Editorial note: this article has been updated to include the latest information provided by Metro Vancouver with regards to the plant’s fly ash and nitrogen dioxide emissions and to correct factual errors.
Our exclusive report found that the 1,500 tonnes of garbage currently headed to the Port of Vancouver from the Philippines is set to be incinerated at a plant previously cited for producing toxic ash and nitrogen dioxide pollution.
The Burnaby Waste-to-Energy plant was first introduced in 1988 and is operated by the international waste management company Covanta. Currently the facility incinerates about 260,000 tonnes of waste annually and it will take about two days to burn the shipment.
According to Chris Allan, the Director of Solid Waste Operations for Metro Vancouver, the federal government approached them to take care of waste disposal shortly after they knew the garbage was returning to Canada.
“Metro Vancouver was approached by the federal government once they knew the material was coming back to the Vancouver port as we are the closest disposal option,” Alan told The Post Millennial.
Concerns about the plant have been raised by locals and members of the Fraser Valley Regional District.
The Fraser Valley Regional District was contacted for comment but had not replied by the time of publication.
2012: Plant dumped cancer-causing ash into local landfill
Two years later, on June 27th, 2014 the Ministry of Environment concluded in a letter that it was “very unlikely” that the cadmium levels present in the fly ash exceeded hazardous waste regulatory levels.
About 1,800 tonnes of the fly ash was dumped at a landfill in Cache Creek, British Columbia. Up until that point the landfill has been accepting shipments of the waste incineration byproduct for over a decade since the year 2000.
After an investigation by Environment Canada, the ministry found that regulations were followed by the plant and that further characterization and analysis of the fly ash deposits were not required. However, the study undertaken did not take into account the impact to local groundwater.
“I want to assure stakeholders that any impacts to groundwater from the landfill are of concern and will be addressed by the Operational Certificate holders under direction form the Ministry. Specifically, potential impacts to local groundwater and remedial measures are being addressed in the closure plans now under development for the Ministry’s consideration,” wrote a letter by the then Director for Environmental Protection in the region Cassandra Caunce.
It costs Metro Vancouver about $50 a tonne to ship the toxins to be disposed of out of province. Currently, fly ash produced by the site is being disposed of at a landfill in Oregon, U.S. after being tested for pollutants.
Since the discovery of cadmium, Covanta Burnaby Renewable Energy ULC was sued by the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District over the incident for negligence and breach of service in 2014.
2015: Nitrogen dioxide air pollution
According to Environment Canada data the Burnaby Waste-to-Energy plant produced 698 tonnes of air pollutants, and contributed to one per cent of nitrogen dioxide pollution in 2014. Nitrogen dioxide is known to contribute to asthma and bronchitis, as well as smog and particulate matter in the air.
Around $60 million in upgrades over the last 26 years have been poured into the Burnaby Waste-to-Energy facility by Metro Vancouver to improve its environmental compatibility. Since then nitrogen dioxide emissions have been reduced to 0.4 per cent, but the Fraser Valley Regional District is not convinced.
The district’s 2015-2025 Waste Management Plan blasts garbage incineration for its air emissions.
“Even the most technologically advanced incinerators produce hundreds of distinct, known hazardous by?products including dioxins, heavy metals, halogenated organic compounds, and nanoparticles. These toxins occur both in air emissions and in ash residuals,” the report says.
However, Metro Vancouver denies the plant’s contribution to pollution and maintains that the facility has “compiled with regulatory requirements at all times.”
“No,” said Chris Allan. “The plant operates 24 hours per day for 365 days per year and receiving this material won’t result in anything outside of ordinary which doesn’t cause any disruptions to residents.”
A Public Health Risk Assessment from 2018 concluded that the “current emissions from the facility do not pose a health risk to people“.
Plans to create more incineration facilities were scrapped in 2015 after concerns were raised about the environmental outcomes and uncertainty regarding future waste volumes.