How would an incinerator affect the Barrhaven community?

I must admit, I was silently hoping that Plasco would succeed with their plasma gasification plant. The science behind the technology was sound and the promise of producing clean energy from municipal waste was appealing. But here’s the rub.

Barrhaven incineratorWhile the science is sound, implementation of plasma gasification is both expensive and fraught with technical challenges. Only about a dozen commercial scale projects exists in the world, many of which are experimental in nature. As promising as the technology is, it’s still very much at the experimental stage. Between 2009-2011 Plasco had 29 “emissions incidents” and 13 “spills”. It was also only able to operate roughly 25% of the time. This illustrates the difficulty of turning theory into practice.

If anything, Plasco was a research and development firm looking to commercialize a technology that wasn’t yet ready for prime time. Could time and money have made a difference. No doubt it would have. But I’m not convinced that the private sector was the correct incubator for this technology. Maybe it would have done better in the hands of the NRC (National Research Council) without the pressure of commercialization.

Looking forward, there’s been some whispers in the community (nothing confirmed by our elected representatives) about the possibility of having an incinerator operate within a few kilometers of Barrhaven. Our community needs to be aware that incineration technologies come in many forms, most of which produce very dangerous emissions and extremely toxic solid waste. Specifically:

Dioxin and furans

The most feared pollutants that are produced by incineration plants are dioxin and furan emissions. But the devil is always in the details. Rural residents who incinerate debris using “burn barrels” in their backyards, as well as incineration of medical waste accounts for far more dioxing and furan emissions. In fact, we all create the same pollutants when we burn wood in our fireplaces. But there’s also an issue of concentration, and let’s face it, the Trail Road waste facility is very close to Barrhaven. Do we want these dangerous chemicals, regardless of concentration, being emitted so close to a community of 75,000 residents?

Solid waste

Incinerators produce two types of solid waste known as fly ash and bottom ash. Between 4% and 10% of the material incinerated turns to ash, by volume. The figure is between 15% to 20% when measured by weight. The fly ash, which rises during the incineration process, is potentially much more of a health hazard as it may contain high levels of heavy metals. The bottom ash, which remains in the incinerator, does not contain significant levels of heavy metals. But again here, the devil is in the details.

The type of solid waste fed into the incinerator has a significant impact on what emissions result from the burn. Separating problematic materials from the feed stream before incineration helps, but is also quite time consuming.

Can the effects of these dangerous emissions be mitigated? The good news is, yes they can. Modern incineration plants use a number of filters that significantly lowers (but not eliminate) their air borne emissions. In fact, modern facilities emit far less harmful emissions than backyard barrel burning and residential fireplaces. But lets face it – perception is often 99% of reality. Some studies have shown that the mere presence of a municipal waste incinerator near a residential community can reduce property values by as much as 10%. That’s more than enough to send many running towards the NIMBY (not in my backyard) camp.

I think the solution to municipal waste management, and incineration in particular, is to take a pragmatic approach to the problem.

No doubt recycling is a big part of the solution. And we’ve implemented such programs across our municipality with great success. But even higher levels of recycling will not solve our solid waste disposal problems.

Landfill space is at a premium, and burying our garbage produces many other types of pollution that may actually be worse for our health.

Modern incinerators eliminate 90% of the total solid waste we produce. The bottom ash that results from incineration is safe to dispose of in a landfill. Modern incinerators also emit far less pollutants than their older counterparts.

Having said all that, there’s no reason to locate an incinerator anywhere near Barrhaven. An incineration plant can be built just about anywhere, and let’s face it, we’re a geographically big city. I’m sure we can find a location that is close enough to the city, yet far enough from large residential areas as to not affect property values.

I’m not against incineration; it’s not perfect, but it’s probably the best of several bad options. But I do not want it affecting my health or my property values. Let’s make sure we locate any proposed plant away from Barrhaven.