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Europe trip comes to council chambers

Councillors question necessity of going overseas to investigate anaerobic digestion

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The anaerobic digester and biogas generator in Bourg-en-Bresse, France is one of several sites a group of regional councillors and staff are set to visit on an upcoming trip to Europe. While the final cost of the trip has not been finalized, some councillors questioned why the region would be spending money to go to Europe when there are other options.

By Graeme McNaughton/The Oshawa Express

The debate over whether councillors should take a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe has made it to council chambers.

Speaking at the end of the latest meeting of regional council, Clarington councillor Joe Neal questioned the reasoning behind such a trip.

“When I read this, I have heard from taxpayers on this that aren’t too happy with taxpayers’ money being spent on a trip for councillors to Europe,” Neal said, referring to a story published in The Oshawa Express.

“I suppose you could say it’s a drop in the bucket, but you could get just as good information, I’m sure, if you visited the two plants in Ontario or the one in Colorado, which is a large plant. I don’t see why it’s necessary for councillors to eyeball it and put their hands on it.”

The sites Neal referred to were commercial digesters in Elmira and London, while the Colorado site is the Heartland Biogas Facility, the largest such digester in North America, producing 50 megawatts of power.

In response, Cliff Curtis, the region’s works commissioner, said the decision was made to go to Europe because the digesters there are more advanced, and to see how the surrounding areas have handled having such a facility in their backyard.

“It’s more than just the technical aspects of it. You have to go, you have to able to touch it, to see it, to smell it because it is quite an odour producer. But more important is to talk to the people that operate it, find out what the issues they have and to, if possible, talk to the residents around there and see how it’s accepted in the community,” he said.

“That will be the biggest sell when we go to anaerobic digestion will be community acceptance.”

When asked about the cost of the trip, Curtis said it is currently unknown as not everything has been booked yet.

Councillor Amy McQuaid-England later said that if the trip goes forward, the tours should be taped or webcast live for other councillors to see what’s going on. She also called on the region to utilize technology more in the future so that such trips would not be necessary.

“I think there are opportunities for us to incorporate technology where we don’t need to be spending the money on travel to go places in order to experience it and to make it more acceptable to residents and also to allow all council members to take part,” she said.

“In the future, we should really start considering using technology to our advantage so that we can get these types of reports without actually having to go all the way to Europe in order to get the information.”

Curtis said that while it would be possible to record tours for this trip, he was not sure if anyone going is “technically competent to do that properly.”

Current and future spending

When asked who would be going on the trip, Curtis said that six members of the works committee have said they will be taking part, with the only exceptions being Oshawa councillor John Neal and Brock councillor John Grant.

Curtis also added that there are no other councillors outside of the works committee going that he is aware of.

In an earlier story, a source indicated to The Oshawa Express that the opportunity to take part in the trip had been offered to councillors outside of the works committee.

However, when The Oshawa Express requested a list of those attending the trip from the regional works department, the total number of councillors and staff was nine, with Region Chair Roger Anderson and councillors Nester Pidwerbecki of Oshawa, Colleen Jordan of Ajax and Jack Ballinger of Uxbridge being the only members of the works committee in attendance. Also taking part in the trip are Curtis, Garry Cubitt, the chief administrative officer for the region; Mirka Januszkiewicz, director of waste management; Craig Bartlett, manager of waste operations; and Peter Veiga, waste services supervisor.

The remaining members of the works committee, Councillor Bill McLean of Pickering and Willie Woo of Clarington, both tell The Oshawa Express they will not be attending due to scheduling issues.

While the budget for the Europe trip remains unknown, there is some indication of what the region will be spending for looking into anaerobic digestion, as well as the construction of a future site.

According to the region’s 2016 capital budget, $400,000 is projected for “preliminary design and consultant investigation” of such a site. The document also projects a $30-million expenditure in the 2017 budget for the construction of a digester.

Speaking to councillors, Curtis said the plan for a future digester is to at first process kitchen waste before moving on to other residential areas.

“We can then expand the program to apartments, because we can handle more heavily contaminated material, and there’s some significant cost benefits coming forward with biogas that can be used to generate electricity,” he said.

“It’s something we want to pursue.”