Waste-to-energy incineration is both noxious and expensive

February 1, 2010

At the “Waste-Based-Energy” industry conference in Toronto last November, the tony Yorkville hotel meeting room was filled with consultants, lawyers, company reps, and municipal bureaucrats, all talking trash: waste tonnage spread-sheets, the seeming evils of landfill sites, the supreme benefits of burning municipal solid waste (MSW) to make energy.

There was even some serious discussion about whether or not to just give in and call it “incineration” – an old-fashioned word that Canadians just keep using, rather than terms like “gasification” or “pyrolysis” which don’t exactly roll right off the tongue.

But the real focal point of the conference was the proposed Durham/York Region waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerator to be operated by Covanta Energy Corp. The proposal is currently before the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which was scheduled to release a preliminary decision in January and make a final decision by June 2010.

Speaker after speaker at the conference claimed the Durham proposal had “paved the way for others” and offered many lessons, especially in terms of managing public “fears”. Across Canada, at least a dozen municipalities and regional councils are considering WTE incineration for their residual wastes. Metro Vancouver is now formally on the path to building one or more WTE incinerators by 2015. Others, such as Ottawa and Edmonton, have made their commitment (to Plasco Energy Group and Enerkem Inc.), but those are smaller, “experimental” projects so far.

So the Durham/York Region proposal excites the industry partly because it’s a big project and there’s a lot riding on it, because it’s in a province where the premier “has drunk the Kool-aid” (as one speaker put it) and is onside with WTE incineration, and partly because it’s Covanta.

New Jersey-based Covanta, often called “the octopus” of the industry, is the world’s largest owner of mass-burn WTE facilities, with 44 WTE plants in the U.S., an aggressive expansion plan underway worldwide, and 2008 revenues of $1.7 billion. Covanta now operates the WTE incinerator in Burnaby, B.C., and is vying to get Metro Vancouver’s waste barged over to Vancouver Island for a proposed WTE incinerator in Gold River.

Covanta is also a primary funder for the key lobby group, the Canadian Energy From Waste Coalition (see box). In Durham Region, the CEFWC has come up against a concerted anti-incinerator “situation” – a “situation” that has roiled on for years, and gone right up to the wire last summer.

With their excellent research skills, the anti-incinerator folks of Durham Region have “gasified” the most persistent claim made by the CEFWC and all WTE incinerator proponents: that “everything’s fine with WTE incineration abroad.” In fact, the past four years in Europe and Britain have been a seething hotbed of incineration controversy and protest -- but all those Canadian politicians going on taxpayer-financed junkets to Scandinavia and Europe to investigate WTE technology seem to have missed that part of the scene.

Nonetheless, some of the best research into the health impacts of WTE incineration – especially from dioxins, furans, and nanoparticles - has been coming out of Britain and Europe (see box). The Durham Region activists have started putting that research out to the Canadian public.

In June 2009, an estimated 140 delegations – most of them opposed to the Covanta WTE plant – spoke at two marathon regional council meetings, voicing a wide spectrum of concerns: missing financial data, Covanta’s long record of U.S. air emissions regulatory violations, the site’s location in an agricultural community, the tens of thousands of tonnes of toxic ash that would be generated annually, and the fact that the Medical Officer of Health Report for the proposal dealt only with the minimum capacity scenario of burning 140,000 tonnes of MSW annually, while Covanta has the option to super-size the project to burn 400,000 tonnes per year. The municipality of Clarington, the site of the project, declared itself an “unwilling host” in January 2008.

The project is a P3 (public-private partnership) under a potential 35-year “put or pay” contract. That means that Durham Region will have to generate 140,000 tonnes of waste per year for some 35 years (400,000 tonnes annually if the incinerator is super-sized) or pay the consequences to Covanta. Such contracts usually mean paying $200-$400 for every tonne missing – obviously, a disincentive for keeping recycling programs going.

These “put or pay” contracts (which also demand large “tipping fees” for the waste delivered at the site) are part of the reason that several municipalities – for example, Port Moody, B.C., and in Ontario, Halton Region, Niagara Region, and Toronto – have backed away from incineration, at least for now.

The Durham/York Region project will be partially financed under the region’s $100 million Federal Gas Tax Reserve Fund, but already that source of funding looks rather inadequate. Originally costed at $197 million, the facility’s price-tag has steadily risen to $272 million – even before construction. Sid Ryan, former CUPE Ontario president and now president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, says: “This is typical of P3 projects. They [Covanta] underbid to get the project going; then the taxpayer is on the hook for the cost overruns. This [Durham] project smells like an environmental and fiscal disaster.”

Once the project is built, Covanta would be paid $14.7 million annually to operate it.

Durham/York Region is hoping to further finance the project through a $140-per-tonne tipping fee (the charge for accepting waste at the site), and energy sales. In December 2008, former Ontario Energy and Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman added impetus to the project by directing the Ontario Power Authority to purchase electricity from the proposed incinerator at a rate of 8 cents per kilowatt-hour: almost three times the re-sale rate and representing a significant taxpayer subsidy.

“We will be importing waste from York Region (currently our 21% partner),” says the Durham Environment Watch website, “and there have been discussions with other municipalities [including Peterborough and Northumberland counties] to accept additional waste.”

CUPE Ontario’s briefing to Durham Region Council stated: “Durham Region will either have to keep producing mountains of garbage to burn or will have to solicit garbage from Toronto and other parts of the GTA to keep this plant going.”

The initial Environment Assessment of the project excluded the possibility of accepting garbage from Metro Toronto (which has invested in organics composting, and landfill for residuals), but in May 2009, Clarington Council voted to rescind its “unwilling host” designation, and an addendum to the motion outlined a $10-per-ton tipping fee “royalty” to go directly to Clarington for waste received specifically from Metro Toronto.

According to Dr. Paul Connett, a U.S. expert on incineration, for the taxpayers an incinerator is an “economic disaster,” but for a few people an incinerator is a “gravy train”. That “gravy train” is on a collision course with communities across Canada, and it will be up to an informed public to stop it. As one speaker put it at the November industry conference: “The inability to manage public perception issues is what stops [WTE incineration] projects, not the government approvals process.”


(Joyce Nelson is a Toronto-based freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books. Her three-part series, “Incinerators – The Next Generation,” is currently running in The Watershed Sentinel -- P.O. Box 1270, Comox, B.C. V9M 7Z8.)