A better garbage solution than dumping in the lake

Op-Ed Adams Mines
There’s a far better, far cheaper way to dispose of the troublesome part of Toronto’s garbage — the part that leaches from landfills to contaminate groundwater — than sending it to the Adams Mine in Kirkland Lake.
But a majority of Toronto’s City Council has bound itself so tightly to the Adams Mine proposal that, for the best part of this past year it has never looked seriously at anything else. The response to this better, cheaper way has been to dismiss it as untried, more risky, impractical, and financially uncertain.

 

But the frailty of those responses began to be exposed seven weeks ago when the head of the company that provides steam heating for downtown buildings said he was interested in exploring this other way.

 

That person is Juri Pill, president and chief executive officer of Enwave District Energy Ltd. It took considerable courage for him to say this, because Enwave is half owned by the City of Toronto, and he must have expected that at least some of the councillors supporting the Adams Mine proposal would be annoyed.

 

But Pill was expressing interest solely on business principles. Enwave uses natural gas to create steam. But natural gas has a problem: its price is unstable, and currently is rising at a furious clip. Pill would like to get fuel in predictable quantities, at stable prices. It would be good for Enwave; it would be good for his customers.

 

This new and better way that was being touted looked to him as if it could offer predictability and stability. It calls for building methane digesters that convert garbage into methane and compost. (Natural gas is about 95 per cent methane.) It’s a tried and true technology that can be bought off the shelf. And if there were enough methane, it could be used not only to produce heat in winter, it could be used to produce cooling in summer (along the same principle as a propane refrigerator operates), and it could be used to produce electricity for downtown buildings. The technology for using methane to produce cooling and electricity can also be bought off the shelf.

 

What’s more, there would be major environmental benefits. Greenhouse gases would be significantly reduced; there’d be no decomposing garbage in a landfill to create leachate; compost could be returned to the land, completing the nutrient cycle; and there’d be some reduction in smog.

 

So Pill took the next step, an even more courageous one: he commissioned a preliminary study by Allen Kani Associates, the Toronto firm of design engineers that specializes in sustainability. Last week, the report was delivered, and from scraps of information that I’ve been able to gather, it was a bombshell, and some of the key supporters of Adams Mine on council were furious.

 

The report said that if all of Toronto’s organic garbage, 600,000 tonnes a year, were processed through methane digesters it would produce enough electricity to meet all of the requirements for administration of the city (except for the Toronto Transit Commission), including the needs of all the city’s buildings and those of its boards, commissions, and agencies, and all its requirements for sewage and water treatment. In addition it would supply enough electricity to cover more than half the needs of the TTC. In other words, the Corporation of the City of Toronto could operate almost totally on green power.

 

What’s more, there’d be methane to generate enough steam heating to meet the basic requirements of Enwave’s customers, and to satisfy Enwave’s operating needs.

 

And get this! It would save Toronto taxpayers at least $25 million a year over what they’d would be paying to send garbage to a landfill. Over the 20-year period of the lease that Adams Mine wants Toronto to sign, that would be a saving of half a billion dollars. And it’s calculated on the basis of Toronto paying the same garbage tipping fee to Enwave that it would have paid to Adams Mine.

 

The saving would come because Toronto would get profits from its 50-per-cent share of Enwave, and its 100-per-cent ownership of Toronto Hydro, which would distribute the electricity. The cost of a plant to produce methane and generate electricity would be about $105 million.

 

In the light of this, why would anyone in his or her right mind not want to place the highest priority on investigating this further? The answer, unfortunately, is the very people on council who are organizing support for the Adams Mine. At a meeting last week, they persuaded the city’s works committee to recommend that city staff obtain a detailed feasibility study of building a plant to turn only a quarter of Toronto’s organic garbage (150,000 tonnes a year) into methane for creating steam heating and electricity.

 

The councillors have simply not yet got the message. This will be a major election issue. With all the moaning about pressures on the tax rate, how can they pass up investigating the possibility of processing the full 600,000 tonnes, and saving $25 million a year? Why do they still want to send organic garbage to the Adams Mine?

 

With all the concern about global warming, how can they fail to investigate the possibility of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent of the city’s target?

The preliminary study points out that an Adams Mine landfill would give off methane as the garbage in it rotted. Some could be trapped and used to create electricity. But the remainder would escape and become a greenhouse gas 21 time more powerful that carbon dioxide. The report also points out that the electricity Enwave and Toronto Hydro would produce would displace electricity from coal-fired generating stations, thereby further reducing greenhouse gases.
And finally, how can they fail to investigate the feasibility of displacing as much electricity as possible from coal-fired generating stations since the stations emit sulphur, and Torontonians are concerned about the effect of smog on their health?

 

There is a hardy band of Toronto councillors, led by Jack Layton, who have fought hard and consistently for this better, cheaper way.

 

At a public meeting on Wednesday night, Layton and speakers from Kirkland Lake drank water brought from the Adams Mine pit to demonstrate the water’s purity. At the moment the pit is really a lake. It’s a worked-out, iron-ore open pit into which water seeps. As Layton explained, what is proposed at Adams mine is to deliberately pollute this water with the leachate that landfill garbage will create. The plan then is to pump out the polluted water, try to cleanse it, and release it back into the environment.

 

Now you tell me, from an environmental point of view, which solution do you think makes more sense? Deliberately polluting water, and then trying to clean it? Or transforming garbage into electricity, heat, cooling, compost, and profits?

 

Cameron Smith writes a weekly environmental column in the Saturday Star’s National Report.

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