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The Cache Creek landfill in Cache Creek, B.C. is seen in a March 2009 file photo.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

The chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District says B.C.'s environment minister Terry Lake is being "cavalier" about the risks of a carcinogenic substance, cadmium, that was recently found in 1,800 tonnes of ash transported to the Cache Creek landfill.

Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz, whose community is upwind of the Burnaby incinerator that generated that ash, is also challenging her Metro Vancouver neighbours to abandon plans for a second garbage incineration plant, saying the mishandling of toxic ash from the region's existing facility is scary enough to warrant a different approach to waste management.

"In the Fraser Valley, we already have the highest rates of respiratory illness in the province. We don't want to breathe these fumes."

Testing at the landfill revealed the ash, brought from the Burnaby incinerator in July and August, could leach cadmium approaching levels at least twice the province's acceptable limits.

"The minister says there is no harm to the environment and to the public. Cadmium causes lung cancer. To be cavalier about this issue is a black mark against the minister of environment and Metro Vancouver," Ms. Gaetz said. "It's about the risk and uncertainty. We don't think it's a green waste management option."

Mr. Lake, in an interview Tuesday, said his ministry is investigating to find out if the ash from the Burnaby incinerator is hazardous, and if so how it was shipped to Cache Creek in contravention of the rules. As well, investigators will sample ash that has been shipped to the landfill over the past 12 years.

If core samples by the ministry confirm it is hazardous, it will have to be dug out and moved to a facility in Alberta that is set up to handle hazardous waste.

However, Mr. Lake accused Ms. Gaetz of using the issue for political leverage in her fight against Metro Vancouver's plans for a second incinerator. "The people in the Fraser Valley are obviously concerned about air quality but essentially, the system is working. It is taking the bad stuff out so that it wasn't in the airshed," he said.

Metro Vancouver's "Zero Waste" committee has won approval from Mr. Lake for a solid-waste management plan that proposes a "waste to energy" plant. The final decision will not be made until 2014, and would have to pass an environmental assessment hearing. "I feel strongly the decisions of the environment minister should be based on science, not politics," Mr. Lake said.

Minutes from one of the committee's meetings, however, point to concerns that the amount of garbage to feed the new facility is less than originally forecast. Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer said that is troubling, because there would be pressure to find more fuel for the proposed facility – instead of a focus on reducing waste.

"It's all about the feed-the-beast argument," she said, which goes against the City of Vancouver's push for greater reduction and recycling of waste. "We will continue to aggressively fight pieces of the plan that would work against greater reduction of waste. In our strong opinion, a new mass burn incinerator serving this region would absolutely make it impossible for us to get to those diversion and reduction targets."

The chair of Metro Vancouver, Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore, said it is too early to say if the incident with the Burnaby ash will derail plans for a second incinerator. "We have to go through the process to find out what happened," he said. "It's about how we deal with it when we found something was not in compliance with the regulation."

Mr. Moore said the proposed $450-milllion plant would not lock the region into producing more garbage. Instead, the Burnaby facility would be phased out if garbage levels are reduced over time.

Currently, Metro Vancouver produces about 1.3 million tonnes of garbage a year. Most is either shipped to Cache Creek or handled at the Vancouver landfill in Delta. About 300,000 tonnes are burned in the Burnaby incinerator.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story online and in print carried a headline that should have read "Toxic-ash testing clouds incinerator plans". This version has been corrected.

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