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Durham York Energy Centre: A burning issue in Durham

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

As motorists head westbound on Highway 401 through Bowmanville and into Courtice, they’ll see it’s tall stacks. Motorists heading eastbound will get an even closer look.

The location in question is the Durham York Energy Centre, known to some as the DYEC, while others simply refer to it as ‘the incinerator.’

Most will not be familiar with all the twists and turns surrounding this massive facility over the past decade. Some will call it the biggest political boondoggle in the region’s history.

It is a decision, 10 years after the fact, that still sticks a craw of some regional councillors and residents.

Regular readers of The Oshawa Express will know this very well as we have written dozen of stories on the facility over the years.

While it is 15 minutes away from the City of Oshawa and even further from the region’s six other municipalities, it’s an issue that people from all over the region have an opinion about, from Ajax to Seagrave, Whitby to Gormley.

In the early-to-mid 2000s, the State of Michigan made it clear it would be closing its borders to incoming Canadian waste. Durham Region was one of the jurisdictions sending its garbage there.

With its landfills full and no desire to build anymore, the region had a crucial decision on its hands.

After a few years of discussion, momentum for the idea of an incinerator began picking up in 2007 when regional council approved an energy-from-waste model. The regions of Durham and York agreed to own the facility, while it would be designed, built and operated by a private company.

At that time, incinerators had become a distant memory in Ontario, the last one being built in Peel Region in 1992.

The infamous Commissioner Street incinerator in Toronto had closed four years earlier.

Initial plans had the energy centre accepting upwards of 250,000 tonnes, much higher than the amount that received approval.

The next question was where exactly this energy centre would be located. The likeliest candidate turned out to Clarington, which was host to four of five of the original potential locations. East Gwillimbury in York was considered as well.

Opposition in both communities was swift and loud, both from politicians and residents. And while those against the incinerator may have had the most boisterous voice, there were some that spoke out in favour of the plans.

In time, both Clarington and East Gwillimbury positioned themselves as unwilling hosts for the incinerator.

Originally conceived as a 50/50 partnership, the project saw its first big test when York decided to significantly decrease its stake in the centre.

In September 2007, the area of Courtice Road and Highway 401 received the nod as the preferred location of the facility.

As the months passed, concerned and curious residents packed town hall, public and committee meetings, demanding answers and more information.

Specific concerns included the potential health risks connected to the burning of garbage, and even a large number of local physicians voiced their opposition.

Despite this, elements of the plan, including the Courtice location, gained approval from several regional committees. But at the same time other municipalities in the region, including Oshawa, were voicing an opinion of disapproval.

In April of 2009, the region selected Covanta as the builder and operator of the DYEC.

The New Jersey-based corporation provides a variety of waste management and inceration services to a number of municipalities.

The company burns approximately 20 million tonnes of garbage at its facilities, creating enough energy to power one million homes.

In 2011, the company paid $400,000 in fines for a 2010 air emission violation at its Wallinton, Connecticut facility. Despite the emission exceeding safety limits by 250 per cent, the Connecticut Department of Public Health said the violation posed no threat to human health.

On June 25, 2009, the 28 women and men of regional council voted on a decision that would determine the future of waste management in Durham Region for decades to come. The final was vote 17 in favour, 11 opposed.

Oshawa councillors Nester Pidwerbecki and Joe Kolozdie voted yes, while April Cullen, current regional chair John Henry, Robert Lutczyk, John Neal, Brian Nicholson, and then mayor and recently re-elected councillor John Gray voted no.

“Public consultation was critical throughout this process, and we would like to thank residents for taking the time to provide their comments and suggestions during all stages of this project,” said now deceased regional chair Roger Anderson in a media release following the vote. “The number one question asked by residents throughout this process was whether this facility would be safe. We are pleased to report that the strict monitoring guidelines set by Durham Regional Council will help to ensure this is the case, both now and into the future.”

The matter was now to turned to the hands of the Ministry of Environment, which had final approval.

In February 2010, the MOE released its review of the environmental assessment for the DYEC.

“The proposed thermal treatment facility will benefit the communities in the Regional Municipalities of Durham and York. The ministry is satisfied that the proposed mitigation methods and contingencies will ensure that any potential negative impacts will be minimized and managed,” the review read.

Tensions began to rise again when members of the public were barred from attending meetings of the energy-from-waste advisory committee.

Because the committee answered to the Ministry of Environment, not regional council, it was up to them to make the meetings public.

On Aug. 17, 2011, ground broke on the DYEC. Many regional officials and staff, as well as representatives from Covanta attended the event.

A large contingent of protesters were on also on the scene but police officers stopped them from entering the vicinity.

A few months later, a furor erupted when the public got wind of the $75,000 cost of a party held on the day of the groundbreaking. The region did not reveal this figure, but a freedom of information request made it public.

This led some members of council to seek an inquiry into the costs of the party. This did not happen, although Anderson made somewhat of a public apology, admitting certain elements of the party had gone too far.

When the project got the thumbs up in 2009, estimates stated it would cost about $272 million to build.

That figure jumped up by about 11 million in 2012.

As the construction on the DYEC rolled along, the region began to turn its focus on how the operations would play out. In late-2013, council voted to enact more monitoring requirements at the centre, however, opponents said it was not enough.

In the meanwhile, the project began to run into serious problems.

The DYEC was scheduled to open on Dec. 14, 2014, but the date came and went. About a month later, regional staff reported the project was about five months behind schedule. News of more delays came in April, up to the point where Covanta had paid almost $1 million to Durham in recovery costs equalling $10,000 a day.

“Construction was supposed to have been completed by, I would say, late last summer or early fall and then we’d be in the commissioning and start-up phase through the fall and have the plant running in December,” project manager Greg Borchuk told The Oshawa Express in April 2015. “Because the construction took them longer than anticipated, that really pushed the overall schedule by six to seven months.”

Even Further delays were apparent in June, and costs were beginning to rise as well.

For example, the project originally budgeted $200,000 for natural gas hookup by Enbridge but it was later bumped to about $5 million.

Former Oshawa mayor and regional councillor Nancy Diamond (now deceased) wondered if the money received from Covanta would even cover the losses the region could incur.

“My concern has been what is the delay costing us against what revenue will hopefully be received,” she said. “Saying we’re getting $10,000 a day is one thing, but in the first quarter and even assuming Covanta pays, what is it costing us?”

Anderson said he would rather the project be a year late but done correctly, then rushed through to meet a deadline.

In the fall of 2015, it was announced that testing results for the yet-to-open facility had exceeded its limits on several pollutants, including dioxin and furans.

Cliff Curtis, the region’s commissioner of works at the time, said during a meeting of regional council, “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.

“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.”

Curtis noted that Covanta was of the opinion the testing results were inflated due to contamination by the presence of the ether.

The region’s chief medical officer Robert Kyle noted while dioxins and furans are a source of concern, he didn’t believe there was an immediate threat to human health from the DYEC. This statement confused 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?”

In December 2015, the facility was still not operational due to concerns over testing.

“We’re going to have to get some expertise on board to try and drill down and see what the issues with respect to that are. Right now, based on what it appears, the cartridges were running about five times as high as the stack test results, so they were in the same location measuring the same stuff, so it should’ve been the same results, but they’re not,” Curtis told council.

A month later, the region and Convanta were once again at odds over testing results, this time regarding fly ash, namely how the amount of the material was calculated.

“There is a quality guarantee that Covanta must be below,” Gio Annello, Durham’s manager of waste planning and technical services told The Express. “The problem here is that Covanta is now indicating to us that they feel the residue quantity does not include the pozzolan and cement used to encapsulate the fly ash, so they’re saying if you take out the cement and the pozzolan, they’ve met the guarantees.”

With calendars turning to 2016, the nearly $300-million DYEC was now more than a year late in getting to operation. But it would not be long.

In the second part of this look at the incinerator, The Oshawa Express will dive into the story of the DYEC as it became an operational entity.

 

BEHIND THE SCENES

Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

When I started at The Oshawa Express in June 2017, my then editor Joel Wittnebel handed me a folder on my first day.

I remember him telling me, “This is going to be something you’ll be writing about a lot.”

The folder was filled with stories written by former staff member Graham McNaughton about the Durham York Energy Centre.

“The what?”, I asked myself at the time.

It didn’t take long for me to realize this was undeniably one of the biggest issues in the history of the region.

When I was covering regional council, it wasn’t long before I heard a debate around the DYEC. There are councillors who believe it has been a success, while others think it’s been a disaster.

Even after a year-and-a-half on the job, I have yet to form a personal opinion on the matter.

My familiarity with the issue has been hearing concerns about the environmental impacts, and possible capacity expansion as needed.

But the story goes a long way back, before I even started studying journalism.

Writing the first half of this story opened my eyes to a lot of the course of action of how the DYEC came to be, going back to the mid-2000s.

I can understand the concerns of residents, especially those in Clarington.

As with any huge investment project such as the DYEC, there will always be opponents, and I sympathize with their position.

But I also believe that the region had to make a decision, and it was made, and needs to be lived with, whether you believe it’s wrong or right.

Another interesting aspect of this story reminds me of my first encounter with long-time regional chair, the late Roger Anderson.

When I interviewed Roger at a Rotary Club meeting he had spoken at, the first thing he asked me was, “Do you work for the Toronto Star?”

This puzzled me at the time but I would later find out that the Star had been very critical of a party held after the groundbreaking ceremony at the DYEC in 2011.

After reading that article, I understood why Mr. Anderson may not have been a fan.

I look forward to continuing this story next week, and look at some of the current and future happenings at ‘the incinerator’ as Joel used to call it.