Dave Hall has spent the past 12 year of his life working to divert mercury from Nova Scotia landfills. And with good reason.
Mercury is poisonous if absorbed through the skin. It’s a threat to the environment and — if it leaches into soil and groundwater or escapes as vapour — to human health. Noting that mercury cannot be destroyed, the World Health Organization promotes energy sources that do not burn coal (which contains mercury), advocates the end of using mercury in gold mining, and calls for the phase-out of non-essential products which contain the highly toxic chemical element and its compounds.
Halogen and energy-efficient LED bulbs do not contain mercury but consumers are often reluctant to purchase because they cost two to three times more than the older ones.
Hall’s company, Dan-X Recycling, collects and recycles tubes from fluorescent lights and “twisty” compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), both of which contain mercury.
Except Dan-X is no longer receiving enough bulbs to stay in business.
In February 2020, Nova Scotia Power stopped paying for the recycling costs associated with a province-wide mercury diversion program. Since that abrupt halt to the program, the supply of mercury-containing bulbs to Dan-X Recycling has dropped off a cliff.
“To give you an example,” explains Hall, “in 2019 we recycled 1.4 million fluorescent tubes (each four feet long). In 2020, we did 300,000. So there are 1.1 million fluorescent tubes that did not come through our facility.”
Each tube contains about four to five milligrams of mercury. Multiply by one million and that’s four or five kilograms of toxic material floating around somewhere in Nova Scotia, unaccounted for.
Showing me photos of old fluorescent tubes sticking out of garbage cans in Bedford, Hall goes on to estimate that the amount of CFL bulbs coming through the plant is down by 80%. “People put them in black garbage bags and they wind up in our landfill,” he says. “The bottom line is that bulbs that contain mercury should not go into our landfill because once mercury goes into the environment, it’s there forever.”
Hall started Dan-X Recycling with business partner Dana Emmerson (now deceased) in 2009. After discussions with then Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau, Dan-X purchased a $400,000 recycling machine in 2012. Hall claims Belliveau committed to banning mercury from landfills. But the NDP government in power at the time did not ban mercury from landfills, and the voluntary diversion program paid for by Nova Scotia Power has now ended.
Today, the Dan-X recycling plant operates for only one hour, every two weeks. It used to run an average of eight hours a day, five days a week.
“We’re living on borrowed time,” says Dave Hall simply. “We can’t continue without supply.”
While you may feel sympathetic about the potential loss of a small family business, there’s a much bigger concern. Since 2015, the program has diverted 175 kilograms of mercury from landfills, using Dan-X as the recycler. So where is this toxic waste going now?
“Into dumpsters,” is what Hall suspects, although he says managers at the Otter Lake solid waste station have told him that isn’t so.
Hall has also visited many large demolition projects over the past two years to see if they had mercury-containing tubes that needed recycled. The Sisters of Charity Motherhouse, the RCMP building on Oxford Street, St. Patrick’s High school, Armco at the Willow Tree, and CBC Bell Road are just a few sites top-of-mind. Any of those demolitions had the potential to funnel hundreds of fluorescent tubes and bulbs to Dan-X in Burnside. But that didn’t happen.
Hall says he recently fielded a call from a civil servant managing the changeout of lighting fixtures associated with the expansion of a hospital building. Upon learning the previous diversion program had disbanded, the manager told Hall, “There is nothing in my budget to pay for recycling costs.” Hall says he knows that one hospital has 6,000 bulbs in storage.
“I want Iain Rankin to say we are going to be the first province to ban mercury-containing light bulbs from landfills,” says Hall passionately. “We divert paint, heavy oil, and tires. I don’t understand why we can’t ban a hazardous substance such as mercury.”
At its heart, this is about who will pay to prevent mercury from contaminating the environment. Ironically, consumers and businesses got a free pass for five years because the province allowed Nova Scotia Power to use the program as a vehicle to offset airborne mercury emissions from its coal-fired plants. The province legislated a limit on mercury emissions to improve air quality under the Environment Act. It then allowed Nova Scotia Power to exceed that limit if it paid for the cost of diverting kilograms of mercury contained in used or obsolete fluorescent tubes and bulbs.
“Reducing the amount of mercury entering the environment from all sources is a focus for Nova Scotia and other jurisdictions,” emailed Department of Environment spokesperson Barbara MacLean. “The mercury diversion program allowed NSP to earn credits for kilograms of mercury diverted by recycling mercury-containing materials that may otherwise end up in the landfill or in the environment…NS Power maximized the amount it could apply toward over-emissions and chose to end the program in January 2020.”
The program diverted 175 kg of hazardous waste from landfills between 2015 and 2020, according to a news release from Efficiency One, the agency that administered the program. From 2015-2019 inclusive, NS Power’s website shows that its stations burning fossil fuels distributed 302 kg of mercury on to whatever body of land or water the winds blew it.
Dan-X estimates the program cost NS Power between $1 million and $1.2 million a year. It was administered by Efficiency One, who hired Scout Environmental to do the work. People and companies could drop off bulbs and tubes containing mercury at enviro depots or hardware stores like Kent and Canadian Tire. The material was then trucked to Dan-X in Burnside.
NS Power declined to confirm that amount or to provide a cost-estimate for the program. The Halifax Examiner asked NS Power if the company would consider reinstating the program to show it’s a good corporate citizen and environmentally responsible.
“While there are no plans to restart the program at this time,” replied NSP’s senior communications office Jacqueline Foster, “we take our commitment to the environment very seriously and always strive to be good stewards. As with any part of our operation, we also manage costs and consider what’s in the best interest of our customers.”
Foster didn’t offer an opinion about whether customers most value their health of their money.
Dave Hall says unless some entity steps up to pay for recycling mercury, construction companies can choose to put hazardous substances in black bags rather than pay a fee to Dan-X.
HRM takes a pass on mercury waste
Demolition permits issued by the Halifax Regional Municipality also allow contractors lots of leeway when it comes to disposing of tubes or bulbs containing mercury. It’s the contractor who decides what qualifies as “construction debris” or “salvageable material,” says HRM communications officer Laura Wright. If it is salvageable material, the contractor can dispose of it any way it sees fit. She continued:
“The municipality’s demolition permits stipulate the applicant shall dispose of the material in a specified location designed and authorized to accept construction debris. The diversion of any salvageable material not classified as construction debris is not regulated by the permit. The demolition permit approval process includes guidance for asbestos material. Asbestos is provincially regulated and is the responsibility of the contractor.” [emphasis added]
No previous government of any political stripe has regulated the disposal of mercury. Hall would like to see HRM councillors change the wording in the demolition permit to require companies to treat fluorescent bulbs with the same respect as asbestos. So far, no dice.
And there’s another sticky issue. Environmentally responsible companies that are willing to pay contractors a recycling fee to divert mercury-laced bulbs from the landfill should check with the recycler to make sure they actually got dropped off, suggests Devan Hall, the second-in-command to his grandfather.
The younger Hall says Dan-X is happy to provide companies with “recycling certificates” as proof their material was received by them, and the recycling fee didn’t wind up in someone else’s pocket.
Devan Hall says although Efficiency One has ramped up programs that cover a large percentage of the cost of energy retrofits for businesses, Dan-X recycling hasn’t seen any corresponding increase in the amount of bulbs containing toxic mercury. With Premier Rankin promising deep retrofits for Mi’kmaq communities and public housing in upcoming months, the Halls are eager to sit down with Environment Minister Keith Irving and talk about whether the province would consider spending a million dollars a year to divert mercury.
So far, Irving hasn’t managed to schedule a meeting, but the topic was raised in the legislature yesterday by Tim Halman, the Progressive Conservative MLA for Dartmouth East. Considering demolitions on the horizon for hospitals such as the Victoria General and the one in Truro, Halman asked: “Is the Environment Department working on the development of regulations for the safe disposal of mercury?”
The short answer is No. Here’s the longer response from Environment Minister Keith Irving:
“Second generation landfills that would receive mercury all have liners to contain any leachate to protect the environment. Landfills are strongly regulated and inspected. As well, we are transitioning away from mercury in light bulbs. But I do take your point about demolition and I will speak with staff to ensure what can be done to deal with mercury on projects of this size.”
Ottawa takes tentative first steps
In 2017, Dave Hall’s advocacy inspired Dartmouth MP Darren Fisher to introduce a private member’s bill. It passed, and in 2019, a national strategy to dispose of mercury-filled light bulbs safely and responsibly was tabled.
Hall supports the plan but says it won’t happen fast enough to save his company.
The National Plan includes:
• a proposal to amend regulations that would prohibit the importing and manufacturing of certain lamps containing mercury by 2023 or 2028.
• a strategy to increase public awareness that such light bulbs shouldn’t wind up in landfills, and that energy-efficient, mercury-free options are available, such as LED or halogen lights. (Hall says their retail price is two to three times more expensive than bulbs containing mercury, which discourages many consumers from buying LEDs.)
• a study by Environment and Climate Change Canada about using regulatory measures such as a ban on the disposal or mercury bulbs from landfills, with a preliminary report expected in 2022.
• encouraging provinces to implement or strengthen so-called “extended producer responsibility” programs, which leave producers on the hook for paying for the disposal of bulbs at the end of their life cycle. British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, and P.E.I. currently have such programs.
But Hall says the downside to these programs is many recycling companies crush and bury the bulbs as opposed to separating and recycling their components. At Dan-X, the glass is reused in septic systems, the metal in the end caps is sold, and the phosphorous powder — which contains the mercury — is shipped to the United States where it is used in the manufacture of new light bulbs.
Clearly frustrated by what he perceives as the glacial pace of political action at all three levels of government, Dave Hall asks: “Why won’t somebody — a government body of some kind — ban bulbs containing mercury from landfills? This is hazardous waste.”