January 1, 2007

Landfill scarcity, energy needs drive image makeover for thermal treatment of waste

By: Mark Sabourin

Is the new generation of "thermal treatment" options for municipal waste about to make a significant breakthrough as a solution to the country's waste disposal problems? It's probably too early to tell, and the technology-principally gasification-still has plenty of vocal and powerful opponents. But a few recent regulatory developments suggest that what one side calls thermal treatment, and the other calls landfill-in-the-sky is undergoing a bit of an image makeover.

In landfill-starved, energy-hungry Ontario, a just-released draft Waste Management Projects regulation would require only an environmental screening (rather than an individual environmental assessment) for "thermal facilities with energy-from-waste component" and "thermal facilities without an energy-from-waste component if disposing of ten tonnes of waste or less per day." The draft regulation defines "thermal degradation" to include incineration, gasification, pyrolysis or plasma arc treatment.

Rob Cook, president of the Ontario Waste Management Association, calls it "a political preference being given to energy-from-waste facilities." Incineration without an EFW component is still subject to an individual environmental assessment. He asks, "what is the environmental difference between a large facility that incinerates waste and generates electricity, and a large facility that incinerates waste and doesn't? From an environmental point of view, it would be tough to rationalize the distinction."

The Ontario draft regulation follows on the heels of regulatory approval given earlier this year to Plasco Trail Road to operate a pilot plasma gasification facility at Ottawa's main municipal landfill. Ottawa is desperately seeking an alternative for its Carp Road landfill, which will soon reach capacity.

In the Greater Toronto Area, the Ministry of the Environment is proposing to issue exempting regulations for a gasification project in Whitby that will use pelletized municipal solid waste to generate electricity. The two proponents are Arbour Power, which will own and operate the gasification plant, and Dongara Pellet Factory, which will produce the fuel pellets from municipal waste. Dongara's proposal is for a pelletizing plant in York Region that will consume 70,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste per year, for shipment to a coal plant in Michigan. However, if the Arbour Power plant is approved, a second, much larger, plant will have to be built. Unlike the Plasco facility in Ottawa, the Whitby plant will be a full-scale operation, with Arbour Power proposing to consume as much as 250,000 tonnes per year of Enermax pellets, produced by Dongara from municipal solid waste.

Whereas Toronto's proposals are awaiting approval, Edmonton's is going ahead. The city is partnering with Epcor to build a gasification plant at the city's waste management centre. Construction is slated to begin in 2008, and the plant is scheduled to go on stream in 2010. Proponents say the plant, billed as the first in the world to convert municipal waste to syngas, will allow the city to divert as much as 95% of municipal waste from landfill.

Surprisingly, the Edmonton plant has attracted nary a whimper from local environmentalists. Connie Boyce, director of community relations with the city's waste management branch, explains that residents understand that the city's sophisticated waste infrastructure ensures that residual waste has been picked clean of recoverable resources. It's either the gasification plant, or the ground.

One prominent environmental group contacted by EcoWeek was not even aware of the city's plans, and Myles Kitagawa, associate director of the Edmonton-based Toxics Watch Society, admits he has not looked at the proposal. He doesn't apologize for it either. With Alberta's furious resource boom, ENGOs have their hands full, and they are also being affected, as is every other organization, by the province's chronic labour shortage.

"When the mainstream economy is suffering [human resource] capacity issues, the non-profit economy is just not on the radar," he says. Couple that with acceptance among ENGOs that the municipal response to waste issues across Alberta is already pretty strong, and you might reasonably expect that energy-from-waste proposals using newer technologies might well get a gentler ride.

"I wouldn't describe it as an enthusiastic shifting in attitude," cautions Kitagawa. But he does sense a "reconsideration" of some of the positions formerly taken based exclusively "on a landfill constrained environment." In the 1990s, environmentalists were deeply concerned about reducing the volume of waste to landfill. The current reconsideration, he feels, is based on a deeper appreciation of the greenhouse gas implications of various options, including newer thermal treatment options.

Incineration as disposal is still off the table, he insists, but where, on a life-cycle basis, a thermal option for a commodity is shown to a preferable option in "a carbon-constrained environment," that option may get a more favourable treatment from its former opponents. However, in the absence of evidence of carbon mitigation, it's just another form of disposal.

Dan McDermott, director of the Sierra Club of Canada's Ontario chapter, says that's all it is. He admits he's noticed a shift in public opinion in favour of new thermal treatment technologies, and he doesn't believe it's warranted.

"We keep hearing about these new technologies, that incineration's bad old days should be forgotten," he says. "Show me the numbers," he challenges. "Where are the perfect systems running? What kind of regulations govern them? What feedstock is allowed to be fed into them?" Any incineration, no matter what the process, will produce airborne contaminants and residual ash. "I believe incineration ought to be considered guilty until proven innocent."

As to the argument that GHG benefits should be enough to cut the technology a bit of slack, McDermott again challenges, "prove it."

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