Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed Canada to aggressive reductions in our annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It will take a coordinated national effort to get there, and that means small communities across the country, like the Comox Valley, must be constantly thinking of new ways to reduce its carbon footprint.
And yet, that doesn’t appear to be the dominant mindset among Comox Valley municipal staff and elected officials. They’re fixated on keeping taxes as low as possible.
A meeting this week of the Comox Strathcona Waste Management board’s special committee to explore the benefits of converting municipal waste to energy (WTE) provided a case in point.
According to a consultant’s report, which compared three different WTE technologies, if the north Island continues to bury its garbage in the Pigeon Lake landfill, we will produce 821,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) over the next 40-year period.
The worst (highest) CO2e emissions from any of the three reviewed WTE technologies was only 179,000 tonnes.
And one of the technologies would achieve a net reduction of CO2e by -777,000 tonnes.
In other words, by implementing WTE technology, the entire north Island could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste by at least 80 percent, and possibly by roughly 200 percent.
So it should boggle the mind of anyone concerned about climate change that those facts weren’t the main topic of discussion.
Instead, the committee members and staff spent two hours debating the confusing cost comparisons in the consultant’s report. And the report was confusing, if not seriously flawed.
It’s important to have an accurate comparison between the cost of the existing landfill operation and any new WTE technology. Elected officials need that data to make informed decisions, and seek federal and provincial funding.
And the public wants cost information, too. Of course.
But, holy cow, the environmental benefits of any WTE solution for disposing of household and commercial garbage are overwhelming and undeniable.
It should have been the main topic of discussion, had the consultant’s report not obfuscated the monetary issues.
Landfills account for 20 percent of Canada’s methane emissions, which are 25 times more potent in accelerating global warming than other greenhouse gases. It may be the single largest impact that regional districts can have on the national GHG reduction target.
That’s why the recommendation by Comox Valley Regional District staff was so shocking, and out of step with the mission of the WTE committee.
Staff recommended the committee discontinue looking at WTE solutions until 2022, primarily because landfilling was portrayed as the least expensive option.
But until CVRD staff prepare more accurate cost comparisons, that’s not a proven fact.
In either case, the recommendation sends the message that although landfilling may pollute more and accelerate global warming, it will keep our taxes lower.
And that, unfortunately, appears to be a common mindset among too many within Comox Valley municipal governments.
We expect our elected officials to spend our tax dollars wisely, and make prudent decisions. But there’s a new paradigm that injects environmental factors into the definition of prudence.
And that’s the kind of thinking that will save this planet from the disastrous effects of climate change.
Related topic: Did the waste-to-energy committee discussion miss the point?
The tension between staff and elected officials of the Comox Strathcona Waste Management board (CSWM) ramped up another notch this week.
The friction has increased since directors openly criticized Comox Valley Regional District staff at a full CSWM board meeting two weeks ago. They accused staff of manipulating the wording of an engineering contract to disregard the will of publicly elected officials.
At that same meeting, CSWM directors also accused staff of giving more weight in their recommendations to the views of a staff advisory board than to the elected board.
This breakdown of trust and struggle for power erupted again this week when directors rejected a staff recommendation to set aside the committee’s interest in technologies that convert solid waste into energy.
A select committee of the CSWM board has been exploring the latest technologies that transform undiverted municipal solid waste into energy or recyclable materials, rather than burying it in a landfill.
The committee’s chair, Area B Director Rod Nichol, said the committee’s goal is to extend the useful life of the Pigeon Lake landfill and to not squander the inherent energy contained in undiverted waste.
And to dispose of solid waste in a manner more friendly to the environment.
But when consulting firm Morrisson Herschfield tabled its evaluation of three companies that offer varying WTE technologies, it quickly became obvious that staff and elected officials were at odds again.
Directors privately wondered if they had received the full consultant’s report, or whether they got a version amended by the staff advisory committee.
Marc Rutten, the CVRD’s General Manager of Engineering Services, recommended that the CSWM board stop its consideration of WTE technologies, and take it up again in 2022 as part of the 10-year update of its 2012 Solid Waste Management Plan.
That didn’t sit well with directors who instead ordered staff to use the consultant’s data to provide a more accurate cost comparison between the status quo of burying undiverted waste in a landfill and two of the different WTE technologies.
Rutten based his recommendation on the consultant’s conclusion that continuing to bury undiverted waste was less expensive and less risky than any of the three WTE technologies.
But directors questioned the validity of the consultant’s report, saying it didn’t give a true “apples to apples” comparison of costs.
The report only compared the cost of the CSWM landfilling operations to the costs of the three WTE technologies. It didn’t take into account the CSWM’s cost of source-separating recyclables and organic composting, which is already included in most processes that convert waste to energy.
Campbell River Director Charlie Cornfield was adamant that the cost comparison was flawed, and other directors agreed they didn’t have enough information to make a decision about whether to pursue one of the WTE solutions.
Directors asked staff to prepare a more detailed analysis of what would change for the CSWM operation with the implementation of each technology, what wouldn’t change, and what that would cost.
They also want a breakdown of the cost of each of the CSWM current operations, such as source-separating materials, composting organics, education programs, dealing with hazardous refuse, etc.
Director Roger Kishi of Cumberland urged the committee to eliminate incineration technology as a third WTE option.
Incineration involves direct burning of undiverted waste. It’s a technology commonly used in Europe and at B.C.’s only WTE facility in Burnaby.
And while the emissions from incinerating waste are minimal, according to the consultant, Kishi said the public could never support the optics of a tall smokestack.
After more than two hours of debate, one thing became obvious: The consultant’s terms of reference conflicted with the elected officials goals and weren’t adequate for them to assess cost comparisons between the status quo of landfilling and new technologies that convert that waste into energy.
It’s important for the CSWM committee to fully understand the cost of undertaking any new technology. And to do that the committee must have accurate comparisons if it hopes to convince the CSWM board, the public and the provincial government that moving to a WTE solution makes sense for taxpayers and the environment.
Photo: A view of Allen Lake, in the Perseverance Creek watershed. Courtesy of the Village of Cumberland.
While Courtenay and Comox residents suffer through another boil-water advisory this week, clear and drinkable water flows freely in the Village of Cumberland.
For Cumberland Mayor Leslie Baird that fact alone justifies her council’s decision to not join the Courtenay-Comox water system. But she also likes to point out that the village will save millions of dollars for its taxpayers.
Because while those other Comox Valley elected officials search for the financing to build a $110 million water filtration plant, Cumberland has already received a $4.9 million grant to fund the $6 million first stage of its long-term water quality and supply system improvement plan.
Joining the Courtenay-Comox system would have cost Cumberland taxpayers $26.7 million upfront and annual operating costs of $600,000.
Bringing their own system up to current provincial standards will cost $6 million now (80 percent funded by the provincial Clean Water, Wastewater fund), another $6.5 million for further improvements through 2066, and annual operating costs of $255,000.
It was a clear-cut financial decision, Mayor Baird said, and it provides the village with water security for the next 50 years.
How the water system works
Cumberland Manager of Operations Rob Crisfield said the village’s water supply comes from five lakes in two separate watersheds — Allen Lake in the Perseverance Creek watershed, and Hamilton, Stevens and Henderson lakes and Pond. No. 2 in the Cumberland Creek watershed.
The five lakes in two watersheds that comprise the Cumberland water supply. The village has a license for future use of Vanwest Lakes.
A deep well drilled in Coal Creek Historic Park opened in 2013. It adds a groundwater supply to the watersheds’ surface water sources.
The system operates on nine water licenses, some issued as early as 1897, and serves Cumberland and everyone in the Royston water service area. The village owns all of the land around the lakes, but not all of the land in the watersheds.
That means the system is less susceptible to harmful logging practices in terms of the turbidity issue that plagues the Courtenay-Comox system. Cumberland has not issued any boil-water advisories.
However, some of the infrastructure in the hills above the village is more than 100 years old. While it’s been maintained well, many upgrades are necessary and underway.
Henderson Lake has the lowest elevation of the four lakes in the Cumberland Creek watershed, so its outflow makes the connection to the village’s water supply. It merges with a line from Allen Lake.
Where water lines from the two watersheds come together, the water is treated with chlorine. It then descends down to Cumberland via a single, one kilometer long 300 mm diameter pipe, before splitting again into two main trunk lines servicing different parts of the village.
What’s happening now
The village is installing a second “twinned” 300 mm pipe so it can regulate the flow from each watershed based on the amount of water stored in the lakes. That work should finish in mid-December.
Future work will include adding a new facility that will provides both UV and chlorine treatment. It will also switch from chlorine gas to sodium hypochlorite, which poses fewer risks for operators.
The village will also construct two new reservoirs to increase water storage capacity. One will go out to tender in the spring, along with the new UV treatment facility. The second reservoir will be built by the year 2040.
Sediment washing into Comox Lake through Perseverance Creek after a major rain event in 2014
Crisfield said the village will repair and replace some of its dams, most importantly the Pond No. 2 dam, which failed in December of 1972, causing a washout of the Henderson Lake dam. Both the Henderson dam and No. 2 dam were rebuilt in 1973, with a spillway out of Cumberland Creek watershed and into Perseverance Creek.
It was this spillway that undercut a kilometer-long 50-foot high bank during a major rain event in 2014. The ensuing slide washed sentiment, including clay particles, into Perseverance Creek and ultimately into Comox Lake, the source of drinking water for Courtenay and Comox. Following the slide, a the Comox Valley Regional District issued a boil-water advisory for Courtenay-Comox residents that lasted 49 days.
Crisfield said other dams will get either seismic stabilization, such as Stevens Lake did in 2014, or be completely rebuilt over time to meet the Canadian Dam Safety Guidelines in future years.
How residents benefit
When all the projects are completed, Cumberland and Royston will have a secure supply of water through 2066 that meets B.C. Drinking Water Guidelines. The more reliable and controllable system will reduce risks to human life, the water supply and the environment from a major earthquake.
The village was able to lift its moratorium on development in 2014 after opening the Coal Creek deep groundwater well.
It will surprise some that Cumberland is the fastest growing community in the Comox Valley. According to the 2016 Census statistics, the village grew by 5.6 percent to 3,600 residents. That beats Courtenay, Comox and all three regional districts, which each grew by 4.7 percent.
It’s even more surprising that during that same period of growth, Cumberland has reduced its demand for water by 41 percent, according to the June 2016 study by Koers & Associates Engineering Ltd. Cumberland residents used 49 percent less water and Royston residents used 17 percent less.
The lower water usage resulted from a new rate structure and the installation of water meters at all residential and commercial connections. People just naturally used less water. And the meters revealed many service leaks, which have been repaired.
Crisfield said once all these surface supply improvements are in place, Cumberland will have improved redundancy and reliability on water delivery, improved water quality and greater flexibility in how they can operate the supply system.
- The biggest challenge confronting Cumberland is how to rebuild the Pond No. 2 dam; specifically where to direct its spillway. If it goes toward Cumberland Creek, it could affect water quality in the village’s system. If it goes into Perseverance Creek, it could erode more sediment into Comox Lake. Crisfield hopes that a study underway by Tetra Tech consulting engineers, of Nanaimo, will find a solution to that problem.
- Meanwhile, Crisfield is interested in the possibility of generating hydroelectricity by adding turbines into the system’s water lines. Due to the large elevation drop, there may be sufficient pressure to power the water treatment operations.
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.
“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, 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.
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.
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: email@example.com 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: firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Board Chair Comox Valley Project Watershed Society