When Mark Biagi left Nova Scotia 15 years ago, he scoured British Columbia for a town that fit his requirement: no incineration.
Concerned about his family’s many cancers, the marine biologist fought the incinerator built to clean up the toxic Sydney Tar Ponds – for which he said he received several death threats. So Powell River, a quiet, oceanfront city of 12,000 north of Vancouver, attracted him.
Now the owner of an established environmental consultancy, Mr. Biagi is back in the fray. This spring, representatives from solid waste giants Wheelabrator Technologies Inc. and Urbaser visited Powell River several times, pitching city leaders on a plan to build a waste-to-energy facility near the site of the paper mill, at the foot of a residential neighbourhood. It would burn up to 1,500 tonnes of Metro Vancouver’s waste per day. The meetings were part of a 90-day “market-sounding survey” initiated by Metro Vancouver, in advance of an expected waste-management call for proposals later this year.
“This is déjà vu from Nova Scotia,” Mr. Biagi said. “It’s the same baloney here. The selling techniques are the same because they work. They go to an economically depressed town, and promise them the moon and the stars. Then, once the facility is built, it’s impossible to get them out.” But unlike the 15-or-so other municipalities considering absorbing Metro Vancouver’s waste, the Powell River government may have no say over the plan.
Powell River was once home to the world’s largest newsprint mill, now known as Catalyst Paper.
In 1954, when Powell River incorporated, the city’s charter included a provision that kept council from controlling the mill. Section 21 reads, “No by-law or other law or regulation of the Council [shall restrict commercial activity] or … fumes, gas, vapour, smoke, dust, cinders, vibration, electricity, noise, or explosion,” on Catalyst’s property.
Today, that provision means that Wheelabrator and Urbaser could barge garbage 136 kilometres up Howe Sound, past the bulk of the sea-facing community, and build a plant on Catalyst’s lands, without a locally elected body standing in its way (although federal rules still apply).
Mayor Dave Formosa is aware of Section 21; as a city councillor several years ago, he tried to have it removed, but failed. He’s open to listening to the waste-to-energy proposal, which includes up to 70 permanent jobs, and he’s certainly aware of the need to diversify Powell River’s economy.
The mill once employed 2,700 people, and the smell of pulp permeated the region. Now, just 410 citizens work there, but the air smells fresh. In town, more and more people are telecommuting to Vancouver and beyond.
“On one side, we’ve got Wheelabrator telling us this is scientifically sound,” Mr. Formosa said. “Opponents are telling us this will kill every baby. So we’ve asked the local doctors’ association to look into this, and report back what they think.”
Due to Section 21, city council likely won’t have to vote, if Metro Vancouver short-lists the Powell River plan. However, public support is important to the project, according to Wheelabrator’s senior manager of business development, Mark Schwartz.
“All stars align in Powell River,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Our goal is to ramp up our community outreach efforts.”
In the meantime, Mr. Biagi plans to fight, first through a legal battle to get Section 21 overturned, then to take on the facility directly.
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