A European Union toxicology expert says a modern garbage incinerator should pose no significant health hazard to nearby residents, particularly when stacked against more plentiful but mundane sources of toxins.
Dr. Jim Bridges, of the University of Surrey, spoke Wednesday in New Westminster at one of a series of forums on how Metro Vancouver should deal with its waste.
Metro is aiming to burn garbage instead of burying it by building a series of new waste-to-energy plants for the Lower Mainland, but the idea has been under steady fire from opponents.
Bridges and other panelists argued the concern is misplaced.
"Cooking on a barbecue for two hours results in a higher dioxin exposure than living near an incinerator for several years," said Bridges, who chairs an EU scientific advisory panel on emerging health risks.
Likewise, he said a major fireworks display releases as much dioxins as a century worth of emissions from a modern incinerator.
By far the biggest exposure to cancer-causing dioxins for most people comes from eating fish, he said.
"The main source of exposure is through our food," he said. "Especially oily fish."
He also contends that particulate emissions from a waste incinerator are minor compared to other sources, particularly diesel engines.
One hour of an incinerator's particulate emissions are equivalent to just 20 vehicles driving two miles, Bridges said.
Critics contend the region's airshed can't handle any incremental increase in air pollution.
But both Bridges and a second expert, Bettina Kamuk, who has helped start new incinerators across Europe and chairs an international working group on hazardous waste, said waste-to-energy plants run in constrained European airsheds similar to the Lower Mainland's, notably in Norway.
Audience member Rick Glumac called the six-member panel "one sided" – no panelist criticized waste incineration.
And members of the group Zero Waste Vancouver accused Bridges and Kamuk in particular of being closely tied to the incineration industry – a charge Bridges rejected.
Pressed as to why no critics of the industry were invited, Metro waste management committee chair Marvin Hunt said the panel reflects prevailing expert opinion, particularly in Europe.
"If everyone says the Earth is round, do we really need to get someone here to say that the Earth is flat?" he responded.
Reports prepared for Metro Vancouver have concluded incineration is cheaper than landfilling and offers the advantage of energy and greenhouse gas savings by piping heat from waste-fired plants to nearby buildings.
While there are stack emissions, waste-to-energy plants within the region would end emissions from trucking garbage to Cache Creek.
Metro officials concluded there will be no discernable difference in air quality impacts no matter which waste disposal option Metro chooses.
The regional district has tentatively talked about building three waste-fired plants here – one on the North Shore, one in the northeast sector and one south of the Fraser.
The Cache Creek regional landfill, which takes 500,000 tonnes a year, must close within a couple of years.
With the province now barring export of garbage to the U.S., waste-to-energy plants are a prime contender to replace Cache Creek, unless a new landfill or major expansion is approved.
The region also aims to boost recycling from 55 per cent to 70 per cent, but that's not expected to happen overnight.
One audience member said Metro could save a lot of money by converting the Burrard Thermal generating station into a waste-to-energy plant.
But that would be controversial – the province aims to phase out the natural gas-fired plant to reduce air pollution.
One option on the table is to send Metro waste for incineration out of the region, such as to a proposed site at Gold River on Vancouver Island, eliminating concern over Fraser Valley emissions.
Environment minister Barry Penner – whose approval Metro's solid waste plan will ultimately require – has said the Gold River site merits close consideration.
Another suggested site is the old Woodfibre pulp mill near Squamish.
Hunt said all of those options will be considered, along with others, such as using the garbage as fuel in the local Lafarge or Lehigh cement plants.
Several in the audience argued an intensified push to recycle is the best policy.
Coquitlam Coun. Fin Donnelly got the loudest applause when he said the region should lay plans to go beyond its new recycling goal and set new targets of 80, 90 and eventually, 100 per cent diversion.
He said that can be undermined by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on incinerators that would lock the region into the need to use them.
"When you build these things you need to feed them," he said.
Further public consultations are planned in the months ahead.
Metro's ultimate direction will be up to the provincial government, which has final say on the region's solid waste management plan.
If incinerators are built here, proponents will have to scale a large wall of public opposition.
Sixty-five per cent of those polled by Angus Reid Strategies feared waste incineration will hurt air quality.
The survey was paid for by Belkorp Environmental, which proposes a massive expansion of the Cache Creek regional landfill and aims to thwart the Metro move towards waste-to-energy plants.
Belkorp president Ted Rattray said the results point to the "disconnect" between Metro's incineration plan and the goals of local residents to reduce their waste.
Both Belkorp and Covanta, a firm that's behind a plan to incinerate Metro waste on Vancouver Island, have been vigorously lobbying regional decision makers and the provincial government.