Pollution from Waste-to-Energy Incinerators
The environmental impact of waste-to-energy technology outweighs the benefits when it comes to a proposed garbage incinerator in Greater Vancouver, according to a leading pollution researcher. The new trash incinerator would be 80 per cent larger than the existing garbage burning facility in Burnaby. The proposal by Montenay Inc. is just one of 23 now being considered by the GVRD as weighs what to do with the 500,000 tonnes of waste that now goes to its soon-to-close Cache Creek regional landfill. Dr. Michael Easton argues building a second, much bigger version of the Burnaby incinerator that Montenay already runs is a bad idea.
“The Burnaby incinerator is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” he said. “It needs to be significantly upgraded.”
Easton, a Vancouver consultant specializing in genetics and ecosystem toxicology, says the problem isn’t the waste-to-energy plant’s air emissions -which are well within regulated limits.
What he doesn’t like is that it’s a high-temperature one-stage process that results in metals slagging together and the resulting ash coming out laden with toxic contaminants.
“Twenty per cent of the material that goes in there comes out as ash, which has to be dumped at a landfill,” he said.
“That stuff is very toxic. It should not be dumped in a municipal landfill – period.”
Montenay is one of several proponents who want to build incinerators for the GVRD either in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island.
All offer a closer-to-home disposal alternative to either the GVRD’s original plan to build a new regional landfill at its Ashcroft ranch lands, or other proponents who would ship the waste to landfills in the U.S., Alberta or northeastern B.C.
Montenay’s proposed 500,000-tonne incinerator would be located within the GVRD on a major waterway for easy shipping of waste, the company’s proposal indicates.
It would be a public-private partnership -the GVRD would pay $375 million to own it, and the company would design, build and run it.
The 45-megawatt generator would produce around $24 million worth of electricity per year, plus an estimated $1 million from metal recovery.
The idea has already sparked fears in Abbotsford, where Coun. Patricia Ross argues it will further pollute the Fraser Valley, spewing twice as much smog-producing nitrogen oxides as would have come from the now-defeated Sumas Energy 2 power plant.
“We live in a confined air shed and we don’t have very good air flow,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, the pollution from Vancouver blows right up the Fraser Valley and it gets trapped here.”
She predicts people will be strongly opposed to building an incinerator anywhere in the Lower Mainland.
But Montenay spokesman Ron Richter said the facility will actually help the air quality of the Fraser Valley because garbage will no longer have to be trucked to Cache Creek.
This is a cost-effective and “environmentally beneficial solution to managing waste,” he said.
According to company estimates, the incinerator would result in a reduction of 480,000 tons of carbon dioxide (a global greenhouse gas) a year.
The GVRD still must choose an independent evaluator and officials say it will be several more weeks before the nearly two dozen proposals are winnowed down to a short list.
They say it’s no surprise incinerators are being touted waste-to-energy plants have become more attractive in recent years as technology improves and oil prices rise.
GVRD chief administrator Johnny Carline said those options will be seriously considered.
“As a matter of policy we want to minimize the amount of material we send to landfills,” he said. “Waste-to-energy is obviously an increasingly beneficial way to use waste.”
Easton says one of the more promising options before the GVRD is a different type of incineration known as gasification.
He said it’s better than conventional burners because it uses two stages -one at a lower temperature without oxygen that extracts gases and allows better recovery of metals and a second high temperature burn that is more effective in eliminating contaminants.
“That’s my favourite, strictly from a toxicological perspective,” Easton said, adding the ash can be used as filler for asphalt or concrete.
EnEco Industries and Ledcor Industrial have proposed such a plant – either at a single large site in Abbotsford or a set of three smaller ones, likely including sites in North Surrey and North Vancouver.
Easton said GVRD officials should closely study such ideas, noting they offer the potential to greatly reduce truck haul emissions and toxins leaching out of landfills.
“They could solve everything if they choose the right technology,” he said.