Waste-To-Energy, Part 2 - Covanta

by Joyce Nelson

With the November 2009 release of Metro Vancouver’s draft “Integrated Solid Waste and Resource Management Plan,” the Greater Vancouver Region is formally on the path to building one or more waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerators by 2015.

The Plan confirms that “Metro Vancouver will establish up to 500,000 tonnes per year of new waste-to-energy capacity within the region.” 

Although one local media outlet has interpreted that to mean “just one big incinerator to burn up to 500,000 tonnes of waste per year,” the language is actually vague enough that it could mean the addition of one or even two incinerators per year of “new capacity.” The WTE lobby group, the Canadian Energy-From-Waste Coalition (CEFWC), has defined a “Canadian-sized” WTE plant as one that burns up to 200,000 tonnes per year. At the November 23-24 “Waste-Based-Energy” Conference in Toronto, the managing director of the CEFWC (of which Metro Vancouver is a member) predicted that “we’ll probably see three incinerators in Vancouver.”

The draft Plan also states that the new WTE facilities would be built inside the Metro Vancouver Region, rather than elsewhere in the province. 

No doubt, the draft Plan has put a variety of lobbyists into hyper-gear, especially a handful of former politicians who are riding the “gravy train” of big bucks to be made from Metro Vancouver’s waste. The provincial government has the final say over what happens to the Waste Management Plan.

Duelling Lobbyists

On one side of the duel is Wastech Services Ltd., a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Belkorp Industries, which wants to keep Metro Vancouver’s residual garbage flowing to the Cache Creek landfill which it manages. Wastech also operates recycling facilities and depots. Metro Vancouver currently pays about $30 million per year to Wastech to take 450,000 tonnes of waste at the Cache Creek landfill, located about 300 kilometres north of Vancouver.

Belkorp’s senior vice-president is Gary Collins, former BC finance minister in the Campbell government.  Belkorp’s registered lobbyist is Ken Dobell, former deputy minister of BC and former special adviser to the premier. 

In September, the provincial government authorized a seven-hectare expansion of the Cache Creek landfill.  The Environmental Assessment Office is currently reviewing Belkorp’s proposal for a further 40-hectare expansion. Without it, the Cache Creek landfill would close by 2012.

Across the Strait of Georgia, the town of Gold River on Vancouver Island’s west coast is vying to get Metro Vancouver’s garbage barged over for a proposed WTE plant in a former Bowater pulp mill. New Jersey-based Covanta Energy Corp. is owner of the Green Island Energy plant, which would burn 650,000 tonnes per year of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) and sell energy to the island grid. 

Covanta, often called “the octopus,” is the world’s largest owner of WTE facilities, with 44 WTE plants in the US, an aggressive expansion plan underway worldwide, and 2008 revenues of $1.7 billion. Covanta is also a primary funder of the CEFWC.

Covanta’s lobbyist is Andrew Wilkinson, a former provincial government deputy minister and past president of the BC Liberal Party.

The vice-president of Green Island Energy, Bruce Clark, also has strong Liberal ties. According to The Tyee (August 28, 2009), he is the chair of the Liberal’s BC Laurier Club and brother to former Liberal minister and deputy leader Christy Clark. A former vice-president of Covanta, David Hahn, is now CEO of BC Ferries.

Covanta has said that it will invest in the $550 million Gold River WTE project only if the facility obtains waste from Metro Vancouver.

Covanta has recently taken over the Burnaby WTE incinerator – which has had no ongoing testing protocol for surrounding land since 1993 –  from French multinational Veolia.  The former operators had proposed an 80 percent expansion of the facility to burn 500,000 tonnes of waste annually –  a plan that, two years ago, was the “perceived front runner” for taking Metro Vancouver’s waste. The current draft Plan states only that Metro Vancouver will “use the [Burnaby] facility at its optimal capacity to recover available energy.”  

Business in Vancouver (September 18, 2009) noted that Covanta’s operation of the Burnaby WTE plant gives Covanta “a potential vice grip over Metro Vancouver garbage if it gets the Cache Creek trash, too.”

The Gold River Project

At stake on both sides of this duel are local jobs, lucrative annual waste contracts from Metro Vancouver, and, in the case of Covanta, potential sales of Gold River-generated electricity.

Helen Spiegelman, of Zero Waste Vancouver, says Covanta’s Gold River project “was quietly granted an exemption from the Environmental Assessment process by an order signed on August 5th.” Covanta/Green Island Energy has also obtained a 40-year energy purchase agreement with BC Hydro.  

An economic analysis by Dr. Roslyn Kunin and Associates estimates the Gold River WTE facility would generate “over $500 million in economic activity during construction and another $30 million in economic activity annually once operational,” with the plant employing 130 full-time staff.

Gold River, with close to 50 percent unemployment, is clearly “a willing host,” as they say in the industry.  Jerry West, editor of Gold River’s The Record, says “most of the community are behind this project, which is far cleaner than what they were proposing three years ago.” Green Island Energy had initially proposed to burn millions of tonnes of wood waste per year and 480,000 tonnes of RDF imported from California. 

The current project, as described on Covanta’s website, will “accept between 500,000 and 750,000 tonnes of waste, turn it into Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) and deliver 90 megawatts of much needed power to the BC Hydro grid annually.” The project has received the endorsement of the Village of Gold River, Strathcona Regional District, Vancouver Island Health Authority, and the Council of Chiefs of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations.

John O’Connor, a representative of Covanta/Green Island Energy Ltd., told me by email that the ash generated by the Gold River WTE plant “will be treated similar to Burnaby (which has been operating successfully for some 20 years) and trucked to a permitted, lined landfill that is being developed on the island. This is a methodology that is widely accepted in Canada and the US.”

Critics of the project cite the toxic pollutants issued by such mass-burn WTE facilities (see sidebar 1), and point to Covanta’s recent emissions violations in several US states, where the company has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines over the past few years. New Jersey, for example, has cited the Newark incinerator (which Covanta took over in 2005) for violating air pollution regulations every year since 2003, with more than 900 violations in the past five years alone.

Covanta in Ontario

Covanta is also set to become the builder/operator of a new WTE plant in the Durham Region of Ontario – a proposal currently before the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which will release a preliminary decision in January for public comment and make a final decision by June 2010.

The proposed Durham/York Region WTE incinerator was the focal point at the November industry conference, where it was said to have “paved the way for others” and offered many lessons for WTE incinerator proponents, especially in terms of managing public “fears.”

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, including missing financial data, Covanta’s record of US regulatory violations, the site’s location in an agricultural community, and the fact that the Medical Officer of Health Report for the proposal dealt only with the minimum capacity scenario of 140,000 tonnes, while Covanta has the option to super-size the project to burn 400,000 tonnes annually. The municipality of Clarington, the site of the project, declared itself an “unwilling host” in January 2008. 

The project – a P3 (public-private partnership) under a potential 35-year contract – will be partially financed under the region’s $100 million Federal Gas Tax Reserve Fund. Originally costed at $197 million for a capacity of 140,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually, 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.

The Durham/York Region is hoping to further finance the project through a $140 per tonne tipping fee 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 resale rate and representing a significant taxpayer subsidy.

“We will be importing waste from York Region (currently our 21 percent 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 Greater Toronto Area 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 landfill), but in May 2009, Clarington Council voted to rescind its “unwilling host” designation, and an addendum to the motion outlined a $10 per tonne tipping fee “royalty” to go directly to Clarington for waste received specifically from Metro Toronto.

Part 3 of this series will explore even more such machinations by examining Plasco Energy Group, Aquilini Renewable Energy, and the Canadian government’s involvement in incineration.

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Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer, visual artist and author of five books.

[From Watershed Sentinel, Jan/Feb 2010 issue]

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