Some day, the visionaries in the garbage biz tell us, we will be able to drop our garbage into wondrous machines -- and poof! -- our waste will be vaporized into oblivion by a man-made ball of plasma hotter than the surface of the sun.
Some day sooner, they also promise, we can even evolve into a zero-waste society -- that Utopian state of being where everything we humans consume is recycled. We'd be like the colonists inside those experimental, human terrariums futurists like to build in the Arizona desert.
But Johnny Carline, the guy who is looking after Metro Vancouver's garbage, would like to be the first to bring you back to earth with a reality check. We live in today's world, not a Star Trek episode. And in our world, Metro Vancouver's chief administrator warns, the Lower Mainland's 2.3 million people -- who create 1.3 million tonnes of garbage every year -- have no time to waste waiting for garbage utopia.
Our garbage is piling up fast. In about three years Metro Vancouver will run out of space in its landfills. Unless we want to be awash in our own detritus, Carline says we've got to act in the next few months to find new locations to do what we humans have always done with our garbage: Burn it or bury it.
After years of studying garbage, Carline is in the burn-it camp.
He and his staff are recommending Metro Vancouver spend $430 million on high-tech waste-to-energy incinerators, the sort used in European cities. In the next few weeks he and his staff will hit the road trying to convince us all of the wisdom of that solution.
Carline comes armed with a consultants' study and power-points showing "waste-to-energy", as these incinerators are called, is the cheapest way to dispose of our garbage. The expert report promises that new scrubbers will reduce toxic pollutants to nearly nothing. Such a system will also turn waste into power, perhaps making a tidy profit of about $10 million worth a year for Metro Vancouver.
Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it?
Well, it isn't going to be that easy.
To begin with, the province has to sign off on Carline's idea of building up to six incinerators that would be scattered around Metro Vancouver, in as yet undisclosed locations. But so far, Victoria has been very, very reluctant to endorse the idea.
The reason for the reluctance is simple. No matter how many soothing charts and experts you present explaining that local air quality won't be effected by a modern incinerator, there's bound to be a political backlash. Nobody reacts favourably, at least initially, to the idea of a garbage incinerator in their backyard, or even upwind of where they live. Just look to Britain, where efforts to build incinerators have sparked a fierce, anti-incineration movement.
You can bet Environment Minister Barry Penner and the Liberal government are well aware of the political consequences of that happening here. Penner represents the riding of Chilliwack-Hope, downwind of those proposed new incinerators Carline wants to build. The minister's constituents are already unhappy the Lower Mainland's pollution is blown eastward from the ocean to their end of the Fraser River Valley, where air quality has deteriorated over the years.
So it's no shock the province has yet to endorse the idea of urban incinerators, even though the idea has been on the table for years now. On Monday, Penner's office said it didn't even have a formal proposal in the minister's hands, which is amusing since everyone knew Carline would be pushing for urban incinerators to deal with the looming garbage crisis.
Even when the minister does get his hands on Carline's report, though, expect lots of red tape and delays. Nothing moves quickly in the garbage business.
If the provincial government agrees to urban incinerators being built, Metro Vancouver will likely have to go out and seek or refine bids for the $430-million project. Then Victoria will require an environmental assessment, meaning months of study and more public hearings. If the government then greenlights the construction, the environment ministry will then have to issue an operating license.
It's no sure bet any of that will happen, though. If Carline's campaign for incineration within Metro Vancouver sparks a major backlash, it's a good bet the province will retreat. That would create two options.
The first is Metro could go hunting yet again for a new landfill to take Metro Vancouver's garbage. That's become difficult, however, because of the threat of first nations' protests. Not unlike their counterparts in the city, aboriginals aren't keen on a landfill in their backyard.
Since the province has vetoed the easy idea of Metro Vancouver exporting its garbage to dumps south of the border, that would leave open the sole possibility of locating an incinerator outside the Lower Mainland. That would create the same sort of quagmire that Carline is facing.
But a rural incinerator may be easier an option than many might think.
The New Jersey-based waste management giant, Covanta, has already agreed to spend $500 million to transform a defunct pulp mill in the town of Gold River, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, into a waste-to-energy incinerator.
The project has passed an environmental assessment by the province.
There are no first nations land claims that threaten to delay the development.
It would also create 130, full-time jobs in the economically depressed town, where there seems to be no major local opposition to the project.
A purchase agreement is already in place with BC Hydro to pump 90 megawatts of electricity into the grid, enough to power about 90,000 households.
But Covanta, which is partnering with the B.C. company Green Island Energy, has a problem. The provincial government has denied the company the right to import garbage from U.S. cities into Gold River, which was part of the original plan.
That means for the project to go ahead it needs a 20- to 25-year contract with somebody in British Columbia with 750,000 tonnes of garbage to burn every year.
That would be Metro Vancouver.
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