Friday, September 1, 2006

McGuinty realizes election is coming, Part 2

Ontario dodged a huge bullet yesterday. Facing a possible vote in the Michigan State Legislature that would have banned all Ontario garbage -- mostly from Toronto and its immediate suburbs -- from landfills in the Great Lakes State, the Trillium Province signed a deal in which Ontario agrees to stop using its neighbour to the West by 2010, 4 years from now. So Dalton McGuinty purges another item from his "to do" list, although the devil is in the details.

At least we realize that this is our problem and we have to solve it ourselves. But what are the alternatives? Even after the three "Rs" and composting, there really are only two:

Landfills: They take an enormous amount of time to site, require a massive environmental assessment process and take up much needed farmland. Even with waste diversion projects such as recycling and composting, the average dump lasts about 20 to 30 years after which the problem starts again. And of course, there's that problem of methane gas which must be either be vented (releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere), or used as natural gas for electrical co-generation and heating / cooling. Naturally, the latter is the lesser of the two in terms of impact. However, this is ultimately the final destination for all waste eventually, even that compacted and reduced in incinerators.

Southern Ontario has mostly class one and two soil in farming areas, perfect for growing nearly all types of crops. As urban sprawl spreads out, more of this precious land -- our breadbasket, really -- is disappearing. Add to that landfills, which by need today must be situated well away from residential areas, it's a even bigger problem. And don't forget that nasty little problem called lecheate. All the polyurethane and soil liners in the world won't stop its flow; it has to go somewhere and that's usually in our source water systems -- which sooner or later end up in the tap. Who pays for the treatment -- the dump, or the person already paying huge water bills?

Four years buys us some time to figure out at least where we might want to put the garbage. It's not nearly enough to engineer and open new landfils.

Incineration: One only has to think of the old units on Commissioners Street in Toronto or the now thankfully defunct SWARU (Solid Waste Reduction Unit) on Kenora Street in Hamilton to know about the worst of incinerators. They smell, bigtime, and release toxic waste into the atmosphere; not to mention the ash it produces which, as I noted above, must be buried anyway. Claims are that there are newer generations of incinerators which not only have substantially reduced emissions but can also produce electricity -- which would be very useful given this province's needless energy crunch.

On this one, I have two concerns: First, is the technology really proven to work as claimed? Do we develop them in our own country, or do we buy technology off the shelf from other countries -- such as in the EU? What controls will be put in to reduce releases to the minimum necessary -- and who's liable in case of an "overrelease"?

Second, the cogeneration aspect is certainly a positive one, but will the electricity and steam be sold at market price or provided free for those within the "closed loop"? And will nearby companies be compelled to participate in the cogeneration project or stay on the grid if they so wish? (This isn't so far-fetched. Hamilton got rid of its incinerator, but has a cogeneration plant downtown using steam from the steel and chemical mills a few miles downwind. Most downtown buildings use it -- but not, shamefully, the federal building, even though it was being built at about the same time as the co-gen).

Speaking of which, Hamilton and the Niagara Region have been taking a look at a joint project to deal with garbage issues of their own -- and their preference right now, not very widely discussed, is incineration. I'm not sure a farmer would be too happy having one of those things as his or her neighbour.

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