Who wields the real power: staff or elected officials?

Who wields the real power: staff or elected officials?

PHOTO: The Edmonton organics processing program is the largest in North America.

 

Who do you think makes the important decisions that affect our communities?

It’s natural to answer, “Our elected officials.” That’s who we hold accountable for our government’s performance. But all too often elected officials haven’t read or can’t understand technical information presented to them by staff or independent consultants, and so they simply acquiesce to recommendations put before them. 

And that puts staff in charge.

This natural tension erupted at the Comox Strathcona Waste Management (CSWM) board last week, creating a showdown over where to build the new organics composting facility.

During a routine process to award the contract for engineering services, board member Marg Grant, representing Comox Council, triggered a debate that angered many directors. She asked if there would be one or two composting facilities.

Comox Valley Regional District Senior Engineer Mark Rutten answered that the CSWM’s advisory committee wants to explore all options for siting the facility, including Pigeon Lake or having two facilities.

“It’s worth reviewing,” he said.

The advisory committee consists of one staff member from the municipalities of Comox, Courtenay, Campbell River, Tahsis, Gold River, Sayward and seven staff members from the CVRD.

Rutten’s remarks set off a firestorm of angry comments from elected officials on the board, which has previously debated the issue and decided to build the organics facility in Campbell River.

Upset directors, such as Larry Samson, of Campbell River, accused staff of attempting to subvert the board’s decision.

Larry Samson
CR Councillor

“We’ve already debated this. Staff doesn’t like the answer, but we’ve already hashed this out,” he said.

Comox Valley Area B representative Ron Nichol said, “This is the first I’ve heard of two facilities. We debated this for over a year.”

Charlie Cornfield, of Campbell River, suggested staff was trying to change the Terms of Reference for the consulting contract without board approval. He was alarmed that no communication had come back to the Campbell River council about reconsidering the facility’s location.

The board amended the motion to award the contract to specify the Campbell River location. They were, in other words, admonishing Rutten for suggesting the advisory committee could disregard a board position.

The incident exposes the potential for staff to subtly direct projects by only feeding elected officials the information they think will get them the results they want.

Marg Grant
Comox Councillor

Marg Grant, of Comox, cast the lone vote against the amended motion.

“The Town of Comox Council’s position has always been: the entire region would be better served with two small compost facilities vs. one large facility in Campbell River,” she said via email.

Grant said the organics pilot project at Pigeon Lake has proved successful, it has existing infrastructure, it’s compatible with the site and staff have already been trained.

She also questioned the costs of backhauling organics to Campbell River, which Comox town staff raised in the advisory committee.

According to the minutes of the March 30, 2017, advisory committee meeting, “Town of Comox staff expressed concern regarding potential higher tipping fees associated with this project if hosted in Campbell River rather than the Comox Valley.”

But the other directors said it’s unlikely a Campbell River location for organics would increase garbage dumping fees. Campbell River, like every other north Island community, will truck their municipal waste to the Comox Valley, and the Comox Valley will send it’s organics back to Campbell River on what would otherwise be an empty truck.

This furor over siting the organics facility highlights the delicate relationship between the CSWM board and its staff advisory committee.

Directors also expressed concerns that the advisory committee receives reports before the board gets them, including in-camera reports, and that staff recommendations appear to give more weight to the advisory board’s suggestions than the views of elected board members.

Project Watershed needs your help to acquire and restore sawmill site

Project Watershed needs your help to acquire and restore sawmill site

Dear Residents of the Comox Valley,

You may have heard of Project Watershed. We exist to promote community stewardship of Comox Valley Watersheds through education, information, and action. And action we are taking!

We recently hosted a fundraising launch event for the purchase and restoration of the old Fields Sawmill site by the 17th Street Bridge in Courtenay. Thank you to those donors who have started us off with approximately $50,000!

This project is called Kus-kus-sum by the K’ómoks First Nation, as the area was the final resting place of K’ómoks ancestors. With the KFN as our partner, we intend to recreate a natural estuary conservation area there. It will be a beautiful natural site for all to enjoy. Watch Transforming Field Sawmill to Kus-kus-sum video.

The total cost to purchase and restore the site is $6.5 million, over the next two years. We need to raise $500,000 from the Comox Valley community, $100,000 of which by December 20th, 2017. We will be writing grants to all levels of governments, as well as local, international, national, corporate and other private donors. We need your help to make this eco-liability into an eco-asset. Watch Kus-kus-sum Promotional Video.

For more information about the Kus-kus-sum project visit our website.

Join Project Watershed and the K’ómoks First Nation in acquiring and restoring Kus-kus-sum.

You can:
SPONSOR – You can make general donations of any amount, automatically recurring monthly donations, and legacy gifts. We can even accept securities through our Canada Helps link. DONATE NOW. A visual conception of the future site shows levels of general habitat types, which you can sponsor for $100 to $1000 at www.kuskussum.ca. Local artworks are given for donations at or over $25, $100, $250, $500 and $1,000 – you will be asked to select one of over a dozen artworks after your donation has been completed. To view the artworks in advance click here.

VOLUNTEER – We need help spreading the word, collecting sponsorships, running events etc. An easy way to help is to SHARE videos, stories etc. on social media. We are using the hashtags #kuskussum and #keepingitliving. Join our team! Email: info@projectwatershed.ca to volunteer.

HOST – Gather a group of your friends, teammates, business affiliates who will donate to our cause and we will give your group a private talk about Kus-kus-sum – its history and plans for its future. Email: info@projectwatershed.ca to set something up.

As Chair of the volunteer Board of Directors, I am reaching out to all residents of the beautiful Comox Valley for assistance in raising those funds. Donors will receive a tax receipt for donations $25 and up, as Project Watershed is a registered charitable organization. As per our Keeping It Living donor program, you’ll be given your choice of estuary art, as well. There will be public recognition of donors on the restored site upon completion.

We hope that you will be able to contribute to the Kus-kus-sum project. This is an important collaborative project that will benefit our entire community and we look forward to your support. If you have any questions, we will be happy to answer them for you.

Sincerely,

Paul Horgen,
Board Chair Comox Valley Project Watershed Society

 

Should the north Island bury its garbage or convert it to energy?

Should the north Island bury its garbage or convert it to energy?

Photo: The new engineered landfill that will serve the entire north Island

 

THE next time you drag your trash bins to the curb, think about what happens next to that garbage.

If you have conscientiously reduced, recycled and reused, you will have sent just a small amount of waste to the Pigeon Lake dump, now known by the gentrified title, Comox Valley Waste Management Center. And chances are good that your trash bin contained mostly plastic packaging.

When it reaches the dump, workers will bury your trash, and everyone else’s, in a landfill and leave it to decompose over the next 1,000 years. During that time, in older landfills, it will leach toxic liquids into the soil and methane gas into the atmosphere.

Landfills are North America’s third largest source of methane, which is 25 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Not long ago, the Comox Strathcona Waste Management board of directors (CSWM) thought they had so much landfill capacity that it didn’t seem urgent to explore more environmentally-friendly technologies for disposing of municipal garbage.

The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy (ENV) approved the CSWM Solid Waste Management Plan in 2013, and an amended plan in 2016 to permit construction of a new engineered landfill at Pigeon Lake that will contain toxic liquids and capture methane gas.

The new landfill is so big, the size of 11 CFL football fields, that it is projected to hold the entirety of the north Island region’s municipal waste for at least 20 years.

But what happens then, and do new technologies offer a better solution?

Director Rod Nichol

Those are the questions newly-elected Area B Director Rod Nichol started asking three years ago. Those questions led him to technologies that convert waste-to-energy (WTE).

Nichol’s efforts gained enough support on the CSWM board to formally explore the latest technologies that transform undiverted municipal solid wastes (MSW) into energy or recyclable materials. His goal was to reduce the volume of garbage buried in the new landfill and extend its usable life.

On Nov. 28, a special WTE committee, which Nichol chairs, will consider the recommendations of a consultant who has reviewed three different  proposals to cope with the north Island’s garbage problem — Eco Waste Solutions, Sustane Technologies and WTT Technology.

It’s anticipated the technology review will answer several questions about waste-to-energy:

Do any of the WTE proposals provide sustainable and environment-friendly solutions? Will they reduce the cost of dumping? Will they undermine the progress of waste reduction programs? And will the provincial government even allow WTE when the north Island diversion rate is still well under 60 percent?

Waste to energy solutions

Two of the three proposals the CSWM board will consider appear to involve some form of burning waste to directly or indirectly produce energy or fuel.

While incineration is common in Europe, British Columbia has only one active WTE plant in Burnaby (built in 1988). And none of the applicant companies appear to have working models in Canada or the United States.

On its website, Eco Waste Solutions promotes burning undiverted residual waste in large incinerators to produce electricity. This would require a tall smokestack towering high above the Comox Valley.

Given that Island Health issued an air quality advisory for the City of Courtenay this week, and ongoing widespread concerns about the effect of wood stoves on people with certain medical conditions, it’s unlikely this proposal would garner much support.

Sustane Technologies’ website says their company has developed the technology to separate plastics from organic material, and to produce biomass fuel pellets and diesel fuel (from the plastics). It does not utilize incineration or any direct combustion.

There are other, less common, methods of turning waste to energy, such as gasification (which produces combustible gas) or pyrolysis (which produces combustible tar or bio-oil).

It’s harder to assess the third applicant, WTT Technology, from its website. The Netherlands company says it integrates mechanical and biological (composting and digestion) treatments in solutions tailor-made for each installation. It claims no harmful emissions, and does not mention incineration.

All three applicants claim their technologies can recover 90 percent of what the CSWM Center in Cumberland currently plans to bury in its new landfill. If true, that would mean the landfill could service the north Island 10 times longer than currently projected, perhaps for up to 200 years.

The technical reports submitted by the three companies and the consultant’s review will be made public a day before the CSWM’s Nov. 28 meeting.

WTE versus Zero Waste

Burning undiverted garbage (trash that can’t be recycled or reused) to generate electricity also produces emissions harmful to the atmosphere. And it makes no difference if the garbage is burned directly or converted into fuel that is burned later.

Buddy Boyd, a director of Zero Waste Canada, said the only real sustainable solution is a Zero Waste world, which he believes is possible without affecting our quality of life.

His group’s mission is “to help individuals, businesses, and governments transition to a circular economy, making the use of landfills, incinerators, and waste-to-energy plants obsolete.”

Boyd said the “so-called emerging technologies are unsustainable scams.”

“None of the proposals for the Comox Valley challenge the community to do better in living a zero waste lifestyle,” he said. “In fact, they do the opposite: They require a guaranteed supply of waste to fuel their operations and pay off the company’s capital costs.”

CSWM Director Charlie Cornfield, of Campbell River, said a zero waste world would be ideal, and to achieve it would require a massive global shift in manufacturing, packaging and education.

“We can’t change society overnight, so what do we do in the interim,” he said? “It’s better than we turn this garbage into fuel than to have it floating around like giant islands in the ocean.”

And, he called landfills a 19th century solution.

“We can’t keep throwing garbage into a hole,” he said. “Waste-to-energy is better, and will save taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Environment ministry policy

Responding to a query from Decafnation, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy sent the following statement via email:

“Current ministry policy supports the 5R pollution prevention hierarchy … whereby waste materials are managed at the highest possible level and waste-to-energy is not undertaken unless all of the higher level options have been considered.

“The hierarchy and current ministry legislation and guidance does not preclude any form of waste-to-energy or incineration but establishes criteria that must be met in order to meet higher levels of the hierarchy instead of disposal.”

Guidance documents for waste-to-energy can be found here.

The province prefers to let regional district determine the best strategies for disposal and managing municipal solid waste.

What’s happened so far

Besides the new landfill at Pigeon Lake, the Solid Waste Management Plan calls for environmentally-mandated closure of all other landfills on the north Island, including the Campbell River landfill; building transfer stations in those communities losing landfills; and, adding a methane burners and an organic composting facility.

The CSWM also asked Nichol’ committee to study waste-to-energy technologies.

CSWM Director Brenda Leigh, from the Oyster River area, says the last time the board looked at WTE in 2010, “we learned that the cost per tonne significantly exceeded the cost of landfilling and that we did not have the volume to make WTE economically viable.”

She noted that the WTE committee has probed other municipalities about contributing their undiverted garbage to a WTE stream.

“But as far as I am aware, this proposal hasn’t advanced beyond talking,” she said.

Nichol says he has spoken to elected officials in other communities, including Victoria. But he doesn’t anticipate volume being an issue as all three companies would scale their operations to the region and its projected population growth.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps told Decafnation, “Without knowing precisely what technology is being considered, I think Director Nicol’s approach to look for innovative solutions to use waste as a resource is commendable. In the 21st century we need to make every effort as local governments to create closed-loop systems and limit waste.”

What happens next

If the CSWM board wants to pursue construction of a WTE plant at Pigeon Lake, it would have to amend its Solid Waste Management Plan again and get a new approval from the B.C. government. That would mean either achieving a 70 percent diversion before approval, or convincing the province to bend on this criterion.

Then regional district staff would have to work out details and negotiate with the company selected to provide the service.

Nichol said he was told this process could take 18 months or longer, but he believes it could be completed more quickly.

How Canada and B.C. rank worldwide

Canadians generate more municipal waste than all other 16 nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), according to the Conference Board of Canada.

We’re the worst performer, producing twice as much waste in 2008 as Japan, the best performer.

British Columbia does better at reducing, recycling and reusing than every province, except Nova Scotia. But we still generate 573 kg per capita every year of un-diverted garbage that must be buried in landfills.

And that’s a far greater amount of waste per person than the new provincial guidelines.

According to the environment ministry’s “A Guide to Solid Waste Management Planning,” which supports regional districts in developing goals and targets in their solid waste planning, there are two provincial targets for 2020/21:

1) Lower the municipal solid waste disposal rate to 350 kg per person per year; and,

2) Have 75 percent of BC’s population covered by an organic waste disposal restriction. The guide can be found here

 

Beech Street shelved: better solutions under review

Beech Street shelved: better solutions under review

For nearly three years, a group of rural Comox Valley citizens has warned the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission about the environmental and financial risks of building a sewage pump station on a small Croteau Beach lot.

They’ve spent their own money on independent hydrology and financial experts to support their concerns, and have pointed commissioners toward less expensive and more effective alternatives.

But the commission — primarily the Town of Comox delegates — has consistently turned a deaf ear.

However, all the commissioners heard the message contained in five separate reports on Oct. 24 that collectively validated most of the citizens’ concerns about the project. The message was clear: Beech Street is too expensive and poses too many risks.

So they quickly and unanimously supported a staff recommendation to shelve the Comox No. 2 pump station in favor of three new alternative solutions.

That left several Comox commissioners scrambling to explain why they’ve spent so many taxpayers dollars and staff time on a project they never thoroughly vetted before purchasing real estate, and how they neglected to undertake the studies recommended by their 2011 Sewage Master Plan.

Those studies have now been completed, including a lengthy report from Opus International Consultants that evaluates the 12-year-old plan to decommission the section of sewer pipe on Balmoral Beach, below the Willemar Bluffs. It was feared that wave action and other forces might cause it to fail and create an environmental crisis.

But a separate study by Northwest Hydraulic Consultants reports that the pipe is in better condition than previously thought.

So, with less urgency to remove the Balmoral Beach pipe, Opus has recommended the commission take another 12 months starting in January 2018 to analyze and investigate three better solutions than the ill-considered plan to build a new pump station on Beech Street.

Comox Valley Regional District staff will report back to the commission in January 2019 and make recommendations to restart the project.

The citizens left the Oct. 24 meeting feeling vindicated, but still frustrated by regional district policies that can deny residents affected by infrastructure projects the right to be represented at the decision-making table.

Four new options

Opus consultants have recommended removing the main Courtenay-Comox sewer pipe from intertidal zones due to multiple and significant environmental risks, and relocating it to an overland route — the inland side of Dyke Road — from the Courtenay No. 1 pump station through Comox enroute to the wastewater treatment plant on Brent Road.

They proposed four overland options.

Option 1 would utilize stronger pumps at the Courtenay No. 1 and Comox Jane Place pump stations to move sanitary flows up the Glacier View and Lazo Road hills before gravity takes over and draws sewage down to the Brent Road plant.

Option 2 is the sewage commission’s original plan to build a new pump station at Beech Street. But Opus says this option creates a single point of failure for the entire system, among multiple other concerns, including the highest ongoing operating costs.

The serious disadvantages with Option 2 are the reason Opus has recommended three less expensive and less problematic solutions. So it’s curious why this option was left on the table, other than for comparison purposes and, perhaps, for purely political reasons.

Option 3 also includes a new pump station in Comox, but at a lower elevation, such as the town’s Marina Park. But it also creates a single point of system failure.

Option 4 mirrors the first option, using stronger pumps to move sewage over Glacier View Hill, but would tunnel under Lazo Road Hill, rather than pump sewage over it to the Brent Road treatment plant.

However, the report doesn’t consider how the tunnel option might impact aquifers along the route, and the wells that tap into them, or how the tunneled pipe would be monitored for leaks and accessed for emergency repairs and maintenance.

Why not Beech Street?

Kris La Rose, the CVRD’s manager of sewerage and water operations, summarized the key findings of the five reports for sewage commissioners.

Estimated costs for the Beech Street pump station had jumped by about 50 percent to nearly $20 million. And it was already more expensive than the top options recommended by the CVRD’s Advisory Committee three years ago.

The Opus report included operating costs in its analysis, which citizens have maintained the commission should have considered all along, and that puts Beech Street costs far above all other options.

A complicated tie-in between the main sewer pipe in the foreshore and the new pipe to a Beech Street pump station could only be done by a few specialized and expensive technicians around the world. And short working times due to tidal action made the tie-in fraught with environmental risk.

The small size of the Beech Street property put restrictions on pump station design and construction, and made the CVRD’s guarantees about no odour, noise or vibration beyond the property lines seem questionable.

Opus also pointed a new concern that hadn’t been raised before. The new pump station would have been connected in series, rather than parallel configuration, so a pump failure at any site could shut down the entire system.

The hydrology report indicated significant risks to neighborhood wells.

And, finally, a nearby active eagle’s nest would have required some mitigation.

How sewage commissioners reacted

Comox Councillor Ken Grant tried to deflect blame away from the sewage commission, which he claimed was saddled with a piece of property and bad original information.

He also appeared skepticall of staff’s recommendation to take 12 months to analyze other alternatives to the Beech Street pump station.

“My experience with how government works, is that whatever you say, we can times two,” he said. 

Grant also proposed asking a utilities commission to review the consultants reports because he said they were so technical that he couldn’t understand them.

“We’re managing by crisis,” he said. “And when you do things by crisis, you make bad decisions.”

Courtenay councillor Erik Eriksson suggested staff take this one-year opportunity to consider a bigger sewer project that serves more residents. He specifically suggested a new treatment plant south of Courtenay to serve Union Bay, Royston and possibly Cumberland. He said it would take more pressure off the existing Courtenay-Comox sewerage system.

Comox Councillor Maureen Swift lamented the time and money spent over the several years on the Comox No. 2 pump station project, but she added that the goal was to make the right decision.

Courtenay Councillor Bob Wells reminded the Comox delegates that their municipality has dragged its feet on sewer projects. He mentioned delays in getting the Hudson and Greenwood sewer lines operational.

Area B director Rod Nicol, who was just recently granted a non-voting seat at the sewage commission, said there are too many red flags about the Beech Street project to seriously consider it any longer. But, he added, since it hasn’t been definitively taken off the list of possible options, he should retain his seat on the commission through the January 2019 meeting.

The only response to his request came from Commission Chair Barbara Price, of Comox, who said, “We can talk about that later.”

No Comox Valley-wide solution

The Opus report represents good progress in CVRD sewerage planning. It presents the sewage commission with an opportunity to study three better options than its Beech Street proposal, all of which move the main sewer pipe out of the K’omoks Estuary and Comox Bay and onto an overland route.

The scope of the report does not extend beyond removing pipes from Balmoral Beach and the estuary foreshore, and moving sewage over a longer term to the Brent Road treatment plant, which are all good and necessary goals.

But that still leaves the Royston-Union Bay area to the south of Courtenay and the Saratoga-Miracle Beach area to the north, and the Village of Cumberland, without any long-term strategy for wastewater management.

It’s a better patchwork solution, but it’s still a patch.

To address the broader community’s long-term needs, a Comox Valley-wide solution should at least be envisioned as part of the review of the three Opus options. At the least, any changes in realignment to the Courtenay-Comox sewerage system today must be compatible with requirements for the entire Valley tomorrow.

Almost all of the problems with the Beech Street pump station proposal that were identified in the five reports to the Courtenay-Comox Sewage Commission this week had already been raised by citizens from the affected Croteau Beach neighborhood years ago.

Had the commission listened to the citizens and took their concerns seriously, they could have saved two years and a lot of taxpayer money.

 

Erik Eriksson announces bid for mayor of Courtenay

Erik Eriksson announces bid for mayor of Courtenay

The 2018 municipal election campaign got a jump start this week when Courtenay Councillor Erik Eriksson told Decafnation that he’s running for mayor.

Eriksson is the first Comox Valley candidate to formally announce his campaign.

While most incumbents and potential newcomers are still mulling the pros and cons of committing to a four-year term that won’t end until 2023, Eriksson said he couldn’t wait to start building support.

Eriksson said it wasn’t his intention to contest incumbent Mayor Larry Jangula for the mayor’s chair, but he also couldn’t wait for Jangula to finally decide if he’s retiring or seeking another term. Jangula has hinted at stepping down next year.

“I just had to get my campaign started,” Eriksson said. “It takes time to put together a successful support team for the mayor’s office.”

Voters go to the polls on Oct. 20 next year. The official nomination period for candidates begins on Sept. 3, 2018 and runs for 10 days.

Eriksson, who begins his sixth year on Courtenay City Council in 2018, is running on a simple platform: building partnerships.

He believes people who live in the region’s three municipalities and three unincorporated regional districts have common goals, and that by working together they can be more effective.

Eriksson isn’t using the “A-word” (amalgamation) because that’s a long and complicated process, which Valley voters have rejected in the past. But he believes there’s ample space for municipalities, the regional district, K’omoks First Nation and CFB Comox to share more services.

It’s one of his best skills, he believes, to resolve problems by helping people to find a common purpose.

“It’s amazing how effective you can be if you just talk … and discover that common ground,” he said.

Eriksson points to his support for the Committee to End Homelessness, the Community Health Network, the Food Bank and the Courtenay Youth Music Centre  as examples.

If elected, Eriksson would apply those skills to bring the council together.

And he’s motivated by a single purpose, “to make things better for people who don’t have it so good,” he said.

Some candidates like to work on building campaigns privately, and announce at the last minute. But Eriksson didn’t hesitate to publicly announce his candidacy early.

“It’s going to take time to show voters all the ways we can work better through partnerships. I want to use the credibility I’ve built to champion this cause,” he said.

 

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