Anti-incinerator forces in Durham say it's not just garbage but also democracy that might go up in smoke if the province approves an energy-from-waste plant before the new regional council has a chance to convene.
The $260-million proposal would burn 140,000 tonnes of garbage a year and produce 20 MW of power, about enough for 6,000 homes. It has faced opposition in Durham ever since the bidding process favoured conventional "energy from waste" incineration over newer and cleaner incendiary technologies like gasification and thermal-recycling.
With the issue looming over last month's elections, voters in Durham put fresh faces in power, choosing 16 new candidates for the 28-seat council. But anti-incinerator representatives may never get a chance to weigh in.
The Ministry of the Environment could pass the environmental assessment as early as next week. If it does, Durham chairperson, Roger Anderson, has authority to give the final go-ahead before the new council sits on Dec. 8.
Mr. Anderson has been a strong proponent of the development, but signing the agreement could be politically risky for him, since the first order of new council will be to vote on whether to re-elect or replace him as chair.
If the new councillors never get a chance to see the final agreement, they will have something in common with the returning councillors, who only saw the deal's broad parameters before authorizing senior staff to negotiate the deal.
That fact doesn't sit very well with Steve Parish, the re-elected mayor of Ajax and a member of Durham council.
"We are entering into a quarter-billion-dollar commitment and we can't say we've seen the agreement," says Mr. Parish. "That's untenable."
Mr. Parish's constituents are well upwind of the incinerator, and he says he has no objections to incineration on principle, he's more worried about the business model.
He says the plan will burn up all the region's federal gas tax allowances through 2017, starving other sectors like transit. He's hoping the new council will get to debate what he thinks would ultimately be a close vote on a final decision to lock in.
John Mutton is the man vying to replace Roger Anderson as regional chairperson. He's a former mayor of Clarington, the site of the proposed incinerator. Mr. Mutton is now opposed to the incinerator, despite initially working as a consultant for the proposed builder Covanta.
Mr. Mutton says his contacts in the ministry have told him Minister John Wilkinson will approve the environmental assessment by Nov. 17, but he thinks Mr. Anderson signing off on it would be an affront to democracy.
"Councillors didn't even get to review alternate bids," he says, arguing the lack of transparency has produced a flawed result. "There is no assurance of ongoing air quality monitoring in case it's not as clean as they say it will be."
Mr. Parish thinks Mr. Anderson - who wasn't available for comment - should waive his "technical authority" to sign the contract and instead return the decision to council.
"I think that's the minimum that is owed in light of the election results," he said.
Another reason to bring the contract to council might be Mr. Anderson's own political future.
"Right now, he's probably got the votes to be re-elected as chair," says Mr. Parish. "Signing the contract before Dec. 8 might change that."
Special to the Globe and MailReport Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: