with the results of this process the ministry can ask for additional work to be undertaken,” Hall said.

According to Coun. Chad Collins, the city has not received a planning application for the site, and that the K Zone lands it would occupy do not permit a private waste incinerator. That means the facility will require a rezoning application, unless the Port Authority somehow tries to make the case that the facility is related to "shipping and navigation."

Can the public weigh in on the project?

Hall says opportunities for public input are built into the environmental screening process. That includes a required published public notice, a public meeting, and the public’s ability to request that the project be subject to an individual environmental assessment.

Many people in the community feel like the company hasn’t gotten off to a great start when it comes to dealing with the public. A public consultation on the project is scheduled for Thursday night at the Museum of Steam and Technology — which is in an entirely different ward than the port lands. Most residents also didn’t find out about the meeting until Wednesday, says Steve Calverly, the chair of the Sherman Hub community group.

“We heard a widespread ‘we didn’t even know about this,’” he said. “It’s a difficult location for folks from this neighbourhood to get to because a lot of them don’t drive.”

Project head Robert Clark says the company is more than willing to have more discussions with the community, and in the same ward where the proposed facility would be. “It’s always been our plan to have more than one,” he said. “I encourage the involvement.”

Does this mean garbage from other communities will be shipped into Hamilton?

The approval process for the facility is in its early stages, so Clark wasn’t able to give a firm answer as to exactly where the garbage would be coming from. “Theoretically, it could come from anywhere,” he said. “But it could also be self contained within the port of Hamilton.” That way, the port could churn out energy in a self-contained way, using its own waste. “The objective is to take waste from as close to the source as possible,” he said.

But the sheer amount of waste mentioned in the early stages of the project points to a facility that would almost certainly be taking in other city’s garbage, says Jim Howlett, the president of the Hamilton Beach Community Council. According to Port Fuels & Material Services Inc, the facility would be be capable of managing up to 190,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste and industrial and commercial waste per year.

“Hamilton is the city that will bear the brunt of other municipality’s garbage,” he said. “And won’t it be great to see garbage barges coming through the lift bridge every morning? That will really help Hamilton.”