For almost a decade, Durham Region readied itself for the future of waste management.
There were hundreds of committee meetings, council meetings and public meetings on the road to the opening of the incinerator.
Opponents and supporters both had their opportunity to voice their opinions, but by the mid-2010s, the incinerator was closer to becoming a reality.
Originally scheduled to open on Dec. 14, 2014, the facility faced numerous delays due to issues with testing results.
As the end of 2015 passed, and 2016 began, the incinerator was still not operational and a new dispute between the region and operator Covanta emerged over the amount of ash being produced.
With the Durham York Energy Centre (DYEC) a year behind schedule, then regional chair/CEO Roger Anderson maintained that it would not be rushed.
“We’ve said all along, we will not accept the new Durham York Energy Centre until it is the state-of-the-art, energy-from-waste facility that we set out to build,” the late Anderson stated in a January 2016 news release. “The facility is not there yet, although they passed all emissions tests, the amount of ash is up about 2.5 per cent more than it should be. The ash quantity issue will not impact operations, but we want this done in strict compliance with our contract.”
It wouldn’t be long before the facility ‘was there’ in the minds of council.
On Jan. 27, 2016, after a day-long meeting, council gave the incinerator the go ahead.
In doing so, council voted to amend its contract with Covanta, increasing the acceptable amount of ash that could be produced.
“Covanta must be pinching themselves,” Linda Gasser, a long-time critic of the incinerator, told The Oshawa Express shortly after the vote came from council. “They’ve been given so many passes and now this. This must be their lucky day.”
At that same meeting, it was revealed the estimated costs for the DYEC had increased from $272 million to $296 million.
Discussions on changing the contract with Covanta were held in closed session.
Oshawa councilor, the late Nancy Diamond, was deeply concerned about this.
“This information should be public. It should not be split off. I noticed in the confidential report how many times it said why this was so important,” she said. “I believe that the public information is more important than those issues. The public should have the opportunity to speak to it.”
Anderson would later criticize the media, namely the Toronto Star, for its coverage of the incinerator.
“There’s not anybody in this council who can’t walk out of these chambers and say that the emissions on this plant are the best in the world. Not in Ontario, not in Durham, not in Canada, not in North America, but in the world. And I don’t know if that lady from the Toronto Star is still here and I wish she was because that’s the headline,” he said.
Oshawa councillor John Neal questioned other council members leaving during the meeting, and felt the figure of $296 million would likely increase even more.
“So I guess the taxpayers can eat it because that $296 million was for infrastructure and it should’ve gone into our roads and our aging infrastructure. Instead, it went into this,” he said.
It was announced that the Jan. 27 closed meeting, and another in December 2015, were being investigated by Local Authority Services (LAS), a Toronto-based company created in 1992 by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.
Oshawa councillors who voted against going into closed session at the meeting voiced their approval of the investigation.
“I don’t know who put (the complaints) in, but the more transparency for the incinerator, the better. That’s all I have to say because it’s just way over the top how much taxpayer money has been spent on this,” Neal said.
Although LAS officials stated it would take about a month to complete the report, its completion was not announced until July. However, at that point it was unclear whether the findings would become public, as the region had to review it first.
Meanwhile, plans were in place for numerous regional councillors and staff to travel to Europe to learn about the process of anaerobic digestion (AD), which sees the use of organic waste to generate biogas to in turn create electricity.
It was not the first time such a trip had been undertaken. In 2007, 16 regional councillors and staff travelled to Europe to check out energy-from-waste facilities ahead of the finalizing of plans for the DYEC. The eight-day trip saw stops in seven different cities, including Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. That trip also came with a price tag of $192,000, or about $16,000 per person.
Anderson said the trip was important in gathering information for an important decision.
“I think that taxpayers shouldn’t be upset,” Anderson said in 2007. “I think (taxpayers) would like to know ($250 million) is being spent wisely. The public wouldn’t want us to make a decision on something we didn’t see operating.”
In May 2016, The Express obtained documents that included details on the itinerary for the planned trip. However, it lacked specifics such as which hotels staff and councillors would be staying at and flight accommodations.
“The education trip’s itinerary is not yet finalized, however, since this tour is part of our due diligence to ensure that the technology works and to determine the potential community impacts of a similar green energy project in Durham, we are tentatively planning to visit five organics processing sites,” Cliff Curtis, the region’s works commissioner, told the Express at the time.
However, there were bigger issues on the horizon.
In a stack test conducted between May 2 and May 11, 2016, emissions for dioxins and furans were between 10 and 13 times over the allowed limits.
As a result of the exceedance, the region requested that Covanta take Boiler #1 offline and conduct a full investigation to find out why the number of dioxins and furans was so much higher than in the second boiler, which came in well below the limit.
Although Covanta initially disputed the results, the company eventually agreed to shut down the boiler.
However, a spokesperson for Covanta said the exceedances did not represent a hazard to human health. “It is also important to note that ambient monitoring results of dioxins and furans upwind and downwind of the DYEC as published in 2015 and in the first quarter of 2016 were below the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) established applicable criteria. These results confirm that the facility poses no risk to human health or the environment,” James Reagan said.
Clarington councillor Joe Neal expressed shock at the emission levels.
“Are we still going to celebrate the opening on June (27)? What are we celebrating, especially for Clarington?”
On June 9, Covanta submitted its plans to get the boiler back online, and two weeks later, the region and Ministry of the Environment gave their respective support.
Despite this, Durham’s chief medical officer Dr. Robert Kyle expressed concerns about the potential effects on human health the DYEC would have if exceedances continued.
“As you know, this is not an isolated incident. Moreover, sustained excessive emissions of dioxins and furans are a potential human health hazard, primarily by entering the food chain,” Kyle wrote in an e-mail chain obtained by The Express.
The previous fall, Kyle had stated he didn’t have any concerns of the sort.
“I have no concerns (about human health), but…it is important to do subsequent testing,” he said at the Nov. 4, 2015 council meeting, the first that occurred following news the incinerator had exceeded its limit for dioxins and furans for the first time.
A month later, the investigation into the earlier closed meetings was released.
“In our opinion, there were major portions of the discussions that could have been, with good planning and careful management of the flow of the meeting, been made public and transparent,” the report, written by Nigel Bellchamber, concluded.
Speaking with The Express, Bellchamber opined that some of the matters discussed during the closed portions of both meetings could have been held in public.
“We’ve found this in other municipalities. There will be an appropriate reason for going into a closed session, but then there will be a portion of the material that is discussed that could be easily separated without prejudicing the information that needs to be dealt with in a closed session,” he said.
Bellchamber said that the exception under the Municipal Act utilized by the region for closing the meetings – that the matter dealt with litigation or potential litigation – was not a valid one.
“Municipalities can be sued or taken to an administrative tribunal…over any number of matters,” he says. “But in order to use the litigation section (of the Municipal Act), we think there has to be some evidence that either something has already been filed or there’s a clear intention to file in order to use that exception. It isn’t just a case of it might be filed.”
On Oct. 23, the incinerator faced another operational challenge when a small fire broke out in the facility’s pit.
No one was injured, and staff said the fire was likely caused by an item such as wood, coal or a cigarette butt not being properly extinguished.
But only two months later, another fire broke out at the DYEC.
On Dec. 11, 2016, the incinerator experienced a problem around 10:30 a.m. and was taken off the power grid.
An hour later, Covanta employees spotted a fire on the roof of the west side of the facility. Hydro One was able to restore power to the site by 1:30 p.m.
The fire was contained and extinguished by 4:30 p.m., with Boiler No. 1 restarted by 7:30 p.m. and processing garbage by 1 a.m.
In the meantime, Boiler No. 2 remained offline.
The region’s manager of waste operations Craig Bartlett said at the time the cause of the fire may never be known because the incinerator is constantly burning garbage.
“We may never know what caused that. It could have been a cigarette butt in there that just continued to smolder,” he said.
It was later found that the fire was caused by steam emissions due to the power shutdown of the plant.
And while these fires caused negligible effects on the DYEC’s operations, a bigger problem would occur at the end of January 2018.
Boiler #2 was shut down after the discovery of a broken water pipe.
“After a good look at the boiler that was taken down initially with the tube rupture, there was corrosion on the inner portion of the boiler,” Susan Siopis, the region’s works commissioner, told councillors a meeting of regional council.
Because of this, the facility’s annual maintenance was moved up two months, and Boiler # 1 was shut down as well.
After 90 days of being offline, the incinerator was back up and running at the end of March.
“Because the water wall tube ruptured, they basically shut down the boiler and advanced the annual maintenance. So what they did then was they did their inspection, they found a lot more wear than they expected,” Gio Anello, director of waste planning and technical services said, adding that some of the tubings were replaced with one featuring a nickel-alloy-based coating that protects it from the high heat of the incineration process.
“They’re now better protected from that corrosive environment. So basically, it was a matter of they were cutting out sections of the boiler and replacing it with new sections that had this lining on it.”
Because of the failed stack test in May 2016 and concerns about truck processing times, it was agreed that Covanta would not receive any performance bonuses in July 2017.
In January of this year, regional staff noted that Durham may have to divert up to 10,000 tonnes of waste as to not exceed its approved capacity of 140,000 tonnes. This would cost the region up to $500,000.
Anello told The Oshawa Express, “At the time of planning the facility it was assumed that an increase in diversion would offset the increases in waste requiring disposal as a result of population growth.”
However, Anello acknowledged waste diversion rates have not increased as quickly as anticipated and thus the possibility of reaching capacity levels at the DYEC has occurred sooner than expected.
Anello expects the region will need to divert some waste “until such a time as capacity can be created through diversion programs or a DYEC expansion.”
Looking to the future, the region is in the midst of determining strategies for organics waste management.
The former Liberal provincial government announced plans in 2016 for a full ban on organic food waste in landfills by 2022.
Durham’s director of waste management Mirka Janiuszkewciz stated she does not see June’s change in government altering this direction.
“Everything we have in front of us indicates the province will initiate a full ban on organics,” Januszkiewicz told council.
In May, staff pegged anaerobic digestion (AD) as the preferred method to handle the region’s future needs.
Acting director of finance Mary Simpson estimated the region may have to spend between $120 million to $200 million in capital costs on an AD facility while operating costs would significantly increase as well.
A staff report delivered in July drew the ire of some councillors, specifically Joe Neal, for not bringing the region any closer to a decision on AD.
“We are not really moving forward towards a decision,” Neal commented. “Is it not time to get more specific about what it would look like? We keep coming back with the same reports saying we’re going to get more information.”
However, Siopis said it was best for the council of 2018-2022 to make the final decision.
“Direction regarding organics management is an important decision given the potential long-term impacts on our diversion rates, the environment, costs (no matter what technology is chosen) and the Region’s overall waste management strategy,” Siopis said. “Given the timeframes around the upcoming municipal election and budget deliberations, it is prudent to use the next few months to further examine both the technologies and various project delivery models in order to bring recommendations to the new council on strategies to move forward with organics management.”
Anello says diverting organics from the waste stream will improve overall operations at the DYEC.
“It would divert about 30,000 tonnes a year. It would be a better thing for us to try and get it out,” he says. “We would be in a position where we would create disposable capacity.”
With the region’s population expected to continue to rapidly increase, Anello says the facility was built with this in mind.
“The way the building was built and designed was so it could be expandable. There are a lot of common elements that have been oversized, such as the receiving area and the pit. It’s a building that’s already been built to handle 250,000 tonnes a year.”
Despite the problems that plagued the project for the first few years, Anello is of the opinion it has been a successful endeavor for Durham so far.
“It’s positive that it has taken care of our waste, and is generating energy and revenue. It is the best option that we have right now,” he says.
On top of that, Anello says the emission results of the DYEC have been impressive.
“That stack test done in May , the results were all really good,” he says. “I’m happy that the performance of the facility is moving as can be expected, and it is getting good environmental results.”
BEHIND THE WRITING
Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
The Durham York Energy Centre is still a curiosity.
When I first heard of the Durham York Energy Centre, I had little knowledge of what it was. I knew vaguely that there was an incinerator somewhere in the region that burned waste.
In the time since I have lived in Oshawa, I have slowly but surely learned more and more about this controversial, yet interesting facility.
In last week’s 4th Estate, I looked at the nearly decade-long build up to the centre’s opening, which featured a number of twists and turns.
However, I was pretty amazed to learn it was well over a year after the scheduled opening date that the incinerator became operational.
Everything from questionable emission results to small fires seemed to plague the DYEC.
And then there were some closed council meetings, which should have been, at least partly, open to the public.
I wonder if there were councillors, staff and residents who thought this place might have been cursed in 2016!
Because I came into the situation late, I don’t really know of the mood of when all these things were going down, but I’m sure it was a tense situation.
While there have been a few ambient air exceedances over the past year, the emissions test results from the incinerator seem to be where they should be.
Then again, I am not an expert, and there are several people who do not feel this facility is safe and will have long-time hazardous health results.
Another piece of information I learned from this is that Durham and York showed some forward thinking by having the DYEC built to be expandable in the future.
If incineration is the long-term solution to waste issues here, they have planned ahead, as the facility could expand to handle up to 250,000 tonnes, almost twice the approved capacity right now.
This is an issue I’m sure I haven’t written about for the last time, and one that will be making headlines for quite some time.