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This Article is part of the Up in Smoke special report See the full report

Metro Vancouver's Burnaby incinerator burning through taxpayer money

Almost $100 million in upgrades to burn metro Vancouver's garbage and little revenue to show for it. Fifth in a three-month series.

Graphic by Codename Design

It’s a business model that would likely have gotten an executive team in trouble years ago.

In 2014, Metro Vancouver’s Burnaby waste-to-energy (WTE) facility will cost taxpayers $22 million to operate, including operating expenses and long-term debt servicing charges. On the revenue side, the facility will bring in just a quarter of that amount -- $5.7 million -- by burning garbage and selling electricity to BC Hydro.

Since 2006, the facility has regularly cost taxpayers more than twice what it generates in revenues.

On top of that, Metro Vancouver now has announced it will spend an additional $8 million this year on emission upgrades, adding to the $60 million already spent on improvement to the Burnaby WTE since it opened in 1988. Between 2012 and 2017, the Authority intends to spend an additional $37.5 million upgrading the WTE facility which regularly achieves emission targets set by government.

In total, almost $100 million will be spent on the incinerator since it opened. But the Burnaby waste-to-energy incinerator is a key component of an overall integrated solid waste plan passed by Metro Vancouver in 2010. Part of that is because waste to incineration still generates some income, even if not enough to offset the operating costs. 

Today, Metro Vancouver regional authority is now debating whether to spend an extra $480 million to build one (or more) new incinerators to handle the region’s future garbage.

It's a contentious proposal, with big money and big players involved. Several multi-national companies, including Covanta and BC’s Aquilini family, are queuing up to bid on the project. Meanwhile, the neighbouring Fraser Valley Regional District, a major BC business lobby and Vancouver city councillors are opposing incineration.

“City Council has made it clear since 2011 that we do not support the mass burning of garbage,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson in November. 

Half a billion taxpayer dollars

The BC Chamber of Commerce is also fighting the proposal, but more because they see it as a costly public project that could create a monopoly and shut out competitors. 

“Half a billion dollars is half a billion dollars we don’t have, so taxpayers ...can’t afford it,” says John Winters, president of the BC Chamber of Commerce.

“They (Metro Van) have a perfectly good system in place right now that is run by municipalities, and the private sector is doing an excellent job of keeping the landfills busy and diverting waste and getting recyclables out.”

“So here’s our government, that is not elected to do anything like this by the way, no accountability, spending half a billion dollars. It is really a sad state of affairs,” Winter said.

Generating electricity and dollars through incineration 

Proponents of the incinerator project, however, say the waste-to-energy incinerator is the best way to keep non-recyclable trash out of the landfills, while still making a bit of revenue from it. 

“I believe we are on the appropriate route," Brodie said in a recent interview with The Vancouver Observer“We rely on scientists and engineers, we rely on planners and all kinds of consultants and experts who will guide us.”

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Special reports

Up in Smoke

A plan by the Metro Vancouver regional authority would have taxpayers spending half a billion public dollars on an incinerator to solve the region’s garbage problem.  Would that send Vancouver's...