By Michael Jessen
The West Kootenay City of Nelson, BC will soon make some critical decisions about the role that waste will play in its future.
About two months after his inauguration as mayor in December 2002, Dave Elliott appointed a Waste Management Task Force to reform the city's relationship with its trash.
Shortly thereafter, the Task Force received $10,000 from the provincial Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection to develop a zero waste plan for the city. After meeting with various stakeholders and interested community members to discuss options for reducing waste within the city, the Task Force hired two consultants to prepare the zero waste plan.
One of the consultants, Mary Jean O'Donnell operates MJ Waste Solutions (firstname.lastname@example.org) out of Vancouver. "MJ" is a well-known and loved waste elimination advocate who honed her skills as waste reduction coordinator for the University of BC where she started many innovative projects. She has also served on the Board of Directors and as President of the Recycling Council of BC.
The second consultant working on Nelson's plan is internationally renowned zero waste activist Gary Liss (email@example.com), president of Gary Liss & Associates (http://www.garyliss.com) of Loomis, California. Now what is a Californian doing working on a plan for Nelson, BC you might ask? Well, let's just say that Nelson is oh so lucky to have Gary on the team with Mary Jean. Check out Gary's web site and read his impressive resume. All I can say is, I can hardly wait for this plan!
As someone who helped open Nelson's first modern era recycling depot in 1972, I have a 30-year history of trying to change Nelson's relationship with solid waste. Add to that my nine years as a recycling coordinator with the Regional District of Central Kootenay, and I feel uniquely qualified to discuss the history of waste management in our area.
When I first arrived in Nelson in 1970, the city was burying garbage on the waterfront just west of the current airport. In fact, the city built its airport on land reclaimed with garbage. Mayor Norman Stibbs began the practice in the late 1930's so the city could have an airstrip.
By 1972, the city was dumping its garbage on the western side of Cottonwood Creek, barely 100 feet from the creek and about 500 feet from the Kootenay River. About once a month, the city would burn an accumulated pile of cardboard, wood and tree branches and prunings. It wasn't unusual to see ash from the fire blowing down the sidewalks of Baker Street the following day.
Those of us who belonged to the Nelson branch of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (http://www.spec.bc.ca) thought there had to be a better way. Three of us did some research, prepared a report for city council, and with the help of a federal government Local Initiatives Program grant our recycling program began.
Unfortunately, most councillors thought we were ahead of our time and we received very little assistance and more than a few setbacks. (Such as when the then mayor ordered the local fire department to set fire to our accumulated cardboard pile because he was worried vandals would do it at Halloween). After struggling with volunteers and a few summer student grants for four years, our group reluctantly closed the depot.
By now, the then Ministry of Environment was getting concerned about the material that might have been leaching into the Kootenay River from Nelson's dump. It pressured the city to stop the practice beginning in the mid-1970's but the city had nowhere else to put its waste so it continued despite the Ministry's disapproval.
In about 1976, the environment department's disapproval became an order to stop dumping. In 1978, the city council of the day saw incineration as the city's saviour and prepared plans to build an incinerator near the sewage treatment plant on the edge of Grohman Narrows Provincial Park.
When the city held a referendum to get permission from voters to borrow the money for the incinerator, environmentalists lobbied hard against the idea. A half-page advertisement in the Nelson Daily News the day before the referendum may have swayed the voters; at least that's what the pro-incinerator folks thought since they had no chance to reply. I prefer to think that most people just recognized that burning waste was not a long-term solution. Whatever, the voters of Nelson turned thumbs down on borrowing for an incinerator by almost a 65% margin.
The City of Nelson was then boxed into a corner. With the Ministry of Environment refusing to allow the continuation of the waterfront site as a dump, the city turned to the recently formed Regional District of Central Kootenay (http://www.rdck.bc.ca) for help. After months of searching and many angry public meetings in which residents said "not in my backyard," the RDCK found an acceptable piece of land for a landfill a few miles east of the Village of Salmo at the former Canex mine site.
Although the site was initially just to be used for one year, Nelson's waste has been taken on a 30-mile scenic tour of the West Kootenay for the past 22 years. Currently, the landfill also takes waste from as far away as Meadow Creek and Kaslo as well as Balfour, the North Shore, Ymir, and Salmo.
During the early part of the 1980's, the Regional District of Central Kootenay toyed with the idea of incineration again, but after a couple of years of study, dropped it as unacceptable. John Neville was Nelson's representative to the Central Subregion Waste Management committee at the time and although blind, he perhaps had a heightened sense of the air pollution dangers associated with incineration.
In late 1988, the RDCK (at the urging of then Area F director Earl Hamilton) hired Balfour area resident Eva Walters to do two research reports on recycling. Her endorsement of recycling as a viable option for managing a good part of the waste stream prompted the RDCK to advertise the position of recycling coordinator. I began work in the job in January 1990.
Although I thought I was working for the entire regional district, I soon learned that my salary was only being paid by the Central Subregion. This became a bit problematic later when I learned I could never speak for the entire RDCK, only the Central Subregion. The RDCK was the only regional district in the province to have such a strange practice.
A temporary drop-off recycling depot and processing centre was opened in May 1990 at 519 Front Street and work began on the search for a more permanent site. A building at least 10,000 square feet in size and property about five acres in size were the preferred ideal. At this point I would like to highlight just a few of the many sites that were investigated and reveal how close Nelson came to getting a real recycling/processing depot:
I spent most of 1992 working on a proposal to purchase five acres of land from Marathon Realty at the western end of Baker Street for approximately $300,000. Drawings were prepared and a sales agreement written up. Central Subregion directors backed out of the deal at the last minute due to opposition from businessmen Louis Maglio (Maglio Building Supplies) and John Smurthwaite (then associated with Quality Produce).
Most of the year 1996 was spent negotiating with CP Rail to purchase the Diesel Shop, the building with all the broken glass windows visible from the western end of Vernon Street. A sales agreement was drawn up but Central Subregion directors at the last minute again scuttled the deal.
I interrupt this site investigation list because in 1997, the Central Subregion directors did something very peculiar. They decided they wanted to privatize one of the few regional district-operated recycling/processing programs in the province, and a growing and successful one at that despite operating in a substandard facility that had been declared an unsafe workplace by the Workers' Compensation Board.
The depot had a lot of community support and soon a petition was circulating in the area to keep the depot a publicly operated facility. A tense meeting was held on November 20, 1997 under media scrutiny as depot workers battled for their jobs.
Central Subregion directors made their decision behind closed doors so only they and a few staff know the discussion that took place. The following morning, a couple of the directors -- then Nelson mayor Gary Exner and Area F director Al Dawson -- visited the recycling depot, hugged the staff and told them the good news. Their jobs were safe and the Central Subregion was committing at least $600,000 to build them a new recycling depot.
In February and March of 1998, recycling depot foreman Norm Richard and I toured 10 different recycling operations in the southern half of the province. We stopped in Vernon, Kelowna, Salmon Arm, Kamloops, Hope, Abbotsford, and a number in the Vancouver area. We sought out information on "how to build a processing depot right". We learned a lot.
Norm and I prepared a report for Central Subregion directors indicating a depot located in Nelson would be the most economical and efficient. To our dismay, directors voted to receive the report for information only and never discussed the report with the authors in a meeting.
Now back to the site investigation list:
During the spring and summer of 1998, Central Subregion directors considered the purchase of about 10 acres of land from Sam Relkoff. (The Highway 3A land later became the new home for Insight Electronics.) The land would only cost $125,000, but the cost to build left turn lanes into the land was estimated to cost $500,000 -- a cost that was to be covered by the Central Subregion. With an estimated total project cost of $1,125,000, not much was left for a building and equipment. I wrote a memo to Administrator Reid Henderson on August 26, 1998 stating I could not endorse this expenditure and the project was shelved.
In the fall of 1998, I renegotiated with CP Rail (who were getting quite gun shy of dealing with the RDCK by this time) and got two possible sites. The Diesel Shop plus about three acres of land for between $300,000 and $500,000 and acreage adjacent to the current waterfront transfer station at between $75,000 and $100,000 per acre. Central Subregion directors took no action to pursue the efforts of their recycling coordinator and administrator in negotiations with CP Rail.
The above four examples are the ones that came close to becoming reality. More than a dozen other sites were looked at, but most were deemed unsuitable or too far away from Nelson.
Residents of the Central Subregion were probably just as surprised as the recycling depot workers to discover that their regional district directors had spent many months in 1998 negotiating for the purchase of more land around the Canex landfill site -- about 1,063 acres or 430 hectares to be exact. The purchase price was $800,000. Oops, there goes the money promised the year before for the new recycling depot.
This land purchase was to become a controversial issue since a search of land titles revealed that it had been sold by the owner -- a mining company called Raynerd Resources -- to a company registered in Panama for $160,000 just eight months prior to the RDCK purchasing the property. (Raynerd Resources had previously been called Nor-Quest Resources or Nu-Dawn Resources and the latter name was one of many shadowy "penny" mining stocks registered on the Vancouver Stock Exchange.) It is important to realize that a company registered in Panama does not have to reveal the names of its board of directors, thereby shielding the identity of who made the $640,000 in profit on the RDCK's purchase of the land.
A subsequent investigation by the RCMP commercial crime unit revealed that some unnamed Canadian and American citizens made profits from the sale which they did not have to declare as capital gains on their income tax because the money was laundered through Panama. I don't know about you, but I was revolted that a regional district would go through with this purchase and thereby assist the sellers to avoid paying lawful taxes like you and I have to.
One of the reasons the regional district gives for having purchased the huge amount of land around the Canex site is the fact the landfill is leaching an oozing chemical mess onto the property of surrounding property owners and perhaps into Sheep Creek and the Salmo River. This landfill is a ticking time bomb that may cost up to $15 million to remediate according to an engineering consultant's report. Yet RDCK board chairman Hans Cunningham also emphasized the district would have sufficient landfill capacity for a hundred years into the future.
That last remark sums up for me the attitude of the Central Subregion directors. They like trucking garbage and recycling around the West Kootenay. Out of sight, out of mind. Despite the fact waste management costs in the Central Subregion have increased from $994,885 in 1995 to $2,154,264 in 2003, the area has only a poor drop-off recycling program. Most communities in our neighbouring regional district, Kootenay Boundary, have curbside recycling pickup and take all kinds of rigid plastic (excluding Styrofoam) in their program. RDKB's Resource Recovery Coordinator Raymond Gaudart is living up to his title -- recovering resources. In the RDCK, they have a Waste Management Supervisor. No wonder the RDCK's efforts to reduce waste are almost non-existent.
In April 1999, I was declared a redundant employee -- no recycling coordinator needed. By January of 2000, the RDCK's recycling depot was privatized and most employees lost their jobs. The Nelson economy suffered the loss of at least $150,000 from this initiative in the form of lost wages and purchased services.
But remember regional districts in BC have the legislative authority to deal with waste. The City of Nelson is only one member of a seven-member waste management committee. If the rest of the directors don't want to do the zero waste dance, what chance will Nelson have in their company.
That's why Nelson may have to go it alone on zero waste -- at least to start. Even though waste management costs have risen substantially over the years, they are spread over more than 20,000 residents. Taxes have remained low for the rural area residents. That is important to Central Subregion directors like Hans Cunningham (Area G), Josh Smienk (Area E), and Al Dawson (Area F) who have built their political careers on keeping taxes low for their constituents. Here's a graphic example: since 1994 I have owned a modest home on one acre at Longbeach on the North Shore. I haven't improved the property beyond basic maintenance. When I moved in my property taxes were the provincial minimum $350.00. In 2003, I paid $364.56.
While keeping taxes low to their constituents, rural regional district directors have ignored much needed infrastructure improvements to facilities like their landfill. Their waste management efforts are hurtling into the 19th century by continued reliance on trucking garbage to landfill. While Nelson is a heritage city, it wants to have progressive waste elimination policies predicated on the zero waste concept.
Check out the RDCK Solid Waste Management Plan at http://www.rdck.bc.ca/waste/SWMP.pdf, especially the goals of the plan. The first goal is "to minimize, as much as possible, the generation of wastes." The second is to manage waste in the following order of priority: waste reduction; reuse of materials and material recovery; and recycling. They are doing an inadequate job of the third place option and virtually nothing on the first two.
So maybe Nelson will have to pursue its zero waste plan on its own. It has led the RDCK to the altar of waste reduction on numerous occasions. Like a nervous bride, the RDCK has run from the church, unable to say "I do." Regional districts were devised to foster cooperation between cities, towns, villages and rural areas on matters of mutual interest. On the issue of reducing waste, the RDCK -- on the historical evidence -- can be accused and found guilty of stalling progress. It is time to stop making waste and it is time to stop wasting time. Nelson needs a zero waste initiative now -- with or without the RDCK's help.
Michael Jessen is a sustainability consultant who is working to establish a one-stop resource recovery park in Nelson. Such a facility would co-locate reuse and recycling operations, retail sales of reused and recycled products, and foster research and development initiatives aimed at waste prevention, reuse, composting, and recycling. A critical component of such an initiative is the extension of extended producer responsibility. Manufacturers of products that become waste must be held responsible for the complete life cycle of their products. Local taxpayers are tired of paying producer's and manufacturer's waste disposal costs. Michael can be reached by phone at 250-229-5632 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His business Zero Waste Services has an award-winning web site at http://www.zerowaste.ca.
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