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Sept 18,2009 Vancouver Sun

By Miro Cernetig, Vancouver Sun

September 18, 2009

When the bureaucrats from Metro Vancouver marched into The Vancouver Sun's editorial office this week, they offered up a sobering message: We're facing a garbage crisis.

Our existing garbage dump in Cache Creek, 345 kilometres up the Trans-Canada Highway, will fill up within the next three years. A decision has to be made within months on building an incinerator -- costing at least $430 million -- to burn our future waste.

A few hours after that meeting, with visions of our metropolis swamped by garbage, I called up Environment Minister Barry Penner, who would have to sign off on building that massive incinerator. I got a diametrically different story, one Metro Vancouver didn't bother to share.

Don't panic, Penner said.

There are other "made-in-B.C" solutions to incinerators, he said, including the expansion of the landfill Metro Vancouver uses in Cache Creek. It turns out, the provincial environment ministry is now conducting an environmental assessment into enlarging the dump so it could swallow our garbage for another 15 years or more. That would mean garbage crisis solved.

A decision on that environment assessment is likely in the next few months. The province is also preparing a legal analysis, Penner added, to address whether any first nations might stymie the dump's expansion through court action.

Huh? One moment we've got a crisis? The next it's no big deal?

It's no wonder the public is confused about this vital decision. Even the people in the disposal industry, all salivating at the thought of landing the $430-million-plus deal and the lucrative dumping contract that comes with it, can't figure out who's in charge.

There's a way to clear up this murky mess -- and it's time.

Let's call in some independent outside advisers -- with no connections to either Metro Vancouver's garbage empire, the B.C. government or those seeking this juicy contract -- to review all reasonable disposal options that have been put on the table.

This won't mean more research. Metro Vancouver has spent millions, and put enough staff time travelling to the world's garbage facilities, to provide the data base for a final decision.

What we now need is a panel to lay out the handful of serious proposals in a clear language that can be digested by the public and municipal politicians, not the jargon presented by Metro Vancouver, which only PhDs and garbologists can understand.

Here are some key questions:

- Can the Cache Creek landfill -- our cheapest option -- really fill in the gap for another 15 to 25 years? Can the risk of aboriginal protests and court cases be mitigated, as the environment minister hopes?

The attempt to expand the landfill at Cache Creek was moved forward Thursday by the B.C. Supreme Court, which rejected one aboriginal group's claim that it hasn't been adequately consulted about the ongoing environmental assessment.

- The private sector has offered up at least three incinerator and landfill options that it is willing to build without asking the public for a half-billion-dollar investment. Why are we not tapping into that free capital or exploring public-private-partnerships, successfully used to deliver provincial infrastructure projects?

- Is the proposed $500-million incinerator at Gold River, which is welcomed by the Vancouver Island community and to be built and run by the respected firm, Covanta, viable? Why has this option been rejected by Metro Vancouver when the environment minister told me he sees it as an option?

- Does emerging plasma technology, now vaporizing garbage in Ottawa and Japan, really work? The firm Plasco Energy Group is already vaporizing waste in test facilities in Spain and Ottawa. Ottawa and Red Deer, Alta., are convinced enough they want to bring in bigger plasma incinerators.

Plasco has offered to build a plasma incinerator in Vancouver, at its expense and, if it fails, to take it down. Yet the option has been dismissed by Metro Vancouver. Why, exactly?

- What are the true costs? Make it simple. Tell us the upfront capital costs of every project in today's dollars. Tell us what the fees are per tonne of garbage. Provide the power generation opportunities and the carbon footprints of all options.

What, in terms people can understand, are the health risks of each project?

Metro Vancouver, despite its repeated efforts, has been unable to convincingly communicate these answers to the public. With a half-a-billion dollars of public money at stake, it's time to find someone who can.

Vince Ready, are you ready for this?

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