What can Nanaimo learn from Spokane’s experience with waste to energy?
Many citizens of Spokane, Washington, were skeptical about building a Waste to Energy (WTE) facility, but rather than listening to the people, Spokane’s elected council went ahead and approved the construction of a WTE incinerator.
Twenty-three years later, Spokane is currently undertaking a study to decide if it should take over the incinerator or return to using a landfill and having a comprehensive recycling program. This year, Spokane will decide if they want to continue with Wheelabrator. They have several concerns: the high cost of labour, cost of repairing the facility, high tipping fees, and toxins in the Spokane River.
In September, 1989, armed Spokane police officers barred concerned citizens from entering City Hall. Only councillors and incinerator supporters were welcomed inside. Council voted to award a twenty year contract with Wheelabrator to design, build and operate a WTE incinerator in Spokane. The contract ended in 2011 and was renewed for three more years to end in September, 2014.
Spokane taxpayers were promised that after the high capital start-up costs (and associated bonds) were paid off, the tipping fees would be reduced, but costs kept increasing.
Tipping fees have steadily increased over the duration of the contract from an original cost of just under $40 a ton. Garbage trucks that dump trash at the incinerator now pay $99.50 a ton. This could rise to $105 in the near future. These tipping fees have been kept artificially low by drawing down reserves.
The City of Spokane also pays to haul off the remaining 30 percent of the weight as ash. When Spokane’s trash incinerator is shut down for repairs, the City of Spokane saves money. This is because it’s cheaper to haul the entire city’s trash straight to the landfill 219 miles away in Klickitat County.
Under the contract with Wheelabrator, Spokane has had to guarantee minimum tonnage each year and pay the difference if it fell short.
Electricity and Threats
In January, 1988, a deal was struck requiring Puget Sound Energy to purchase all of the incinerator’s electricity at an inflated price. Puget Sound Energy was threatened with a lawsuit if they didn’t take it.
The city pays Wheelabrator between $18 million to $21 million a year to operate the trash incinerator but the sale of energy produced by burning the trash only generates about $4 million a year. The U.S. Federal government is ceasing its grant program for electricity produced from WTE incinerators so the revenue will decrease.
Cast of Characters
Spokane attorney Dennis Clayton summed up the decision making:
“The problem at the core of this monstrosity is the cast of characters behind it,” said Clayton. “Every adviser the city looked to for guidance about building the incinerator stood to gain personally if the incinerator were built, but not otherwise. There wasn’t a single financial, engineering or city staff consultant who didn’t benefit professionally from construction of the plant.”
By the time Spokane’s incinerator was paid off in 2011, it cost the people of Spokane and Puget Sound hundreds of millions of dollars.
If Spokane decides to take over the incinerator they would have to spend $18 million for repairs. This would require improvement bonds, which in order to pay them off, would see tipping fees increase substantially to over $160 per ton.
The Spokane facility has been importing unknown/hazardous waste from the oil fields of Alberta for four years.
In 2012 a U.S. government contractor sent 300 tons of food waste from Antarctica to Spokane to be incinerated.
Metro-Vancouver passes bylaw
Metro-Vancouver passed Bylaw 280 in October 2013 to stop shipping garbage to material recovery facilities outside city limits. Some believe this is to ensure all the garbage goes to the proposed incinerator.
With not enough trash to burn cities with incinerators have been forced to bid for trash on the open market, often at disposal fees far below what their own residents must pay. Tipping fees in Vancouver are at $107 per ton.
Who will give Vancouver a loan to build this incinerator for half a billion dollars? The province is almost bankrupt with a debt of $68 billion.
The average city in America with a population of one million, instead of spending money to throw its trash away, can earn nearly $800 million a year from its reuse, creating thousands of new local jobs and dozens of new locally owned companies.
If Spokane’s Solid Waste System serves a population of, say, half a million, they could have expected earnings of $400 million a year by shifting the region’s management strategy to waste recovery and recycling.
What does the City of Nanaimo plan for recycling? The non profit recycling drop off on Kenworth Road is about to close (Nanaimo Recycling Exchange).
Will other cities learn from Spokane’s experience?
April 21, 2014 update: On April 17th Spokane Mayor David Condon announced that the city won’t be renewing the estimated $21 million-a-year contract with Wheelabrator when it expires in November 2014. The city intends to take over all plant operations.