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Councillors fume over incinerator

Incinerator operators claim test samples contaminated; operators have paid $1.84 million of $2.6-million penalty

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

The council chambers of regional headquarters were filled with councillors demanding an explanation as to how the region’s incinerator exceeded its limits on several pollutants during testing.

In a conversation split up during the hours-long session, concerned councillors questioned regional staff on what is going on at the Clarington incinerator site.

The region’s works commissioner says if the operators of the region’s $280-million incinerator can’t explain where the overages for dioxins and furans came from, they won’t be given the green light to go into operation.

“We’re very concerned with the dioxin and furan numbers. Covanta needs to have a very good explanation as to why these numbers were over. We’re going to have to look at all the additional testing they did in respect to dioxin and furans and see whether those numbers are better or worse or consistent,” Cliff Curtis, the region’s commissioner of works, said during a meeting of regional council. “This is not an election for dioxin and furans, where you get to keep testing until you get a result you like. We’re going to have to look at every single test that they did…and the information they sent to the Ministry of the Environment. Covanta cannot operate the plant unless they get the dioxins and furans under the regulatory level. It simply can’t happen.”

According to an interoffice memorandum from Curtis dated Oct. 29, stack testing at the incinerator found levels of


Recent test results showing the incinerator in Clarington had exceeded its limits for dioxins and furans had regional councillors talking at regional headquarters. Works commissioner Cliff Curtis says Covanta, the site’s operator, won’t be given the green light to start commercial operations unless it can explain where those toxins came from.

dioxins and furans at 226 and 100 picograms per cubic metre respectively. The provincial limit for dioxins and furans is 60 picograms per cubic metre.

Meanwhile, Covanta, the New Jersey-based operator of the Durham York Energy Centre, is blaming the overages on the sample being contaminated with ether, resulting in numbers that are falsely inflated.

“There’s a thesis advanced verbally by Covanta that there was some interference from another chemical, ether…that contaminated the sample. Both samples actually, as the sample was split tested here in Canada and one down in the States. Their verbal information…was that those samples have been contaminated with ether and that is skewing the test results,” Curtis said, adding that if there were no ether contamination, the test results would be approximately 15 per cent lower.

Even without ether contamination, the stack tests would still be above provincial regulations.

Covanta recently concluded its acceptance testing for the incinerator. Now, it must prepare a report detailing testing results to the region, which in turn has 30 days to decide if it the site will go forward with commercial operation.

Curtis says the region will not rush the incinerator into commercial operation if it is not meeting the guidelines set out in the contract between Covanta and the region.

“Personally, I’ve got no interest in dealing with air emission exceedances. There’s a liability for the region if that happens and there’s a personal liability for senior staff if that happens. I have no desire to go there,” he said. “I want to make sure it’s operating properly before we give them the acceptance test certificate.”

Health concerns

Councillors also heard from Dr. Robert Kyle, the region’s chief medical officer, on the health hazards posed by dioxins and furans. Kyle says, however, that he is not concerned so far by what he’s seen.

“I have no concerns (about human health), but…it is important to do subsequent testing,” he said about the test results, later going on to say that these stack tests represent a snapshot of the plant’s operation, and not necessarily what’s happening all the time.

“A single exceedance doesn’t constitute a health hazard.”

According to Health Canada, dioxins and furans are a byproduct of incineration processes, and can accumulate in biological tissues. The federal entity also says that while humans and animals are all exposed to the two compounds, exposure in higher concentrations can lead to serious health problems.

Kyle said during the meeting he isn’t an expert, and has consulted with engineers involved with the project to ensure the toxin levels are safe.

This, however, appeared to trouble Oshawa Councillor Nancy Diamond.

“I’m having trouble rationalizing the answers here from you, the medical officer of health. You have an overall responsibility in Durham but you’re not an expert on this, so you’ve relied on outside help. But what’s concerning me is that the approvals…it’s still our responsibility to ensure that it’s safe now,” Diamond said to Kyle during the meeting. “We now have extreme exceedances, but if I quote you Dr. Kyle, you said you were ‘reassured’ by the engineering staff that everything was OK and you have no concerns. How could you, as the medical officer of health, first say ‘I don’t have expertise,’ which is why we hired from outside, but then have a comfort level at the high level of dioxins and furans when the engineers say it’s OK?”

Kyle went on to say that while he is concerned about exceedances in general, he is for the moment reassured as more testing is being done, and that his final opinion will come from those results and the continuance of testing.

Liquidated damages

Curtis says that Covanta laid out several reasons for the incinerator being late to start operations, and has been making its late payments.

According to the agreement between Covanta and the region, the company must pay Durham $10,000 for each day past the Dec. 14, 2014 deadline that the plant is not in commercial operation.

Joanna Pacquette, a spokesperson for the region’s works department, told The Oshawa Express that as of Nov. 9, Covanta’s tab for the late start on getting the plant up and running was $2.61 million, and to date had paid $1.84 million of that.

Curtis said that Covanta has laid out a number of reasons for the incinerator now being nearly a year behind schedule.

“They had a number of issues with the equipment. That’s why it took them so long to get to the point where they could do the acceptance test. The steam temperature wasn’t high enough to start, there was too much water that was being consumed during the process and they had to do makeup water…there’s a whole litany of things they had to get right,” he said. “That’s why it took them from February up until the end of September before they could begin the acceptance test. They had to fix all these issues.”

Makeup water is added to the boiler system of an incinerator when more water than anticipated has turned to steam.

At a meeting of regional council in February, councillors were told that the delay in getting the incinerator up and running by the December 2014 deadline would result in extra costs for the region of at least $250,000.

Communication breakdown

Another concern raised during the day’s council session was a lack of communication between those involved with the incinerator on the region’s side and councillors and the public.

“I am still exceptionally critical on how this was handled from a communications point of view,” Adrian Foster, the mayor of Clarington, said during the meeting. Foster had not been notified of the incinerator exceeding its limits of dioxins and furans ahead of the works committee meeting last month where it was initially announced. “It’s something that, quite frankly, I think could have been avoided.”

Linda Gasser, who sits on the advisory committee for the incinerator, says the group has not met nearly as often as was originally mandated. The group, which is supposed to meet four times each year, has only met once in 2015, and likely won’t meet again until next year, she said.

As well, she said she was only informed of the dioxin and furans exceedance at the incinerator when she was told it was brought up at the Oct. 21 meeting of the region’s works committee.

According to the region’s website, the Energy from Waste committee has not had a dedicated meeting since April, but has been included in three waste management committee meetings.

There were two meetings – one in April and another in December – in 2014 dedicated solely to the committee.