A waste-to-energy “gasification” plant proposed for Hamilton’s north end would either be an environmental blessing or blight — depending on who you talk to.

The project’s head says the outcry bubbling in the community over the proposal is rooted in misinformation over the way the plant would work, but local environmentalists are convinced it would be just another air quality menace for the city’s embattled north end.

 “We will have a massive — and I’m talking detectable from space — thermal footprint from that facility,” said Jim Howlett, the president of the Hamilton Beach Community Council. “I just don’t think the plant should go forward.”

'Hamilton is the city that will bear the brunt of other municipality’s garbage.'- Jim Howlett, president of the Hamilton Beach Community Council

The proposal by Port Fuels and Material Services Inc. is suggested for development on Sherman Avenue, north of Burlington Street. The facility would use a 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 proposal isn’t for a traditional garbage incinerator, says Robert Clark, project head. “This is not a combustion process,” Clark told CBC Hamilton. “The layman automatically thinks gasification is incineration, and it’s not.”

Clark says the process is a “significant technical improvement” over incineration, and a closed system with minimal emissions except for gas turbines used in the system. “Air emissions would just be whatever is coming off the gas engines,” he said. The inert physical material from the process is called “plasma rock,” and can be sold after the fact as a commercial product for the construction industry.

Hazardous waste not part of process

But Howlett says the project would still do nothing to help the north end’s oftentimes dubious air quality. “Just the amount of oxygen that must be consumed for the process is enormous,” he said. "That oxygen will never be consumed by Hamiltonians.”

And while a closed system might not generate an excess of a particulate matter, Howlett says, it would generate lots of carbon dioxide. “And we’re expected to breathe that,” he said. “We need oxygen more than we need CO2.”

The facility would be able to process a lot of different types of waste, like construction materials, institutional waste, bio solids and municipal solid waste, Clark says. It also has the ability to process hazardous waste, but that’s not a part of the current permit process, he added.

The approval process 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, Howlett says. 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.”

A 'positive addition': port authority

The Port Authority, for its part, is heralding the proposed development as a sustainable, green venture. “The Gasplasma technology in this facility will be unlike anything proposed in Hamilton in the past, producing benefits in the form of clean, green power, and diversion of waste from landfill,” spokesperson Larissa Fenn said in a statement. “We see this green energy project as a positive addition to the evolving mix of new technologies and industries that make up Hamilton’s thriving commercial port district. “

The port authority owns the land in question on Pier 15, and would act as landlord for any proposed development. “If it proceeds, we would work with our tenant to prepare the site for development, as we do with all of our tenants,” Fenn said.

Howlett says he’s convinced that Port Fuels and Material Services Inc picked the site because neither the city nor the province would allow it on their lands. “They’re not on port lands for no reason,” he said. “They get to skip a whole pile of approval’s process.”

City Councillor Chad Collins has also raised concerns about the Port's ability to circumvent city zoning controls and what he feels is a lack of regard for the city's image and desire to chart a new economic direction.  He has asked city staff to explore whether the facility fits within the port's "shipping and navigation" mandate.

The port says the Pier 15 site is an attractive one for the project because it’s accessible by multiple modes of transportation, which reduces the need for road transport.

A 'disappointing start'

Sherman neighbourhood residents are also still worried about the overall vision of the project and the public consultation process being used to inform residents. 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.”

“It’s a disappointing start.”

Environment Hamilton Executive Director Lynda Lukasik says she has plenty of questions about the project. “Over the years, we have encountered a number of companies who come into our community with grand plans for facilities that will deal with challenging waste and make it all go away with minimal impact,” she told CBC Hamilton. “Red flags always go up for me when these kinds of claims are made.”

One of Lukasik’s biggest concerns is the company’s track record with similar facilities, or if Hamilton would end up being a kind of “test case.” Clark says the company does have one other plant in Swindon, England. It’s being used as a pilot program that’s been running for five years. He didn’t offer any other information about the project.

“I want to know a lot more about this proposal,” Lukasik said.

“A comment from the proponent that all is good and safe on the environmental front is not good enough for me.”