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PCN Asks: Why Extend Plasco Garbage Gasification Funding Deadline?

By Meg Sears M.Eng, PhD, PCN Board Member

A few old sayings spring to mind regarding Ottawa City Council’s recent decision to give Rod Bryden a second extension to come up with the money to build his proposed pollution-free, garbage-into-fuel-into-electricity dream machine:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Councillor McRae, Chair of the Environment Committee, enthusiastically expressed faith in the Plasco process; but in the absence of technical, scientific information, faith is a poor basis for decision-making. Plasco’s project description report, available in advance of a September 11th open house, is light on technical details and long on reassurances that the emissions will meet regulatory requirements. In other words, the facility will not break the law. An independent technical peer review might, or might not, provide a basis for faith in the feasibility and likelihood of success of the proposed Plasco process.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

An ideal process would completely destroy or render inert all toxic compounds, while simultaneously producing high quality gas to feed engines, for a net gain in electrical energy. The thermodynamic reality is that high electricity yield and clean discharges are conflicting goals.

Plasco is falsely presented as plasma gasification, a technology that was developed for toxic waste destruction using extremely high temperatures in an electrical “torch” that breaks substances into their component atoms. This energy intensive technology consumes vast amounts of electricity. In no way will true plasma gasification yield a net energy gain – the energy to destroy toxic organic compounds won’t be recouped by burning the synthetic gas.

Truth be told, the Plasco technology is basically pyrolysis, with a couple of add-on plasma torches. Pyrolysis is a process in which garbage is partially burned and baked to drive off gas that then fuels engines to generate electricity. Pyrolysis is dirty. It is inherently messy and unreliable, particularly with mixed garbage for fuel, as evidenced by emissions reports and frequent shut-downs/low running time (reports to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment are available online). The process works best with high-energy content, dry materials that coincidentally are optimum for recycling, such as plastic and paper. Council has committed to supplying the plant with sufficient, high quality garbage for 20 years, potentially diverting recyclable materials from better uses. With Plasco waiting in the wings, Council is conflicted regarding Ottawa’s huge potential for waste reduction, recycling and re-use, the wisest solutions to garbage woes and landfill limitations, that are being targeted under Ontario’s proposed Waste Reduction Act.

The waste left from pyrolysis is highly toxic. Trail Road landfill in Ottawa previously refused to take the Plasco “left-unders,” and toxic waste disposal would continue to be needed for some Plasco residues. Furthermore, with no baseline environmental assessment, downwind and downstream contamination that generally results from this type of process might not be linked to the facility. This contamination includes such carcinogens and neurotoxins as dioxins, furans, arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and other toxic elements. No baseline assessment is an egregious omission from a public health point of view.

Neither does the project description say where these toxins end up in the environment, foods, etc., even though air pollutants reported in January, February and March 2013 exceeded allowable levels. The April report showed compliance in emissions, but failed in reliability testing of the monitoring equipment. The facility was shut down from April to June, and July 2013 pollution was not reported. Plasco representatives assure me that non-toxic aggregate is now being produced, and have promised a tour. We’ll report back!

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

With no substantive proof of feasibility so far, and with Plasco meeting toxic emissions targets mainly by sitting idle most of the time, Ottawa has twice reaffirmed its faith in Bryden’s technology. In British Columbia, the Watershed Sentinel reported unsettling answers to fundamental questions, concluding that Plasco is a fraud. Following Plasco’s September 11th public open house in the food court at a local hockey rink, PCN is awaiting additional information such as dioxin analyses,as well as a tour of the Plasco pilot plant.

The Plasco deal with Ottawa lends the firm credibility as they approach other jurisdictions. Ottawa City Council owes it to both its citizens and others to halt what B.C. called the “Plasco Fiasco,” and proceed with non-toxic waste reduction approaches that have been extremely successful elsewhere. At a minimum, Council should proceed only in light of favourable independent peer review of the feasibility and implications of the Plasco plans. Council claims that there is nothing to lose allowing the Plasco deal to hang in unfunded limbo as Rod Bryden sells his dream to potential investors. What are the community’s lost opportunity costs from shelving waste reduction and diversion initiatives until after the next election, not to mention Ottawa’s reputation as a savvy, wise Council? Food for thought, fellow voters.

Meg Sears is an Ottawa Environmental Health researcher, and Board member of Prevent Cancer Now.

Also in the FALL 2013 Issue of An Ounce

Published: October 15th, 2013