The willingness of local cities to host a controversial new waste-to-energy incinerator to burn much of the region's garbage is emerging as a civic election issue in parts of Metro Vancouver.
Some challengers for Surrey council oppose a new waste incinerator coming to Surrey after the incumbent council almost sold city land for that purpose earlier this year in a now-lapsed option to Aquilini Renewable Energy.
Aquilini president John Negrin said his firm is still interested in the Campbell Heights industrial property in southeast Surrey, near the Langley border, as a potential site for a trash-fueled power plant.
The firm also lists Tsawwassen First Nation land as a potential site.
"There are others around the Lower Mainland we're taking a look at," Negrin said, adding competing firms in the hunt for the waste project are also scouring the region.
Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele said the majority of the sitting Surrey council wants to host a plant.
"We want waste-to-energy in Surrey," she said. "It's not unanimous, but I think most of us are willing to go for it."
But it will be up to new councils elected in each city to signal their interest as Metro begins to call for bids sometime in 2012.
Many local councillors have become convinced waste-to-energy systems can safely use garbage as a resource after touring modern incinerators in European cities over the past several years.
But if they're unseated by skeptics in November, Metro's waste-to-energy strategy could be in for a rougher ride.
North Vancouver City Mayor Darrell Mussatto, who previously said a new waste plant could tie into the Lower Lonsdale district heating network, now predicts sites in other cities will prove more suitable.
He said it may be a local campaign issue, but added most Metro residents – unlike those in the Fraser Valley – are accepting of waste-to-energy plants.
New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright said a 50-acre industrial site at Braid Street and Brunette Avenue is likely a prime site for a new incinerator.
But he said New West council has "almost no choice" because Port Metro Vancouver owns the land and is likely negotiating directly with waste-to-energy firms.
"They're the ones that say what goes there," Wright said, adding he would try to ensure his city gets some economic benefit if the site is used.
Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said his council hasn't formally decided whether to pursue a second waste-to-energy plant.
"If it was a desirable place we would certainly consider it," he said. "We have no fear of the technology."
The existing incinerator is at the south edge of the city near the Fraser River, far from most of Burnaby's population, but close to homes in New Westminster's Queensborough area.
Corrigan said a similar south Burnaby location might work for a second, more advanced plant, particularly if garbage could be barged to a riverside plant, rather than adding to local truck traffic.
A town centre site wouldn't be supported, he suggested, because of public concern about burning garbage.
"People feel, whether it's true or not, an incinerator of garbage very close to their homes is problematic," Corrigan said.
The current incinerator burns about 285,000 tonnes of waste per year, while Metro Vancouver needs a new plant or plants to handle an extra 500,000 tonnes of waste per year that will no longer be trucked to the Cache Creek regional landfill.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said her city isn't pursuing the plant.
"You never close the door on anything but we're not looking for it," she said. "We've got enough trucks."
Aquilini Renewable Energy is just one of several firms expected to bid to turn Metro's garbage into power, along with Waste Management Inc. and Covanta Energy, which runs the existing Burnaby incinerator and aims to start a new one at Gold River on Vancouver Island.
Fraser Valley politicians strongly oppose any in-region plant on grounds it would worsen air pollution, so shipping Metro garbage to the Island may ease those concerns.
But a plant built in the region – particularly in a dense or industrialized area – could be much cheaper for taxpayers because heat could be sold to nearby buildings at a greater profit than turning it into electricity.
The Metro Vancouver board must still decide how the process unfolds, including whether to build a new plant publicly or outsource it to a private partner as a P3.
Options range from conventional mass-burn incineration – with much more modern scrubbing systems – to emerging waste-to-energy technologies that are largely unproven but promise ultra-low emissions.
A wide-open process may produce a mish-mash of hard-to-compare proposals using different technologies, sites and business models.
A Metro official said it may be best to decide one or more of those variables before seeking bids.
Impact on the environment and the cost to taxpayers are expected to be key considerations, although any method of assessing them is likely to be contentious.
A detailed study of potential health risks is expected and Metro is required to work with the Fraser Valley Regional District to address air quality concerns.
Any new plant may ultimately need the support of the provincial government, which this summer approved Metro's solid waste plan.
It calls for recycling rates to rise from 55 per cent now to 70 per cent in 2015 and 80 per cent by 2020, while allowing Metro to pursue new waste-to-energy plants.
– with files from Kevin Diakiw