Who’s trying to force a new incinerator on the city?

Two recent developments at City Hall have east-end politicians and residents, who fear a return to incineration in the south Riverdale port lands, up in arms over the work of a city advisory group.

City officials say it’s all a misunderstanding, but the appearance of what one national news outlet called an “unsigned leaked memo” — and,
separately, a quietly rescheduled
zoning hearing dealing with the port lands — have MPP Marilyn Churley (Toronto-Danforth) talking conspiracy. “I really believe there are deals being made behind closed doors, in secret,” Churley says.

“There’s so much evidence,” Churley adds. “You’re darn right it’s a conspiracy and now it’s being dragged out in the open for all of us to see. When you put all the pieces together, the leaked document asking the [provincial environment] ministry for an exemption from an environmental assessment (EA), and at the same time, discussions around the zoning bylaw in my riding dealing with incineration… We smoked them out.”

Churley is convinced the city is intent on putting an incinerator, or a similar, newer garbage-disposal process called Advanced Thermal Technology (ATT), in the southern part of her riding. It’s an issue on which Churley is a veteran, having started her political career during the successful fight in the 1980s to close an incinerator on Commissioners Street.

The matter is returning to haunt City Hall these days because of the work of a committee called the New and Emerging Technologies, Policies and Practices Advisory Group, which was set up in February to investigate alternatives to landfills for the city’s garbage.

The committee is comprised of citizen and expert advisors, and was established in the wake of a June, 2001 city report by the Waste Diversion Task Force 2010. The task force, which was pushed on by Mayor Mel Lastman after the Adams Mine debacle, recommended new waste diversion targets for Toronto. Specifically, 60 per cent of the city’s residential garbage is to be diverted from landfills by 2006, and 100 per cent by 2010.

To meet the 2006 goal, city staff have been implementing a variety of measures, such as “three-stream” recycling — which includes organics pickup, and which began in the former Etobicoke last year — as well as apartment recycling and fees for small commercial garbage pickup.

But what’s currently causing so much stress at City Hall is the fact that of the 60 per cent of residential waste that’s to be diverted from landfills by 2006, one-third is supposed to be disposed of using “new and emerging technologies.” That’s still an amorphous concept, and getting such a technology chosen, built and operating within three years will be a massive challenge.

(Furthermore, pressure to build a facility has been ratcheting up in recent weeks, as Michigan residents and legislators grow increasingly frustrated by the legion of trucks hauling Toronto’s garbage every day to that state’s landfills.)

One of the most time-consuming aspects of the selection and approval process for a new technology would be a provincial environmental assessment, which ATT opponents insist is necessary because so little is known about the kind of emissions an ATT plant would give off.

It’s that environmental assessment that’s one of the main focuses of the current controversy. Specifically, it appears someone at City Hall is trying to dodge such an assessment.

On April 1, The Globe and Mail reported that an unsigned memo recommended the city request that the province exempt any new technology they selected from an individual environmental sssessment.

Karen Buck, who sits on the citizen-expert group advisory group on behalf of Citizens for a Safe Environment, a south Riverdale advocacy group, maintains that the group recommended no such thing.

“We had never discussed anything about the fact that they were trying to get an exemption from an individual environmental assessment,” says Buck. She said it looks like city staff are trying to maneuver behind the backs of the group. “What they’re doing is they’re using our committee to get the exemption,” she says, “and we haven’t agreed to that.”

While the request for an exemption wasn’t actually the result of a leak — staff just posted the document on the city’s website — the contents of that memo are still disturbing to environmentalists and opponents of incineration and ATT.

The memo (available on the advisory group’s site at http://www.city.toronto.on.ca/wes/techservices/involved/swm/ net/about.htm) notes that ATT is considered by the province to be disposal, not diversion, and that the environmental assessment process can delay building a facility by two years. It goes on to say that the “City of Toronto should seek from the Minister of the Environment a set of conditions that he would agree to that would allow him to provide an exemption of the project from the Environmental Assessment Act.”

But Geoff Rathbone, director of policy and planning with waste management services in the city works department, says the memo was just a suggestion for the citizen advisory group from city staff. It was simply draft language, he adds, that was to be presented to the group on April 9.

“We had planned to address that part of it at a workshop, at least laying out the idea of the EA process. And that process formally allows for at least a request for an exemption,” he says.

Rathbone says staff were simply making the group aware of the options available to them, not trying to hijack the process. “We have not at this point made a decision as to whether we will or will not request an exemption. We were just trying to point out in the staff memo that this is part of the process and, essentially, we are going to have to make a decision on whether we make a request for an exemption,” he says.

Elaine LePage, co-chair of the new and emerging technologies advisory group, confirms that the document had yet not been discussed at the group’s meetings because they had higher priority items on the agenda.

LePage says she understands the confusion and dismay of those who haven’t been following the committee, “I’d be fighting too if I didn’t understand what the whole thing was about,” but she says such concern is misplaced because the group is still in the very early stages of the decision-making process.

Nonetheless, dozens of alarmed east-end residents turned up to the advisory committee meeting on the night of April 2, at which the group passed a resolution that city staff should not pursue any discussions with the province until the group has properly discussed the issue.

The resolution was a relief to Councillor Sandra Bussin (Ward 32, Beaches-East York). “If they hadn’t passed that motion, I tell you I would have been before council asking to disband the committee because [it would have meant] they really don’t have an appreciation of what they’re dealing with,” she says.

Bussin says residents of her ward were also enraged about a rezoning hearing scheduled for the April 4 meeting of council’s planning and transportation committee that could have excluded heavy industrial uses in the port lands west of Bouchette Street. That would have left the area east of Leslie Street as one of a small number of possible locations for an ATT facility, should the city decide to build one.

The hearing ended up being postponed, however. Christine Archibald, a city clerk, says it was rescheduled because of legal concerns over “inconsistencies in the wording of the notice as it relates to the description of the proposal.”

Bussin says that suburban councillors and works committee members are unafraid of the long-term consequences of ATT or incineration because they know such a facility would likely be placed in the east end. “We’re ruled by the suburban mentality of councillors. They know it’s not going to be in their neighbourhood, and [so] they’ll vote for it. They don’t feel that it does have that kind of residual effect on them,” Bussin says.

When the advisory group was initially struck, some observers feared it was set up to help rubber-stamp a return to incineration in Toronto. But in a twist, the committee has decided to explore a broader mandate than the one set for it by council: now, it plans to look first at whether Toronto ought to recycle a much higher percentage of its garbage than it currently has plans to do.

While that approach has been welcomed by most environmentalists, it sets the committee on a collision course with some councillors, first because of outside time pressures, and second because the more conservative members of council don’t believe residents want to pay the high costs per tonne associated with more intensive recycling.

Councillor Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12, York-South Weston) says that Churley and Bussin’s reservations are a case of NIMBY. “I think what they are trying to do is say, ‘We don’t want any land zoned where that particular use might be a permitted use.’ That’s really what they’re trying to say. Any rezoning that goes through in their area … they don’t want that kind of a plant as a permitted use. And I’m not sure that’s reasonable or realistic,” Di Giorgio says.

Di Giorgio sits on the advisory group as a non-voting works committee representative, and he says that in any event, the objections now being raised are premature. The group has yet to decide on a technology or a site, he says. They haven’t even begun to narrow the list by soliciting expressions of interest.

One of the new and emerging technologies the advisory group will look at is advanced thermal technology (ATT), a way to burn materials that are non-recyclable, non-reusable and inorganic.

Proponents of ATT say it’s a clean, efficient way to dispose of solid waste and can have the positive side effect of producing energy. They also dispute the “burning” label, saying that while conventional incineration technologies superheat garbage once in the presence of oxygen, ATT technologies first “reduce” or heat garbage twice: first without oxygen, then repeating the process with it

Opponents of the process think ATT is just incineration with a dressed-up name, and that the process is not as friendly to the environment as supporters claim. They insist such technologies are not safe, and point to facilities in Europe that have performed poorly, including a gasification plant in Germany that was shut because it didn’t meet emissions standards.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on April 10, 2003.