Two visitors from the Regional Municipality of Durham, one of five regional governments in the greater Toronto area, led a discussion with the Metro Council on Thursday about their experiences pursuing and starting up a waste-to-energy facility for dealing with the garbage collected from within their jurisdiction.
Mirka Januszkiewicz, the director of waste management services for the Durham government, and Gioseph Anello, Durham’s manager of waste planning and technical services, shared their perspectives, experiences and lessons learned in establishing the Durham York Energy Centre, which began full commercial operations last February. This facility is jointly owned by the Durham and York regional governments and operated by Covanta Energy, the owner and operator of a similar facility in Marion County. Metro is considering sending a portion of the greater Portland area’s garbage to the Marion County facility after 2019.
Januszkiewicz made it clear at the outset of her presentation that she was not endorsing or recommending waste-to-energy for the greater Portland area, but merely sharing what led the Durham elected council to choose this as an option.
“You have to decide for yourself what is the best waste management system for your community,” she told the Council.
Prior to building the waste-to-energy facility, Durham sent much of its waste to landfills, just as the Portland area does today. There were, at one point, seven landfills in the Durham region that closed over time, and the regional municipality established that no new landfills would be built within the Durham region, an area of 2,537 square kilometers east of Toronto with a population of around 650,000.
Durham entered into an arrangement with a landfill in Michigan to send its waste there. However, after two years, according to Januszkiewicz, Michigan prohibited Canadian garbage from being disposed in its landfills and other alternatives were needed, so discussions around a waste-to-energy facility began. Januszkiewicz noted that any new facility needed to protect human health and the environment, meet very stringent regulatory limits on emissions, make economic sense and not detract from the Durham region’s goals to divert 70 percent of its waste through recycling, reuse, composting and other waste prevention efforts.
Anello discussed the lengthy process it took – more than 11 years, starting with the first environmental study in 2005 – to build and begin operating the waste-to-energy facility. An early step was a health and environmental risk assessment. The assessment, which cost $15 million to conduct, was peer-reviewed by three independent consultants who agreed with the findings that a waste-to-energy facility for the Durham region would not pose unacceptable risks to human health or the environment. Anello noted that emissions test results and environmental monitoring reports are available on the Durham York Energy Centre’s website.
Metro councilors asked the visiting guests about the political will necessary to build a waste-to-energy plant. Councilor Kathryn Harrington, who will be leaving office after 2018 due to term limits, asked about how newly elected officials in the Durham regional government were kept engaged and supportive through the multi-year effort. Januszkiewicz mentioned that there were four municipal elections held during the 11 years it took to get the facility built, and that it was the Durham municipality’s elected chair who championed the project. “A champion at the Council is essential,” she noted.
Councilor Bob Stacey inquired about the rigor and frequency of the environmental testing at the Durham York facility. Januszkiewicz noted that the Durham municipality’s staff completes its own frequent testing of the facility’s emissions and environmental performance, often at considerable expense, “but it’s worth it. If you don’t have the trust of the public, none of your system is going to work.”
Metro is considering a potential arrangement with Covanta to send as much as 200,000 tons of garbage per year – about 20 percent of the total garbage generated in the Portland area after recycling, composting and recovery efforts – to the Covanta Marion facility in Brooks which, since 1987, has been burning nearly all of Marion County’s garbage to create electricity. Until the end of 2019, Metro is obligated to send 90 percent of the region’s landfill-bound garbage to landfills owned by Waste Management. The upcoming end of that contract provides Metro an opportunity to look at possible alternatives, including other landfills in Oregon and Washington.