Garbage philosophy Is the thinking behind waste disposal based on environmental principles or on money? By Bob Barnett You pull up to the compactor, open the door, toss your bag of garbage in, close the door and forget about it. The scene is played out hundreds of times each day at Whistler’s two compactor sites. As the groan of the motor kicks in and the compactor ram crushes the garbage, you may move on to recycle some cans or paper, feeling a little smug knowing that you are doing your part for the environment. But garbage doesn’t disappear after you’ve closed the compactor door. For the past 22 years Whistler has been accumulating garbage at the landfill south of town. It’s buried there, out of sight and out of mind of most of us, but it isn’t gone forever. How long it will be there, and how much longer we will continue to add to the landfill, is anyone’s guess. Three years ago, the plan was that all landfills in the Sea to Sky Corridor, including Whistler’s, would be closed by 2000. Whistler, Squamish, Pemberton and other communities within the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District agreed, in October 1996, to a Solid Waste Management Plan that would have seen garbage from the corridor trucked to Surrey and then put on a train, where it would be shipped to the Rabanco landfill in south-eastern Washington state. In 1997 the Ministry of Environment approved this SWMP, as part of the province-wide directive that every regional district develop a plan to reduce the amount of solid waste generated per capita by 50 per cent (from 1990 levels) by the year 2000. But even before the province approved the SWMP, Squamish and Whistler were having second thoughts. A staff memo to Squamish council on Dec. 5, 1996 — less than two months after SLRD members had approved the SWMP — recommended closure of the Squamish landfill be delayed due to budgetary impacts. A Jan. 2, 1997 memo from staff to Whistler council recommended that extending the life of the Whistler landfill be investigated. In July 1997 Whistler council approved the phase I expansion of the Whistler landfill, which was expected to add another 2.5 years to the life of the facility. In the same resolution Whistler council chose to begin "exploring the option of extending the life of the Whistler landfill after the year 2000 for a period of 10 to 20 years." In addition to looking at a phase II landfill expansion Whistler also notified the SLRD that it recommended no further negotiations be carried out with regard to exporting garbage. The motivating factor, which took Whistler, Squamish and consequently the rest of the SLRD from approving in October 1996 a SWMP to close the landfills and export garbage, to cancelling the export plan and expanding landfills in July 1997, was money. As Brian Barnett, then the municipality’s deputy engineer, wrote in a July 7, 1997 report to council: "The SLRD were led to believe that the cost to export waste was only $550,000 per year more than expanding the landfill sites and disposing of the waste within the Sea-to-Sky Corridor. However, more recent cost estimates indicate the difference is closer to $1,600,000 per year." Whistler Councillor Ted Milner has questioned the cost comparison of the export option versus expanding the landfill (see Pique July 9) and a consultant hired by the municipality has said the difference isn’t as high as $1.6 million. But there is no doubt one of the fundamental factors in the whole garbage debate is that the landfill is a revenue producer for the municipality. Barnett’s 1997 report said the phase I landfill expansion would "generate approximately $2 million of revenue to help finance the landfill closure project." But a 1998 study by Stanley Consulting Group Ltd. estimated the cost of closing the phase I expansion at only $325,000. (The Stanley report also states the phase I expansion would now carry the municipality through to 2003.) And a parcel tax introduced Jan. 1, 1997 was designed to raise $500,000 annually for four years to cover the cost of closing the original landfill. Last January Whistler council voted 6-1 (Milner opposed) to approve the phase II expansion of the Whistler landfill, guaranteeing use of the facility until at least 2008. The road from the July 1997 decision to "explore the option of extending the life of the Whistler landfill after the year 2000," to authorizing the phase II expansion in January of this year was a simple progression through a number of check points. Last September, after an engineering study said leachate problems at the Squamish landfill were limited, Squamish council decided to expand its landfill to provide capacity to 2008. The next month the SLRD acted to revise the SWMP because neither Squamish nor Whistler was going to close their landfills by 2000, as was stated in the plan. The SLRD then requested Whistler council confirm its intent to operate the Whistler landfill until the end of 2008, consistent with Squamish’s plans. But even before Whistler council was presented with the request to keep its landfill open until 2008, municipal staff offered the carrot of an environmental legacy fund if the landfill stayed open. The fund was based on the higher "tipping" fees and solid waste user fees levied against homeowners for disposing of garbage at the landfill. The higher fees went into effect on Jan. 1, 1997 to cover the additional cost of exporting garbage. But when the export option was rejected the higher fees were maintained. Staff last year estimated the new fees would generate an additional $600,000 annually from 1998 to 2008. The interest from this environmental legacy fund could be spent on environmental projects. In January, results of the Stanley report were presented to Whistler council and the final decision was made to expand rather than export. However, due to decreases in the volume of material going to the landfill, the environmental legacy fund contributions were reduced from $600,000 annually to $300,000 annually. And that’s where the landfill expansion issue sits today. Because it is part of the regional district’s solid waste management plan, the phase II expansion of the Whistler landfill will have to be approved by the SLRD — which will hold public information meetings on the issue during the first two weeks of August — and ultimately by the province. But in practise it has been municipal governments which shape the SWMP. Which leads to the question: What is Whistler’s long-term plan for garbage disposal? There doesn’t appear to be a definitive answer. The Stanley report says the Whistler landfill could last from 10 to 35 years. The municipality’s official position is to review alternative disposal methods in 2004 to determine a course of action beyond 2008. Whether that position is consistent with the Vision 2002 document the municipality has been working on is open to interpretation. A draft of the Vision 2002 report last year suggested environmental stability in the face of growth and development is a top priority amongst Whistler residents. The municipality has also been working on a comprehensive, integrated environmental strategy for the last several years. One of the core objectives of the strategy is to establish an overall policy and guidelines that will allow sustainable development, which was defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development as "...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." And it may not be just Whistler’s garbage at the landfill. Some are concerned Whistler could become the region’s landfill after 2008, when Squamish is scheduled to close its facility. Making Whistler the corridor’s landfill site was one of the options presented by consultants back in 1995 when the SLRD was drafting its original SWMP. Then-mayor Ted Nebbeling flatly rejected that idea, and the export option was chosen. But as part of the export plan, Pemberton and Devine closed their landfills at the end of 1997 and garbage from Pemberton and Devine has been disposed of at the Whistler landfill ever since. Milner, who met with municipal staff last week regarding his concerns over the landfill expansion, said staff told him they are "not advocating (Whistler become the region’s landfill) at this time." Still, the wisdom of maintaining any landfill in a wet, alpine environment is something that has been questioned. Barnett, now the municipality’s manager of environmental services, notes that provincial regulations for landfills take into consideration siting issues such as climate and soil conditions and other local factors before an operational certificate is issued. He points out that both the phase I and phase II landfill expansions are lined to collect leachate from garbage. The leachate is then pumped through the municipal sewage treatment plant. The original landfill site, which has been in operation since 1977, did not have a liner to collect leachate until recently. Leachate has permeated soils around the original landfill but according to Barnett has not entered the Cheakamus River. Moreover, some studies have shown that adding water to landfills helps break down the material. In fact, at some landfills in the United States leachate material is recirculated, in a controlled manner, through the landfill to help the garbage decompose. Those arguments don’t satisfy critics, who say there is no way of knowing what percentage of the leachate in the Whistler landfill is collected. They also point out that heavy metals, solvents and other materials that end up in the landfill in the form of batteries or empty containers, can’t be neutralized just by running them through the sewage treatment plant. Milner points to United States Environmental Protection Agency regulations which state that "... even the best liner and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration." The municipality’s expert responds to that argument by saying the liner should last for 100 years and that the garbage should decompose in 30 years. Municipal staff and councillors who voted for the phase II expansion of the landfill also say that one of the premises of environmental sustainability is taking care of one’s own waste. The critics note that argument wasn’t brought forward when the plan was to export garbage. There are other questions about long-term remediation plans for the landfill site and what the area can be used for whenever it is deemed "full," or if Whistler-Blackcomb decides to put an access lift up the south side of Whistler Mountain. There are also questions about the impact extending the life of the landfill will have on the bear population. And there is the unknown factor. Who knows what was put in the landfill back in the late ’70s and early ’80s and whether there may be some sort of toxic brew simmering beneath the surface that has to be dealt with some day. Milner is not alone in raising these questions, but some others have declined to speak publicly because they have to deal with the municipality on a professional basis. The arguments for and against expanding the landfill go back and forth, but ultimately the decision seems to come down to a question of money. There is little doubt it is cheaper to continue to bury our garbage rather than export it, but how much cheaper and whether it is a false saving are the issues. The Stanley report says the difference in operating costs is about $750,000 annually, between 2004 and 2008. Milner takes issue with some of the assumptions made in the cost comparison in the Stanley report and doesn’t believe the price difference is as large as $750,000, although he doesn’t say what he thinks it would be. Milner is also worried the environmental legacy fund created by keeping the landfill open may ultimately have to be used to clean up the landfill site. And it has been suggested that the municipality’s system of promoting entrepreneurialism within departments, instituted nearly two years ago, may have influenced staff and consultants’ reports which have repeatedly favoured landfill expansion over exporting. These issues aren’t on many people’s minds when they toss their garbage in a compactor and close the door. But the out of sight, out of mind philosophy may hold long-term consequences.