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Halifax’s garbage wars 

Changing waste management in HRM may be a great way to save millions, or it might trash a community.

click to enlarge Front-end processors have found guns, grenades and even bodies in Halifax garbage. City council is considering changes to the trash system Tuesday, December 10. - RILEY SMITH
  • Front-end processors have found guns, grenades and even bodies in Halifax garbage. City council is considering changes to the trash system Tuesday, December 10.
  • Riley Smith

Heather Johnston lives within smelling distance of the Otter Lake landfill. In 1993 she bought property on the edge of a wilderness area to build a house. Two years later, the city announced it was putting the new landfill three kilometres away from Johnston's land, a few minutes down the highway from Bayers Lake.

The city reassured Johnston the landfill would be state-of-the-art and it would shut down in 25 years. Johnston and her husband had too much invested in their plans to go anywhere else, so they built their new home, moved in and raised a family. But Johnston was always suspicious of the city's promises.

"My worry was that eventually they would say it was too expensive to operate—that they wouldn't work properly," she says. "They would take away all the safeguards and the things that we were promised. This nightmare, 17 years later, it's coming true."

Right now, HRM staff are reviewing how Halifax deals with garbage, recycling and compost. Last February, staff released a report on the waste system by a consulting firm, Stantec, which proposes significant changes to the landfill. The report recommends getting rid of environmental safeguards; adding facilities for recycling and composting; and extending the life of the landfill by decades, instead of closing as scheduled in 2024.

Through the fall, the city held community engagement meetings across HRM to discuss the waste management strategy. Johnston attended one and left feeling worse. "I basically was given three minutes to speak for something that's gonna affect my children and my grandchildren and my investment—my home. The biggest investment I've ever made."

On summer nights, when her windows are open, Johnston can hear the beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up on the landfill. Occasionally she can smell it: a gassy odour like propane. "A lot of times that we've smelled things, we've just kind of brushed it aside and said, 'Oh well. It's only for a few more years.' Now, it's probably forever."

• • •

On garbage day you put a black bag to the curb, filled with takeout containers, dental floss, old sneakers and maybe even a banana peel or a beer can. A dump truck comes and hauls it away. But not very far.

Steve Copp works for Mirror, the company that runs the Otter Lake landfill. Giving a tour of the facility, Copp starts in the the landfill's tipping room. Garbage trucks back into the warehouse and dump their loads onto the floor. Bulldozers shove the garbage into a pile like kids in a sandbox. The garbage is more than a storey high and two school buses long.

"That's about a hundred tonnes," says Copp. "We'll do about five of those piles in a day."

At Otter Lake, garbage goes through a two-step process before it's allowed into the landfill. The first step is front-end processing.

Forty workers run the front-end processor, or FEP. By hand and machine, they rip open every bag of garbage, aiming to find all of the rotting organic waste. These organics could—and should—have gone into household green boxes, destined for the city's composting facilities in Burnside and Ragged Lake, instead of going into Otter Lake's garbage. But now that they're here, the organics are sorted out and sent to step two: the waste stabilization facility, or WSF.

Copp leaves the FEP and walks around to the WSF. A conveyor belt spews 120 kilograms of organics and garbage into the building every minute. The rank slurry gets pushed through a composter for 21 days. At the end, it is a fluffy material, similar to dryer lint.

Copp stands next to a finished pile of the cruddy lint. It's littered with shreds of plastic. A battery sticks out. This dirty fluff is the source of the landfill controversy. The city spends $10 million a year to make 20,000 tonnes of it. It goes straight into the landfill.

The purpose of the FEP and WSF is to make the organics inert. Unlike a banana peel, the fluff isn't appealing to seagulls and rats. The fluff also won't produce as much gassy odour.

"Trash used to be a big heap of steaming stink," says Copp. "It looked like a giant salad. It stunk really bad. Now the garbage is kind of grey."

The report from Stantec says turning organics into fluff is unnecessary; odours and pests at the landfill could be prevented—or even reduced—by closing the FEP and WSF and spending some of the savings on new technologies. If that is true, closing the facilities would save the city millions annually.

But Mirror and two consultants doubt Stantec's findings. One of the consultants said Stantec's report is "inaccurate at best and unfounded at worst." If the report is wrong, closing the FEP and WSF could attract thousands of rats and seagulls to the landfill and plague the surrounding communities with noxious odours.

The FEP and WSF serve a secondary purpose, besides mitigating odours and pests. Because the workers are already picking over all the waste in the hunt for organics, they take the opportunity to pull out hazardous materials, recyclables and...other things.

"There's a lot of stuff in the garbage bags that people don't know about," says Copp. "We've had lots of visits from the police and the bomb squad."

Workers in the FEP have found tear gas, handguns, rifles, sawed-off shotguns, hand grenades, military ordinances, biomedical waste and two human bodies.

"Don't get me wrong," says Copp, "it's a thousand times better than it was in '99. The word gets out in Halifax that the garbage gets opened, and people are a little more careful."

If the FEP and WSF were closed, people wouldn't have to be careful at all. HRM staff are currently developing recommendations for the landfill. On December 10, they will present their recommendations to council. Staff will most likely recommend the city close the FEP and WSF and keep the landfill open past 2024. If council adopts those recommendations, Otter Lake will change drastically. "It would basically be a truck 'n' dump," says Copp. "The truck would go to the scale, then he'd dump it in the hole, and then drive away."

• • •

Twenty years ago, Halifax's garbage went to a truck 'n' dump in Upper Sackville. The community wasn't happy. Tens of thousands of rats and seagulls infested the landfill. It leaked toxic fluids into the Sackville River and emitted rank stenches that made the neighbours nauseous.

When the time came to close the landfill, the city had a crisis. Given the horror of Sackville's landfill, no community in the area was willing to host another one.

A waste consultant named Ken Donnelly convinced the city to engage the citizens of Halifax to site the landfill. In 1994 and 1995, Donnelly facilitated dozens of meetings with community members. He convened a "community stakeholders' committee" to develop recommendations on where to site the landfill and to come up with a new solid waste strategy.

There were 10 people at some meetings and hundreds at others. Some showed up wearing gas masks and skeleton costumes in protest. Through consensus-building, Donnelly fostered a sense of trust and got everyone working together. It only took 13 months for the citizens to site the landfill and develop a world-leading waste management strategy that everyone agreed on.

The strategy was ambitious. It aimed to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill by more than 80 percent within five years through recycling, composting and public education. It established a "community monitoring committee" to oversee operations at the landfill, funded by city.

The strategy also dictated that the new landfill should have processing facilities, the front-end processor and waste stabilization facility, which would sort recyclable, hazardous and organic waste out of the garbage and produce a low-grade compost. The citizens figured the FEP and WSF would be a short-term solution; once Haligonians were sorting their garbage well enough at home, it would be safe to close them, confident that the landfill would be clean and odourless.

In 1995, council adopted the strategy "in principle" and accepted the citizens' recommendation to put the landfill at Otter Lake.

Over the next two years, politicians scaled back the scope of the strategy to what they deemed feasible. They narrowed the purpose of the FEP and WSF to make them cheaper. They dictated that the facilities' main goal was simply meant to make waste inert.

In 1997, council implemented that version of the strategy. In 1998, HRM rolled out 100,000 green carts, opened its first composting facility and banned organics from the landfill. In 1999, Otter Lake opened.

By 2001, Halifax's diversion rate—the amount of waste prevented from going to the landfill—was 59 percent, the best in Canada, and one of the best in the developed world. Visitors came from around the world to learn about Halifax's waste system. A 2004 economic impact report found that the Nova Scotia took in more than $100,000 a year in tourism revenue because of Otter Lake.

Around that time, momentum slowed.

The diversion rate never got near 80 percent. It crept above 60 percent as the city banned construction and demolition waste from the landfill and started accepting all types of plastic for recycling. But because of population growth, the amount of recyclables, organics and hazardous waste going to the landfill today is about the same as it was in 2000.

In the last few years, waste management progress stagnated. In 2011, HRM staff proposed that council implement a clear-bag strategy, which would have mandated that garbage go in see-through bags instead of black bags, so garbage haulers could refuse unsorted waste. The same initiative in the Annapolis Valley improved recycling diversion by 10 percent and organics diversion by 18 percent. Halifax council said no.

In February, council decided to ask the province to remove the five-cent bottle deposit refund, to offset the cost of recycling. That would quash any incentive to return bottles to depots and cut off a revenue stream for charities and low-income people. The province hasn't responded yet.

Around the same time, Stantec's report was released. It proposed the most drastic changes to the waste system since the citizens created it.

• • •

Ken Donnelly is a waste management consultant. He says that progress on HRM's "world-class" waste management system has plateaued in recent years, and he thinks the current system review has reversed progress. "I think this is the first step backwards, and it's a very serious step backwards."

The CMC, the landfill oversight group, disagreed with the Stantec report's recommendations, and hired Donnelly as a consultant. He's also the person the city hired to create the waste strategy in the early '90s.

Donnelly works from his home, in a quiet community 14 kilometres down the highway from the landfill. It's Friday morning. Donnelly makes himself an Americano and sits at the kitchen table.

It's "concerning. If you look at the Stantec report...it's all about dollars," he says. "It's about saving money."

He believes Stantec wrote the report that HRM staff wanted. He disagrees with its findings, and says HRM staff has misled city council and the public and, as a result, the community has lost trust in the city.

Donnelly says when the strategy was implemented in the '90s, HRM reinforced it with legal agreements with the community, the landfill's operator and the province, to ensure no one could dismantle the system.

The contract between HRM and the community says the city will ensure the FEP and WSF are operated at the landfill for as long as it is there. Donnelly says if HRM tries to shut down them down, the community could go to court. "We've talked to lawyers," he says. "It's an enforceable contract. No doubt about it."

The city also has to file a request to change their industrial approval with the provincial government to make changes to the FEP and WSF. During the recent election campaign, the Liberals, PCs and NDP all said they wouldn't allow changes.

"We are not planning to entertain changes to the industrial approval," says environment minister Randy Delorey in a phone call. "Agreements put in place need to be honoured."

Donnelly says that if the FEP and WSF are shut down, more non-garbage will go into the landfill.

"The day after the FEP and the WSF closes, I know that the...organics will be going straight to the landfill. The hazardous waste will be going straight to the landfill. And I'm quite confident that the haulers will start bringing in more stuff that shouldn't be going to the landfill than they currently do, because they know nobody will be watching anymore."

Donnelly says HRM staff might have misunderstood important facts about Otter Lake, like how much hazardous waste it catches, because the managers don't have experience in waste. He thinks they don't understand the community's values because they weren't around when the strategy was created.

"I mean, you've got a CAO who was in Toronto at the time, shipping garbage to Michigan," says Donnelly, referring to HRM chief administrative officer Richard Butts' history in waste management. "The deputy CAO didn't work in waste. He was a military guy: Gord Helm"—manager of the solid waste at the city—"came from military, and then worked in security before coming to HRM, so he doesn't have a great deal of experience."

Until the waste review, the CMC and HRM staff were always amicable. Donnelly says that as a result of misdirection and poor communication, the community at large has lost faith in HRM.

"They squandered 14 years of trust," says Donnelly. "People are pulling on either ends of a rope and fighting."

Donnelly has been at the other end of the rope before. Prior to working in Halifax, he sited landfills in Ontario. "I hoped I'd never have to site another one."

One Saturday in Ontario, he went door-to-door to tell people he was looking at turning their community into a landfill. Donnelly sighs. "It was," he says, "one of the worst days of my life."

He was asking to do tests on people's property, but he also had to tell them that, if their community was chosen and they refused to sell their home to the municipality, the municipality had the right to take it. He drove up to a farmhouse with a sign that read "family owned and operated for 120 years."

"There's this lady, answers the door," he says. "I told her what I was there for. She said, 'I have to get my husband.' So, the husband comes out of the barn. The guy's got the cleanest overalls you've ever seen. Not a bit of shit on his boots. He comes, and I tell them the situation. I'm thinking 'This is so awful, for them to be hearing this from me,' and she starts to cry.

"It's just an awful thing," says Donnelly, speaking low and steady. "What HRM's doing right now, in ways, it's ethically—morally—more repugnant. They said, 'We will build an FEP and WSF, and enter into a contract with you, to build it and operate it, and the contract will give you the assurances it will always be there in return for having this landfill near your community.'

"Now, to come and say, 'Well we don't think we should do this anymore, because we don't like the cost of it.' That's essentially a bait and switch."

Donnelly sees the impacts on people around the landfill, like Heather Johnston. Donnelly knows Johnston from when she was fighting against his recommendations to put the landfill in her backyard. He saw her speak at the engagement session.

"She was almost in tears," says Donnelly, "she was shaking at the microphone. I went and gave her a hug, later. And she was fighting against me putting [the landfill] there before. I certainly wouldn't want to be going and knocking on doors and telling people that we'd just unilaterally decided not to hold up our end of the bargain anymore."

• • •

Gord Helm has a corner office at Alderney Landing, looking out over the harbour. He has been Halifax's solid waste manager for four years, and has been conducting the solid waste system review since 2010. His walls are adorned with images from the navy, where he spent 22 years. There, he worked on jobs two years at a time, learning and executing them before moving on.

He is a large, neighbourly man, with a friendly handshake. When he's impassioned, he speaks in a loud, commanding voice.

He picks up a 26-page document off the table. It's the contract between the community and HRM, which the community monitoring committee says dictates that the city can't close the FEP and WSF.

"In this document, it outlines, very clearly, specifically, how and why changes can be made to the operating model. What you've heard," says Helm, impassioned, "is that this document clearly says that it's a legal binding contract with the community that says that no changes can ever be made, and that we have to be out in 2024, right?"

He has the irateness of someone who has had this conversation many times.

"It's an agreement that says that if you are planning to make changes to this agreement, you need to notify us. It doesn't say you're not allowed to.

"How many things are we doing now that were created in 1995, that are sacrosanct, that we cannot make changes or improvements to, based on how systems and technology and people have evolved?"

Helm hasn't met with the CMC since the summer of 2012. Ken Donnelly says city council twice directed HRM staff to do so, but it never happened. "I haven't avoided them," says Helm. "They don't invite me to their meetings. Other than paying their bills, they really have no interest in this business unit's perspective."

Helm says the CMC disagreed with what his department was doing and believed they had approval authority over any changes at the landfill. He disagrees. "As a result of that disagreement, the relationship between CMC and my business unit has been strained."

Mirror and the CMC are both involved in the landfill and have comprehensive knowledge of how it operates, but neither of them were significantly consulted for the system review. Helm says that this is because HRM staff wanted the review to be independent, meaning they didn't want the perspective of people who had something at stake.

Helm knows that many people take issue with Stantec's analysis. Stantec declined to comment, deferring to Helm for clarification.

Helm and Stantec disagree with Donnelly, Mirror and the CMC over technical points. Helm says the FEP and WSF don't do what they were meant to do, based on the original 1995 strategy. Donnelly says that the FEP and WSF do exactly what they were meant to do, based on the revised 1997 strategy.

Helm and Stantec say that the FEP and WSF fail to catch one-third of rotting organics, based on statistical analyses. Based on his 14 years of experience, Steve Copp of Mirror says that the FEP and WSF catch all rotting organics.

Helm says Stantec found that the FEP and WSF have negative environmental impacts. Another consultant hired by the city, SNC-Lavalin, agreed. Both consultants' reports say processing waste makes it more likely to release gases and odours into the environment. Mirror's consultant says this is a benefit, if properly managed, because the treated waste produces less gas—and produces it for a fraction of the time—than other landfills.

Stantec also says the workers in the FEP don't remove much hazardous waste, other than batteries, propane tanks and fire extinguishers. Copp disagrees. Facts in the Stantec report show that, last year, workers in the FEP stopped more than 50 barrels' worth of flammable materials and aerosols from going into the landfill. The report only said that, other than fire extinguishers, propane tanks and batteries, the volume of hazardous materials is "low."

In 2010, the WSF was shut down for six months for repairs. Stantec says, in that time, there were no odour problems, which proves the WSF is unnecessary. However, Heather Johnston disagrees. She remembers a pungent gas smell on many winter mornings in 2010.

Helm trusts Stantec and SNC-Lavalin when they say that if HRM closed the FEP and WSF they could control gases, odours and pests just as well, if not better. That's not impossible.

Halifax is one of very few cities with both an FEP and WSF. The municipality of Chester, less than an hour down the 103, doesn't have the facilities. Allen Webber, Chester's warden, says their landfill has only tens or hundreds of seagulls. It smells when you're standing on it, but not when you're a few hundred metres away. However, it takes in a third as much waste as Otter Lake.

Conversely, Toronto's landfill is like a much-bigger version of Otter Lake, minus the FEP and WSF. Last year, it had more than 400 odour complaints, which it addressed with a giant air-freshener machine. However, Toronto's numbers for composting and recycling are much lower than Halifax's.

It's hard to guess which way Otter Lake would go. "The community has been informed by certain special interest segments and paid lobbyists of one position," says Helm. "It's hearing a different story from the municipality. I can understand frustration and stress and concerns, because they don't know who to trust. They don't know who to believe."

• • •

Steve Copp gets into his truck. He's accompanied by a stout, bearded, bespectacled man named David Wimberly. The two drive over a grassy hill. This is the landfill. Two million tonnes of garbage are buried here. It's about the size of Citadel Hill.

Copp drives down the far side of the hill into an open pit lined with gravel. This is the part of the landfill where Halifax's garbage is going now. It's 10 football fields long. So far, one-quarter is filled with waste, 70 feet thick—all of Halifax's garbage from the last year. Almost 150,000 tonnes, 60 Olympic swimming pools' full.

Copp drives up to the top of the pile. The garbage is hidden beneath a cover of construction and demolition debris. Copp and Wimberly get out of the truck and walk over to the grassy part of the landfill. There's no rank odour, just the smell of wet wood.

From the top of the hill, under a clear sky, they look out over Nova Scotian wilderness. "See that blue in the trees, there?" Copp points down near the bottom of the hill. "That's Nine Mile River."

There are rivers on either side of the landfill, which run through 10 kilometres of wilderness to meet the ocean at the town of Prospect. A hiking trail passes a few kilometres to the west. There are no seagulls or rats eating the garbage, but other animals dine here. "We have a ton of deer," says Copp. "They love this grass."

Wimberly compares the current review process to what the city went through in the early '90s, when the city was trying to build an incinerator against the community's will. Wimberly devoted much of his life to fighting the incinerator.

"We refer to those days as 'garbage wars,'" says Copp. "It was just crazy, how nobody wanted the landfill. Everyone was scared to death."

Wimberly was one of the main contributors to the new strategy. He says the city never fully adopted the 1995 citizens' strategy. Wimberly says there are many recommendations that could still be implemented. Mirror's consultant found that the fluff that comes out of the WSF is almost useable as a cheap compost. If the garbage was screened out of it, it could be diverted from the landfill and spread on barren rocky areas or the sides of highways.

"You could use quite a lot of it right here on the site," says Wimberly.

The original strategy also called for the creation of a research institute to study waste management, which could partner with one of Halifax's universities.

Currently, Heather Johnston smells Otter Lake regularly, and bears the stigma of living next to it, but she accepts that it's her community's burden until 2024. She says if she knew the landfill was going to be safe and odourless, she wouldn't mind having it as a neighbour past 2024, but she can't trust that will be the case. Her questions so far about the changes to the landfill have gone unanswered.

On December 10, council has two questions to consider: At $10 million, are the FEP and WSF worth the money? Would the changes be fair to the community?

Wimberly thinks HRM council should drop Stantec's analysis of Otter Lake and go back to the community stakeholders process to restart the review.

Donnelly agrees. "I think HRM should step back and go 'Whoops, this was not done well. Let's take a break and then start anew in a cooperative way, where we're not threatening any communities.' We could all be pulling on the same end of the rope and accomplishing something."

If council votes to accept the recommendations, Donnelly thinks the process will get stuck in a legal quagmire. "Hopefully eventually somebody's gonna look at it and go 'Wow, this really is off the rails. Just—everybody calm down and quit fighting.'"

Some years ago, this story germinated as an exploration of Halifax's waste system by local journalist Lezlie Lowe. For this article, freelance reporter Sam Littlefair-Wallace, Lezlie's pupil, picked up where Lezlie left off, with much help in the form of interviews, notes, news clippings and advice. Sam is grateful for her support.

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