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Talking trash

As Halifax explores the effectiveness of its waste management system, will some communities have their good faith sacrificed to save money?

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Photo: Mirror Nova Scotia

Photo: Mirror Nova Scotia

Otter Lake is like many lakes around Halifax. Surrounded by woods and trails, this one neighbours Lakeside, Beechville and Timberlea, a few of the fastest growing communities in the municipality.

But near the lake, just at Exit 3 off Highway 103, is an 81-hectare landfill holding most of the garbage Halifax produces. The Otter Lake Waste Processing and Disposal Facility has been operating smoothly, taking in hundreds of thousands of tonnes (139,000 tonnes in 2012/13 fiscal year) of garbage yearly. It has caused little concern (or even notice) for nearby residents since it opened in 1999.

But the landfill is getting a lot of attention these days. HRM staff is looking at changes for its waste management strategy. And some of the suggestions have many residents in the communities around the landfill raising a stink.

Ken Donnelly knew about the landfill from the early days. In 1995, the Sackville landfill was scheduled to close and then Halifax County was looking for options to process the region’s trash. Donnelly was asked to be facilitator on behalf of the authority to work on a community-wide engagement process to establish a waste-management diversion system and find a site for a landfill.

After months of negotiations, and post-amalgamation in 1996, the communities around Otter Lake eventually agreed to host a landfill, which he says has operated without issue since. “Really, the community out there has had no complaint,” says Donnelly, who lives in Halliburton Hills in Tantallon, further down Highway 103 from Otter Lake.

That was until a few years ago. In 2010, HRM, after being asked by the community the future of the landfill, decided to examine the options. Under the Regional Place, there are four options: open a new landfill; extend the existing landfill; send the material elsewhere; or develop a new technology. Studying those options took two years.

That was until 2012, when HRM decided to review its waste-management strategy—from the green and blue bin programs right up to to the landfill. Engineering firm Stantec, which has offices in Dartmouth, was the winning firm of a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by HRM. It studied and assessed the entire system. In its final 187-page report, the firm outlined not only what worked effectively with the entire waste-management system, which has for years been viewed as a poster child of good waste management, but made recommendations for change, including to the landfill.

HRM is looking at unilaterally reneging on a contract with a local community… And they are going out asking people on the Eastern Shore, way down on the South Shore whether or not they should close these facilities and treating everybody as they are equally impacted. Obviously if you are living three kilometres from a landfill it makes a big difference than if you’re living 300 kilometres from a landfill.

–Ken Donnelly

Besides suggesting an increase in the height of the landfill to extend its life, Stantec recommended reviewing the need for two pieces of technology used at the disposal facility: a front-end processing unit (FEP), which sorts materials that shouldn’t go to the landfill, and a waste stabilization facility (WSF) that takes compostable materials like food waste as well as materials that were processed on the front end and turns them into a dry fluff that heads to the landfill. According to Stantec, neither are working to properly divert waste and are costing HRM more money, about $10 million a year, than it needs to spend to operate the landfill effectively.

The report, when it was released to Council in February, enraged residents in the communities around the landfill. Donnelly says the FEP and WSF work as environmental protections, reduce nuisances (odour, blowing debris, wildlife) common with some landfills, and offer peace of mind to nearby communities. But more importantly, he says, both the FEP and WSF are protected under a legally binding contract the communities signed in agreement to host the landfill back in the 1990s. According to that contract, which was signed with HRM and the community, with the province’s assistance, the FEP and WSF must remain in the landfill, untouched, until the end of the landfill’s lifespan in about 2024.

“HRM is looking at unilaterally reneging on a contract with a local community,” Donnelly says. “And they are going out asking people on the Eastern Shore, way down on the South Shore whether or not they should close these facilities and treating everybody as they are equally impacted. Obviously if you are living three kilometres from a landfill it makes a big difference than if you’re living 300 kilometres from a landfill.”

According to Donnelly, Stantec is simply wrong about its assessment of the FEP and WSF and the two facilities should remain in place. “The FEP was never designed to pick recyclables off,” Donnelly explains. “And the WSF was never designed to produce a marketable compost. The FEP was designed simply to separate the organic material and not all the organic material, but the readily accessible material, which would be your food waste, your yard waste and stuff that rots quickly, to separate that and send it to the WSF…where it would be composted before it went into the landfill.”

“An analogy is you saying your hot water tank doesn’t work because it only heats half the water and the other stuff is coming though and doesn’t get heated at all, so let’s close your hot water heater down,” he adds.

Donnelly credits Councillor Reg Rankin (District 12—Timberlea-Beechville-Clayton Park West) with having the foresight to get a contract signed before the landfill was even built. “It was Reg, originally back in those days, that said we needed to have written assurances and a contract with the community” Donnelly says. “And, frankly, at that time, I thought that was overreacting. The HRM told the community to find a solution [and] they accepted it. They’re doing all this. Really do you have to put it in writing? But Reg was insistent…And it turns out Reg was right.”

Photo: HRM Corporate Communications

Photo: HRM Corporate Communications

Rankin, who has served as Councillor since before the landfill was built, says the issue is simple: honour the original contract. “This is all backed up in legal agreements, to entrench, to endure,” Rankin says. “It didn’t say, ‘Well, we will take a look at that.’ It was an enduring agreement.”

Rankin says he never had an issue with reviewing the solid waste strategy, including Otter Lake, and that any money spent on the FEP and WSF is worth it for the community hosting the landfill.

“I considered it a program review like any other department; be it police, be it fire,” Rankin says. “But what has happened here is that what they put on the table is has been asked for by the local community, by the wider community. It was an initiative by staff. Who’s defining the problem? Have people been complaining about the solid waste system? No. The $10 million? Let’s say that that is the cost of the environmental safeguards. That’s two cents on the tax rate. It’s a lower tax we pay for fire, transit. It’s about the value a community assigns to such a wonderful program.”

Like Donnelly, Rankin says Stantec is wrong about the function of the FEP and WSF.

“That’s a big lie,” Rankin says about Stantec’s assessment the FEP and WSF should be diverting more waste. “It was never set up for diversion. It was set up to capture. If it was set up for diversion, we would have had a curing pad for all that stuff. We’re processing stuff that is recognizable on the floor. We don’t get all of it, but enough that is satisfies the community.

Donnelly says in researching its report, Stantec spent an hour and a half at the landfill assessing how the operation works. Not so, says Jim Archibald, Stantec engineer and lead author of the report. A tour and assessment were part of the report, as were assessing old newspaper clipping in which Archibald says residents have made complaints in recent years about odours from the landfill. The firm, he says, spent four months researching and assessing the system. According to the report, most of the material (97 per cent), even after processing at the WSF and FEP, ends up in the landfill anyway. And Halifax, he adds, is the only jurisdiction they could find that does the shredding via a FEP first, then landfilling.

“HRM invests a lot of money in the operation and it’s clean, tidy and well run,” says Archibald, who worked with the Region of Waterloo in Ontario when the Otter Lake landfill was built and recalls Halifax’s waste management strategy getting a lot of positive attention. “The issue wasn’t necessarily with the landfill itself, but with the front end processing and waste stabilization. That was the focus…so there is a lot of things that happen, in our opinion, given that most of the material is just shredded, and sent directly to the landfill anyway, our question was are you getting a good value for that $10 million (a year) that you’re spending.”

But while the community wants any talk of money off the table, it’s an important factor for HRM. According to Gord Helm, HRM’s manager of solid waste resources, the current system costs twice as much as similar ones in other jurisdictions or compared to industry standards. And, he adds, the municipality will need about $93 million in new infrastructure over the next five to 10 years. Add to that another $100 million for a new landfill, if one is needed by the time Otter Lake is at capacity. And, of course, there is the time and cost involved in finding another community willing to host that new landfill. Changing the way Otter Lake works now by increasing its height and assessing the need for the FEP and WSF, he says, might make the best financial sense for everyone.

“What they [Stantec] are saying is, ‘You have an opportunity to not build one more landfill cell, utilizing the landfill cell you’ve already built by raising them up five, 10 or 15 metres, and not have to build another landfill cell for another 25 years,” Helm explains. “In 25 years I very much doubt we are going to be dealing with landfills, given how things have evolved, how technology has evolved … as an industry professional, I really don’t think we are going to be looking at the systems, and these resources the same way we currently look at them in 10 years.”

Both Rankin and Donnelly say that many of the current administration don’t have the perspective to know how important (or legally binding) the contract is for the community. None were part of the administration back in the 1990s when the landfill was built; CAO Richard Butts, for example, was working as for the City of Toronto when it was hauling its trash to Michigan. He later helped the city find a site for a new landfill.

“So there is a big disconnect there and I think that’s what happened to the Stantec report when Stantec came out and said these facilities don’t work for a completely invalid reason. I suspect these guys didn’t know why that facility was built,” Donnelly says. “So I think we have a real problem here in that we have people looking at this who won’t have the benefit of what when on back there. They don’t understand the battle that was going on in the community and the promises that were made in those local communities and they just look at it and say, ‘Wow, we could save $10 to $12 million if we close those facilities.’”

The issue could be moot if the province has its say. Back in 1999, the contract had the backing of the province under then Environment Minister Wayne Adams (the province signed the operating permit for the landfill). Today, it has equal backing from Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau, who sent a letter to Mayor Mike Savage back in June telling him Council ought to keep the landfill running as is. During the recent election campaign, now Premier Stephen McNeil said his party would keep the landfill operating, with the FEP and WSF intact.

With public consultations now wrapped up, Helm says staff will be looking at reports, including those done by engineering firms Dillon Consulting and SNC Lavalin, feedback from public consultations and will then develop options. A full report, he says, will be ready in December for a vote from Council.

Rankin, meanwhile, expected a decision several weeks after Halifax Magazine interviewed him for this story. But for Rankin and the community, there is no need for negotiations.

“It’s not good faith to say we will keep going until there is a different decision from the community,” Rankin says. “I hope that is not on their mind. There is damage into just listening because what you’ve allowed has been on the table.

“You’re treating environment safeguards as leverage,” he continues. “We will not go into a room and say, ‘We will trade this for that.’ They are not negotiable; it’s in the agreement.”

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