Will a push toward incineration in Toronto occur under wraps?

Local environmentalists fear a city-appointed expert advisory group that could recommend a return to incineration in Toronto will have its operations veiled in secrecy.

The controversial committee, which has just been struck, will consider what kind of new technologies can be used to dispose of a major chunk of Toronto’s garbage by 2006. Environmentalists say a confidentiality clause contained in application forms for the citizen advisory group means important information about emissions and other environmental ramifications of Toronto’s future garbage disposal methods could be kept hidden.

Amanda Stapells of Citizens for a Safe Environment says the confidentiality clause is alarming. “I was confused as well as concerned [to see the clause],” she says. “Part of the discussion of forming this group has always been that the process should be completely open and public … I think the whole thing is a whitewash. It’s a way to stall democracy and not let the public know what’s really going on.”

Citizens for a Safe Environment is based in south Riverdale, where many think the city may try once more to locate some form of garbage-burning facility. A highly controversial incinerator on Commissioners Street in the port lands was closed in the late ’80s due to public pressure.

Stapells deleted the clause from her signed declaration and included a letter explaining her decision, as did Bill Brown of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre. “I’m on the board [of the centre], and as it’s written I couldn’t even report back to the Health Centre about the process,” Brown says. “I really feel most strongly that the process and all the information should be open to the public.”

Although the list of candidates for membership was unavailable at press time, neither Brown nor Stapells was interviewed for the short list, and so they’re unlikely to be included in the group. In fact, neither was contacted by the city at all, so they could not say if their decision to delete the clause was a factor. “I’d be quite upset to learn that I was excluded for that reason,” Brown says.

Specifically, the clause at issue is contained in a financial conflict-of-interest declaration included in application forms for the city’s New and Emerging Technologies, Practices and Policies Citizen and Expert Advisory Group. The group, whose 11-person membership was to be confirmed by council’s works committee on Jan. 8, will recommend new technologies this spring for disposing of 20 per cent of the city’s waste by 2006.

With the Keele Valley Landfill closed as of Dec. 31, 2002, and the city’s landfill contract in Michigan expiring in 2006, the group will now be under a great deal of pressure to research and choose a disposal process quickly.

Environmentalists think that instead of turning to new technologies, many of which are commercially unproven, the city should instead aim to recycle a much higher percentage of its garbage, a strategy employed successfully by the city of Halifax. But some conservative members of Toronto city council think residents will balk at paying the higher per-tonne costs associated with more intensive recycling, so they say the city has to investigate other options.

Councillors and city staff are clearly well aware of how controversial the committee and its findings could be: staff spent most of last summer doing public consultations just to find a method to choose the group.

The most controversial process the advisory group will be asked to consider, and the only one mentioned by name in staff reports so far, is advanced thermal technology (ATT), which environmentalists claim is just a not-so-improved form of incineration.

Advocates of ATT dispute the incineration label, saying that while conventional burning technologies superheat garbage once in the presence of oxygen, ATT first reduces the garbage to gas by heating it without oxygen, then repeats the process with it. They claim it is a clean, efficient way to dispose of materials that are non-recyclable, non-reusable and inorganic.

Still, environmentalists have told eye that any move to bring ATT to Toronto will provoke a fight that could dwarf the infamous Adams Mine battle of 2000. The debate could erupt by spring and be a key issue in this year’s municipal election.

Ironically, the conflict of interest declaration containing the confidentiality clause was included in the application package to appease citizens and environmentalists concerned the group could be hijacked by potential vendors of garbage-disposal technologies. City staff say the declaration was included because the public made it clear at hearings that they didn’t want ATT salesmen sitting on the committee.

The first three clauses of the declaration all relate to potential financial conflicts; candidates were asked to declare that they and their families and friends have no financial interest in the advisory group’s decisions. The fourth clause, the one that has environmentalists up in arms, requires members to “keep confidential the information obtained through participation in the Advisory Group unless otherwise agreed by the Advisory Group.”

It seems a strange inclusion, partly because the group’s mandate includes holding their meetings in public, and the formation of the group itself is seen as a strategy to involve the general public in a decision that is a political hot potato.

Councillor Brad Duguid (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), chair of the works committee, is hopeful ATT will provide a solution for Toronto’s garbage woes. “We’re going to have to find a direction for this city by June that will determine how we deal with waste for the next 20 to 50 years,” Duguid says.

“There are all kinds of ways to increase the amount of waste we divert from landfill, by reducing and reusing and recycling, but we’re left with a certain amount, we think about 40 per cent, that we cannot divert in any other way. So then we’re looking into things they’re using in other places, in Europe apparently with a lot of success, such as gasification and thermal heating processes.”

Duguid says that concerns over the confidentiality clause may be motivated more by a desire to stir up trouble than to engage in the process in good faith. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them. If they’re concerned that they won’t be able to use the committee as a pulpit to be critical of the process then maybe they should be doing it from the ouitside. We need a co-operative approach so that people can participate fully, and you can’t have that if you have some people more concerned with advancing their own agendas,” Duguid says.

Councillor Bas Balkisoon (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River), will sit on the advisory group as a non-voting member. Balkisoon thinks concerns about the clause are unfounded.

“We were concerned that a lot of people that apply could be prospective bidders … these people are going to review the technologies and advise the city on which one to choose. We wanted a group that has no particular bias, and that’s a judgement call and it’s a difficult path.” Balkisoon says the confidentiality clause was included to protect the proprietary information of firms that may present technologies to the group for consideration.

Lawson Oates, manager of strategic planning with the city’s solid-waste management department, agrees. “Often people that may bring forward technologies will be dealing with information that is at the proprietary stage.”

Oates says decisions about what information should be kept confidential or not will be a matter for the seven-citizen and four-expert advisory group members to make once the group is formed. “When the committee forms, they’ll have to work to get clarity on what should be confidential and what should be public,” Oates says.

But Brown, of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, contends that when dealing with potentially severe environmental consequences, even proprietary information should be available to the public. “If they’re dealing with unproven technology then I think all the information should be available,” he says. “If the technology can’t stand up to public scrutiny then what’s going on?”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on January 9, 2003.