Metro Vancouver’s drive to build a new garbage incinerator is on ice, if not dead.
The regional district announced Thursday it is discontinuing the lengthy waste-to-energy procurement process, although it indicated it could be restarted in a year or two.
Board chair Greg Moore said improved recycling and waste-reduction efforts have pushed back the need for new waste disposal capacity by several years.
“It’s not about killing waste-to-energy,” Moore said of the board decision. “It’s about stopping this process and re-evaluating our needs to ensure that we’re building the right facility for the amount of residual we have requirements for.”
Metro originally aimed to build a plant that could burn 500,000 tonnes of garbage a year, but scaled the plan down twice to 250,000 tonnes as its volume of unrecycled garbage shrank.
Moore said Metro doesn’t want to end up with an overbuilt incinerator if the current trend continues.
About 500,000 tonnes a year was once going to the Cache Creek landfill, which Metro will stop using at the end of 2016, but Moore said that is currently down below 200,000 tonnes.
“We don’t want to build a facility that is too large, that we’ve spent more capital on than what’s required.”
Metro could, with the approval of Delta and Vancouver, send more waste to the Vancouver Landfill, which currently takes less than half of its licensed annual volume of around 650,000 tonnes. The existing Burnaby incinerator continues to take 285,000 tonnes per year.
Metro officials also cite uncertainty around future waste volumes, which have been in doubt after a provincial decision disallowing Metro from imposing a ban on the export of waste out of the region.
“The challenge with new waste-to-energy is that it requires a significant up front capital investment as well as predictable waste flow,” said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, chair of Metro’s zero waste committee.
The capital cost of an all-new plant was expected to top $500 million. Payments to a private partner would be covered by rising tipping fees.
But revenue from tipping fees has also been a growing question mark – Metro was forced to slash its tipping fees for large haulers to get them to stop sending garbage to the Fraser Valley or the U.S.
A new incinerator faced a steep uphill battle against opponents in the Fraser Valley, who argue it would be an unacceptable source of new air pollution in the constrained airshed.
Metro officials have long rejected that characterization, but the project would have faced a provincial environmental review as well.
Moore said Metro “remains committed to waste-to-energy” as the least expensive and most environmentally sustainable method of disposing of garbage, after efforts to reduce and recycle are exhausted.
The regional district has been under pressure from Belkorp Environmental, which operates the Cache Creek landfill and opposes incineration, to allow intensive use of material recovery facilities to extract recyclables from garbage.
Some municipalities have also supported that strategy, which has been embraced by the Fraser Valley Regional District.
“We’re thrilled,” said FVRD vice-chair and longtime incineration opponent Patricia Ross. “It’s a pretty great Christmas present for everybody who has been fighting this.”
Ross predicted there will be even less need for a new incinerator in the future, and that Metro will never pursue it again.
“We in the FVRD are applauding the wisdom of this decision.”
Belkorp Environmental vice-president Russ Black said he believes the need for action on climate change was one factor behind the Metro decision.
“It just doesn’t make sense to burn recyclables like plastics for energy versus recycling them and conserving energy,” he said, adding a new incinerator would also mean “burning garbage and putting contaminants in the air that Fraser Valley residents have to breathe and that would fall on the farmland of the food we eat.”
Belkorp subsidiary NextUse has been offered a licence for its proposed material recovery facility in Coquitlam.
But Black said the licence is for only five years and has other terms that make it unacceptable to build a $30-million plant. “Hopefully with this decision we get a more reasonable licence.”
Asked if the sharp decline in energy prices over the past few years also undermined the economics of waste-to-energy, Moore said no.
He noted some proponents “didn’t need to sell any energy” – including a proposal in Vancouver tied to district heating, and Lehigh Cement’s plan to use processed garbage as fuel in place of coal at its Delta cement plant.
The 10 short-listed bidders that had been angling to build and operate the new plant have been notified.
Moore said Metro is within its rights to terminate the process and will not be forced to pay penalties as a result.
Metro has spent $4.5 million pursuing waste-to-energy since 2012.
By halting the process, Metro also abandons options to buy various undisclosed sites for the possible new incinerator that it had secured.
– with files from Tyler Olsen