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How the Port Fuels waterfront garbage plant got 'fast-tracked'

Opponents of a proposed waste "gasification" plant on the waterfront are calling for the provincial Ministry of the Environment to "bump up" its review of the project's environmental impacts. But such bump-ups are rare.

Environment Hamilton: 'Bump up' requests are rarely granted

Project head Robert Clark (right) spoke with residents a public meeting last year about the proposed gasification plant on Sherman Avenue, north of Burlington Street. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Lower city councillors and other opponents of a proposed waste "gasification" plant on the waterfront are calling this week for the provincial Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change to "bump up" its review of the project's environmental impacts.

But a local environmental expert says those requests are rarely granted.

And while the plant's opponents contend the developers pulled a fast one by submitting the project for the less stringent environmental screening, the company has followed provincial laws and qualifies for the easier review because of the energy producing part of the project.

Defined as waste facility

The city this week deemed the project, first and foremost, a waste processing plant that happens to produce energy. That's rather than deeming it mostly an energy-from-waste facility. That difference in definition means the city can't hold the project back based on its zoning rules. 

But the fact that it produces energy from waste at all means the project qualifies for a less intensive process in pursuing its environmental OK from the province.

"There's never been an issue in my mind or misinterpretation in my mind," Port Fuels COO Robert Clark told CBC Hamilton this week. "The definitions from the province and the definitions from the municipality have been laid out and interpreted correctly for some time."

Lynda Lukasic, head of Environment Hamilton, said the province's environmental assessment laws have been "substantially weakened" in recent years.

"Sadly, under provincial rules, the energy generation gives them the pass on the full [environmental assessment]," she said. 

Bump-ups rare

There are two main processes involved in the proposed plant, and Lukasic argues one of them, direct plasma, which has no energy component, should have triggered the fuller review. She wrote a letter to the ministry in January outlining her case for that.

Lukasic acknowledged the calls for "bump up" or elevation requests, but said "this rarely if ever happens."

At issue is the way the company pursued environmental compliance from the province. The plant is expected to generate some energy from the processing of industrial waste, and because of that energy production, it qualifies under provincial rules for an "energy from waste" plant. That allowed it to go about pursuing provincial OK by filing an environmental screening report, rather than undergoing a more stringent Individual environmental assessment.

Both processes involve making applications and filings to the ministry, but the second one would involve more provincial scrutiny of the operations and impacts.

Kate Jordan, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Environment, said Wednesday the agency is evaluating Port Fuels' application and has asked for supplementary materials.

She said the ministry is also evaluating previous requests it has received for the project to undergo the "bump up" assessment process. Clark said he's confident the company is prepared should the request for the higher level of scrutiny be granted.

Jordan said the ministry received three "bump-up" requests in 2013-2014 planned under the same screening process as the Port Fuels facility. One project withdrew its application and wasn't built, one was for an increase in the amount of waste to be processed at an existing animal crematorium and the third was to expand an already approved landfill. 

"In every case, the ministry carefully considered the requests and did a fulsome review of the concerns expressed," Jordan said. "Ultimately, the ministry found the proposals met the requirements of the screening process and further environmental assessment was not required."

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