A dispute over how waste is managed by Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) sheds light on how things can go wrong when a consultant makes recommendations based on technical concepts without taking enough account of the goodwill of local citizens.
The dispute centres on a report submitted to the HRM in January 2013 by consultants from Stantec, which was peer reviewed by consultants from Dillon and also SNC-Lavalin. The report and peer reviews triggered acrimonious exchanges between different stakeholders, including government officials at all levels.
The Stantec report was requested by the CAO, under approval by council, in order to find efficiencies in the existing waste management system. The cornerstone of the system is the Otter Lake landfill facility, which only accepts waste after it first passes through a front-end processor (FEP) and waste stabilization facility (WSF). Putrescible materials (that generate methane gas and leachate) and certain other contaminants are not accepted.
The Stantec report is long and technical, and makes many recommendations aimed to reduce HRM disposal costs and extend the landfill’s life (including by putting a lift on it). Objections to the report focus on the proposed changes at the Otter Lake facility.
The Otter Lake facility and related infrastructure weren’t achieved in a vacuum. They stem from a hard-won 1999 agreement between HRM and the local community, represented by the Halifax Waste-Resource Society. This society was created by HRM in order to have a citizen’s body with which it could enter into a formal written agreement. The agreement created a Community Monitoring Committee (CMC) populated by directors of the Society, the mayor, council members and citizens appointed by council.
The 1999 agreement assured the community that the FEP and WSF would send only inert, residual waste or stabilized organics to the landfill. The Stantec report recommended doing away with the FEP and WSF.
The Dillon peer review was commissioned by Mirror, the landfill operator, in part because Dillon has been involved with Otter Lake since it was sited, working with Mirror to design the landfill, each cell, conduct monitoring, etc. (CMC members say they use the Dillon peer review because HRM staff disallowed the group from spending part of its budget on its own peer review.)
The CMC and Dillon object to the Stantec report’s contentions that the FEP and WSF “serve no useful purpose” — the FEP only diverts 200-300 tonnes of waste per year, and the WSF doesn’t create a marketable and revenue-generating product.
The CMC says the front-end facilities were never designed to do this. The HRM has extensive curbside collection of recyclables and organics, in addition to a special wastes depot. (The HRM already enjoys a diversion rate of about 50 per cent.) The purpose of the FEP is to sort out organics and send them to the WSF for stabilization before they get landfilled as an inert dry fluff. The CMC says that the HRM’s continued overlooking of this point will be the basis of the public consultation that’s planned to begin in September.
The situation pits local community members who agreed to host a landfill on certain conditions (i.e., that it accept only stabilized waste) that may be expensive, against residents and businesses further away who might focus only on cost.
The issue has become political. Provincial Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau has written that the HRM won’t be allowed to close the FEP and WSF facilities, and is supported in this by the leaders of the opposition parties. A resolution at Province House stated the same and passed unanimously.
It’s difficult to understand why the HRM would contemplate breaking agreements with a happy host community and its facility operator, or try to change the operating permit when the province says “no.”
The CMC is also concerned about Stantec’s suggestion that two protection liners be removed from the landfill — despite regulatory requirements from Nova Scotia Environment — and the proposed increase in the landfill’s height by 15 metres (which would extend the landfill life by 23 years). The community also has issues with Stantec’s vision of a waste “campus” at the site, including construction of a MRF and composting facilities (as they need replacement) and outdoor compost curing on-site.
The Stantec report contains suggestions the community would likely approve, but when it notes that the current cost of $170/tonne (which includes capital, operating and perpetual care) at Otter Lake “far exceed more typical industry costs of $50 to $100/tonne” and that “pre-processing of waste is rarely undertaken elsewhere” it, and the HRM, appear to be missing the public and environmental benefits of waste stabilization for which the willing host community is prepared to pay.
As the adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org