This article has been updated.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment has handed the responsibility to regulate polluters over to ... the polluters. Images of foxes and henhouses spring to mind.
A company called Liberty Energy is planning to build Ontario's first municipal waste-powered electricity generator in East Hamilton. City Council voted 6-5 to approve the facility, but plenty of concerns remain about just how polluting it will be to burn sewage (euphemistically called "biosolids" and "biomass").
After approving the facility, City Council approved an amendment asking for the Liberty Energy facility to be regarded as an incinerator rather than a power generator for the purpose of the environmental assessment. Hamilton East MPP Andrea Horwath 1 and Environment Hamilton2 have seconded this call.
In addition to incinerating 1,200 tonnes of toxic sludge a day and releasing emissions through a 55 metre stack, the facility must receive that waste by the truckload, adding to air pollution and traffic congestion.
According to Ministry of the Environment regulations, incinerators are subject to a Schedule C Environmental Assessment, whereas electric power generators are subject to the more limited Schedule B Environmental Assessment.
Liberty Energy is calling its proposed facility a power generator, not an incinerator, but the facility clearly is both. It will use the energy released by incinerating 1,200 tonnes of municipal waste per day to produce 8.5 MW of electricity.
In his reply to Environment Hamilton's request that the proposed facility be assessed as an incinerator, James O'Mara, the MoE director of Environmental Assessment, called EH's request "premature at this stage in the process," and explained:
The Environmental Screening Process is a proponent driven, self-assessment process. The proponent is responsible for determining if the process applies to its project and for determining when to formally commence the process.3
Since the "proponent" - Liberty Energy - conveniently regards its plant as an electrical generating facility rather than an incinerator, it is conducting its "self-assessment" based on the less strenuous Schedule B Environmental Assessment.
To meet its requirements under provincial law, Liberty Energy must post its "self-assessment" in in local public places for 30 days, at which time citizens may request to have the assessment elevated to a full Environmental Review. According to O'Mara:
If no elevation requests are received during the 30-day review period, and the proponent does not voluntarily elevate its project to the Environmental Review stage, then the requirements of the Environmental Screening Process have been met.
In other words, the Ministry of the Environment no longer takes the lead in assessing the environmental impacts of proposed facilities, trusting companies to regulate themselves and perform honest "self-assessments", and leaving it to concerned citizens to raise the alarm if a company is less than forthcoming.
This is absolutely pathetic. What's the purpose of an environment ministry, if not to take a proactive role in determining whether a proposed facility will be environmentally damaging?
The people developing new facilities are interested parties; they can't be counted on to provide fair and accurate assessments of their own projects. When "proponents" are allowed to decide which sets of rules to apply in conducting "self-assessments", of course they're going to pick the most lenient.
The Liberty facility is unquestionably an incinerator, whatever else it might also be, and it should be regulated as such. The bureaucratic hoop-jumping and waste associated with the MoE's abdication of its role as as an enforcer of environmental laws is inexcusable.
It should not have to be up to citizens to plead with the government to do its job, especially in such a straightforward case as this. Thanks to Environment Hamilton, Andrea Horwath, and Citizens at City Hall for taking up the Ministry's slack.
Update: Originally, this article read in part, "It will use the energy released by incinerating 1,200 tonnes of municipal waste per day to produce 8.5 mW of electricity." This is a typo and should have read, "It will use the energy released by incinerating 1,200 tonnes of municipal waste per day to produce 8.5 MW of electricity." The typo in question, "mW" instead of "MW", represents a difference in scale of 8 orders of magnitude. Thanks to Mike who pointed this out.
As for the rest of Mike's observations, the numbers I quoted in this article were correct at the time it was published in September 2005. Perhaps it's time to revisit the subject to see what else has developed. -Ed.
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