Protest halts Six Nations incinerator trial as waste crisis continues

The race to find a solution for Six Nations' overflowing landfill has stalled once again, after a protest shut down a multimillion-dollar waste disposal machine that some residents say is turning them into guinea pigs with its unproven technology.

Residents skeptical of Nova Scotian inventor's 30-year-old machine

Behind pieces of torn plastics, Nova Scotian inventor John Kearns's waste disposal machine sits idle near Six Nations' landfill site. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

A Six Nations community protest has stalled a band council effort to solve the reserve’s urgent waste crisis using an east coast inventor’s unproven “Disintegrator” incineration technology.

The Six Nations Elected Council (SNEC) made the deal with Nova Scotian inventor John Kearns to use his Disintegrator, invented 30 years ago, which comes with promises of zero emissions, clean ash and the ability — without any sorting — to handle all kinds of waste. The potential purchase by the council would be the first sale of the technology in the three decades since Kearns, 77, has been peddling it.

But the deal is now in doubt after community members forced the demonstration model currently on the reserve to shut down at a recent protest. The protest was spurred by complaints about visible smoke emissions, odour and health concerns.

I think he just wants to get paid now and prove later- Six Nations resident Roz Skye

Now it's back to reviewing options for a community that filled its landfill in 2006 and has continued piling waste on top since. At a meeting at the community hall Saturday, residents spoke about their concerns with the Disintegrator, and that faced with the urgent need to manage waste, the community might rush into the $4.8 million deal to purchase the technology. 

Looking for proof

Roz Skye, a resident, said the machine only fired up a few occasions during the trial run and she demanded more proof of Kearns's claims.

“I think he just wants to get paid now and prove later, but it's our health that's going to suffer for it,” she told CBC News after the community meeting Saturday.

“It seems he came to our community just using us right now. I don't feel like he's giving us anything.”

This is the way of future. Just people have to get their head around it.- Inventor John Kearns

The machine promises to use natural phenomena to break down waste —all kinds of waste excluding radioactive materials — to its basic elements and turn it into inert ash. Kearns said, unlike a conventional incinerator, his system recycles the heat, thus requiring no fuel and it can produce electricity in the process.

The system also accepts toxic waste not suitable for landfills, such as batteries, explosives and cattle carcasses infected with Mad Cow Disease, Kearns said.

  • Find out how The Disintegrator works on its website (external link)
In a photo taken in March 2014, trash is delivered to the Disintegrator during the trial run at Six Nations. (Supplied by John Kearns)

After testing a loaner unit on the reserve in recent months, some residents say it emits visible smoke and strong odour and will create more waste problems rather than solving the current one.

Kearns, who was not at the meeting, defended his invention and its patented technology.

"The Disintegrator gives you 100 per cent recycling," he said in a phone interview with CBC News the day after the meeting. "It removes all of the materials, turns it into electricity, which is the ultimate recycling, and leaves nothing to go through landfill other than concrete and rubble."

“This is the way of future. Just people have to get their head around it.”

In response to complaints of smoke and odour, Kearns said it was due to local operators' "inferior operation" and "absenteeism" during the initial stage of the trial run.

Death threat allegation

Kearns also explained his absence at the community meeting: death threat.

He said he received a threat when some 50 people protested against the Disintegrator at the facility in May.

“A man said to me, 'I have three rifles trained on your chest,'” Kearns said. “I thought it was wise to stay away. I'm certainly not hiding under the bed. I'm certainly not in exile.”

Skye, who attended the protest that local media described as peaceful, said no one uttered such threat. She didn't buy Kearns's explanation.

“He probably doesn't want to confront the questions,” Skye said.

On the day of the community meeting, the loaner unit — which cost the council $480,000 to bring to the reserve — sat idle behind a piece of torn plastics, after the protest forced it to shut down. Council will decide whether to proceed to purchase the full system, which would cost $4.8 million.

Mounting waste

The dispute over the Disintegrator is the latest saga in Six Nations' meandering journey to find a long-term, sustainable waste management plan.

Located 25 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, Six Nations of The Grand River is home to more than 22,000 members, making it the largest First Nations community in Canada. It consists of the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga and Tuscarora nations.

The council has made a previous attempt to solve its waste crisis by purchasing an incinerator from a B.C. supplier. That deal, however, went south when the company filed for bankruptcy before all the parts were shipped to the community. The council had to go to court to try to recoup some of the cost. Reports say the council lost at least $1 million.

But the community's waste crisis has been decades in the making.

With virtually no recycling program in place, Six Nations' 40-acre landfill site that was projected to last 40 years was full in 20 years, residents at Saturday's community meeting heard. After the landfill reached its capacity in 2006, the community has been piling garbage — about 120 tonnes every month — on top of the site. The waste that comes from 2,800 homes and a number of businesses has since added four layers on top of the overburdened landfill.

Sandra Montour, a resident who lives steps away Six Nations' landfill site, spoke at Saturday's community meeting about the challenges of living with the odour and sight of a landfill. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

The landfill is also unmonitored and unlined, leading to numerous fires due to the volatile methane gas the waste produces. In addition, the site releases a high concentration of ammonia, sulfide and carbon dioxide, raising health and environmental concerns.

“We are running out of time. The time is now,” Dayle Bomberry, senior administrative officer of the SNEC, told dozens of residents who showed up to the community meeting over the weekend.

The council presented three options to residents at the community meeting, each with its pros and cons.

Kearns's Disintegrator is the third option, also the most expensive one. While it promises to stop expansion of the current landfill and create jobs, the council lists “unestablished technology” and “high capital purchasing cost” as its cons.

"I'm a scientist, not a politician"

Kearns is prepared to deal with these two concerns.

He said he has been peddling the Disintegrator for the past three decades, ever since the former Cape Breton county in his home province decided against buying the demonstration model.

SNEC is the first serious buyer, and Kearns said he is giving the council a $2 million discount for the final system, which retails for $6.8 million.

Nine-year-old Mya Warner holds up her anti-Disintegrator signs at Saturday's community meeting. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

“The world is prepared to be second,” he said. “It was admirable that Six Nations were first. We give them a huge discount, a multimillion-dollar discount for being first.”

The Disintegrator is far from the first invention by Kearns, who said he has been making “all sorts of things” for 55 years. He lists a type of artificial logs for fireplaces; a technology that ensured ink on bank notes couldn't be broken down for reproduction; a method to print on plastic cups without melting the cup. 

“I've made money off all of them,” he said.

Kearns is undeterred by the controversy. He said his machine has done what he promised, and now it's up to the council to deal with opposing residents.

"They are just a group of irresponsible people who want to stop any changes to their situation without knowing the scientific thread,” he said.

"I'm a scientist, not a politician."

With files from CBC's Wendy Martin


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