Sunday, July 14, 2024
Fair Comment

Incinerator project raises red flags

The following article is excerpted from a presentation by Jennifer Quaile to a public meeting hosted by Friends of the Pontiac in Ladysmith on Thursday Nov. 16, 2023.

In early 2022, I was asked by my mayor to be Otter Lake’s representative on the MRC Waste Management Committee. I happily said yes. I thought I would be working with my colleagues from other municipalities and having fulsome discussions on all aspects of waste management . . . reducing, reusing, recycling, composting and, in general, how to divert waste from landfill. I was looking forward to learning from others about what works, what doesn’t, and then coming up with recommendations to the MRC Council of Mayors on constructive ways to move forward.
It very quickly became obvious that this was not going to happen at this committee. The committee had no specific mandate, no stated mission.
I believe there’s a public perception that the committee is a decision-making body, or at least one that can make recommendations to the Council of Mayors for consideration. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
For the first few meetings, it seemed this committee was a forum for the warden to convince everyone on the virtues of garbage incineration or energy from waste. The warden explained that we had to stop relying on the Lachute landfill (no disputing that) and her only solution was to burn garbage. She said that she had been told by Covanta, a private corporation that sells incinerators, that it was not possible to install an incinerator that burns only 5,000 tons of garbage per year, which is what Pontiac currently produces. Their incinerators need to burn significantly greater amounts.
Her solution to reducing what goes to landfill ended up creating a new problem of “not enough garbage”. Now, the solution to her newly-created problem was to import garbage from nearby cities so that the Pontiac would be the home of 400,000 tons of garbage.
So, I went home and prepared a debrief for my council colleagues. I also did some of my own homework and I shared with them the results of my research. I’m fortunate to have access to university libraries and was searching journals along with articles in newspapers and well-recognized global environmental organizations.
What I found in my research were so many red flags. I was actually appalled to see such a dramatic difference from what the warden had been portraying.
So, at the next meeting of the committee, the warden again talked about the plan for a garbage incinerator, how it would really put Pontiac on the map, how we’d be leaders in waste management, and so on.
I expressed just a couple of my concerns about environmental issues and the type of jobs promised. The warden countered with Covanta’s assurance to her that there would be no toxic emissions. So, I reminded her that of course, Covanta would present a rosy picture. After all, they stand to proft!! I asked her if she had looked at the scientific evidence on incineration. She pushed back and pegged me as an “environmentalist,” as if that is a bad word. The warden also told me that I was the first person she had ever come across who expressed opposition to garbage incinerators.
So, what did I do after that meeting? I went home and did some more research. I found newspaper articles from 2006 when our warden was campaigning for Mayor of Toronto. She did, indeed, face opposition to her intention to have a garbage incinerator installed in Toronto. I was definitely not the first person to oppose her idea, and she knows it.
Fast forward to January 2023 when the warden prepared a resolution for each municipality to adopt. She brought the resolution, in person, to Otter Lake’s public council meeting and gave a presentation on the merits of an incinerator. I asked my mayor for five minutes to give my own views based on the evidence-gathering I had done. As I was presenting, the warden tried to interrupt me several times, became argumentative, and it was obvious to everyone present that she was not comfortable with hearing any dissent.
I raise this point because this was a public space where viewpoints of both the public and elected officials can be articulated. Disagreements are usual business. Interruptions and hostility, on the other hand, are not acceptable.
Following that meeting, my colleagues on council did their own research and they, like me, found discrepancies between what the warden was saying and what was, in fact, the reality. For example, they found that with an incinerator we would end up with 20 times the waste we currently produce. Instead of the 5,000 tons of garbage we send to landfill, burning 400,000 tons of garbage would produce up to 100,000 tons of bottom ash, which is highly toxic and is typically sent to landfill as hazardous waste.
Fast forward to June 2023 when THE EQUITY published a letter from our warden claiming all 18 mayors were in support. She also announced two town halls to be held the week of June 19.
It was a surprise to see that public town hall meetings were scheduled after the warden had received “endorsement” from all 18 mayors.
I want to make this point crystal clear: the people of the Pontiac, who elected these officials in the first place, were hardly aware of the progress being made behind the scenes on this proposal for a garbage incinerator.
So, I attended the town hall in Shawville. The warden gave her presentation. People spoke up with valid questions and raised their concerns.
But, once again, what was on display that evening was the warden’s push back on their questions. She gave quite unsatisfactory responses and became defensive. She went so far as to say “Okay, we’ve got environmentalists here,” as if that were a bad thing, and said she “would not tolerate fear mongering”.
To our warden, valid questions and concerns are fear mongering. That is not right in a democracy. The people have a right to raise their concerns and the warden, as an elected official, has the responsibility to listen respectfully, give respectful responses, and to take action to address their concerns.
But, instead of listening to her constituents at this town hall, the warden shut down further questions by playing a promotional video put out by Covanta intended to convince us to buy, with public funds, their incinerator.
As a footnote, after these town halls, I am proud to say that Otter Lake Council voted unanimously to reject the resolution that the warden had brought before us.
All of this to say, my experience has left me dismayed, but I will not be discouraged. There are things we can do, and things we can demand of all of our elected officials.
The first is we need more democracy and transparency.
Our regional government – MRC Pontiac – needs to be more transparent. We need it to be a space where mayors and councillors can speak up and members of the public can have their voices heard without being mocked.
A democratic space must allow for a diverse set of perspectives to be presented and discussed in a respectful manner. This is what elected officials need in order to make informed decisions.
And second, the incinerator is a terrible idea and we must not let it happen.
We should be putting our efforts towards implementing a waste management plan that diverts waste through proven methods like recycling and composting. If we want to reduce our waste, we must demand, at all levels of government, policies that target where this waste comes from in the first place. This means raising awareness, providing incentives, making it easy for people to change their habits in terms of garbage, food waste, etc. It is obvious that we can do better. We are only just beginning to come up with creative ways to divert our household garbage away from landfill.
This would be good public policy, much more environmentally friendly and much less costly. Bringing in a garbage incinerator that must be fed constantly with massive amounts of garbage will only create perverse disincentives to waste reduction.
If you have concerns about any aspect of the proposal for an incinerator, I encourage you to share your views with your mayors, your councillors, your warden and/or share your opinion with letters to the editor of your local community papers.
The free press is, I might add, an incredibly important part of a democracy. As we have seen over the last several months with letters to the editor, the press provides a forum for the voices of the community when they cannot be heard at town halls or MRC meetings.
Goodness knows, we need to have public input on decisions, especially on issues of such magnitude as this one that would have long-term environmental and financial impacts on the Pontiac.
I don’t know what is coming next, but I, for one, will not be silenced.

Jennifer Quaile was born and raised in Otter Lake,
holds an MA in political economy, and has had a career
with the federal government as a public policy advisor.
A municipal councillor in Otter Lake, she is also a
member of MRC Pontiac’s Waste Management Committee.

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