Two conveyer belts filled with garbage are seen sloping up toward the ceiling in an industrial setting. In the centre-right of the frame, a worker wearing a high-visibility orange suit, blue hard hat, and respirator mask operates the conveyer belt to the right.
A worker operates a conveyer belt in the front end processor at Otter Lake in a photo in a slide deck included in a staff report to council. — Photo: HRM

Halifax says its waste diversion tactics have been so successful that it no longer needs to sort household garbage coming into the Otter Lake landfill.

But the community monitoring committee overseeing that landfill isn’t convinced, pointing once again to an agreement with HRM that it says requires the municipality to continue the unique process it’s used since the landfill opened in 1999.

Household garbage collected in HRM, more than 45,000 tonnes annually, goes to the Otter Lake landfill just off Highway 103 opposite Timberlea.

The landfill has a pair of facilities — the front end processor (FEP) and waste stabilization facility (WSF) — meant to work in tandem to keep compost and other unwanted materials out of the landfill. That process is supposed to keep birds, rodents, and smells at bay, and keep groundwater uncontaminated.

When garbage trucks pull up to Otter Lake, they dump their loads onto the floor of the FEP. The waste then goes through stages of sorting. First, big bulky items, recyclables, and things like gas cylinders and batteries are sorted out, and then the larger material goes directly to the landfill and smaller material goes to the WSF for stabilization. In the WSF, the smaller waste is aerated and turned for 15 days, and then sent out to the landfill as low-grade compost.

The process came from the 1995 Integrated Waste/Resource Management Strategy, adopted by the municipalities that later became HRM — Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, and Halifax County. That strategy was focused on composting, and led to HRM’s green cart program in 1999 — one of the first in North America. It also set the parameters for a new landfill in response to the community concerns from the last dump, along Highway 101 in Sackville.

Workers sort garbage in the front end processor at Otter Lake in a photo from a slide deck included in the staff report to council. — Photo: HRM

That strategy reads in part:

All mixed waste will go to Front-End Processing Facilities to extract any remaining recyclables, compostables and hazardous substances. This will not only capitalize on their resource value but will also ensure that no material is sent for residuals disposal (landfill) without processing. This will avoid problems such as toxic leachate and emissions, odours, or the attraction of birds and/or vermin. No material will be disposed of without processing.

The front end processing is also mentioned in the 1999 agreement between the municipality and the Halifax Waste Resource Society, which was established along with the Otter Lake Community Monitoring Committee to represent the interests of people in the adjacent communities of Beechville, Lakeside and Timberlea.

That agreement mentions the FEP and WSF in the definitions, and says “‘Facilities’ means the FEP/WSF Facilities and the RDF [Residuals Disposal Cells] Facilities.” Later on, it says, “It is recognized and understood that HRM will cause the Facilities to be developed and operated at the Site,” and “It is the intention of HRM that the Facilities will be operated by a private sector
Operator under contract between the Operator and HRM.”

It continues:

It is understood and agreed that only Acceptable Waste will be authorized for disposal in the Residual Disposal Cells. It is further understood and agreed that any contract between HRM and an Operator of the RDF Facilities will impose on the Operator the obligation not to dispose of in the Residual Disposal Cells material other than Acceptable Waste.

The municipality argues that language doesn’t mean it has to continue front end processing, just that it has to keep “material other than acceptable waste” out of the landfill.

In a report to council last week, Andrew Philopoulos, HRM’s director of solid waste resources, made the case for shutting down the FEP and WSF. Philopoulos cited a report by Dillon Consulting, which analyzed the use of the FEP and WSF in 2018, and then updated its report in 2020

Based on the results of this analysis, there does not appear to be any significant benefit to the continued operations of the FEP/WSF,” the Dillon report concluded.

“Further, there does not appear to be any increased risk to public health and the environment if the FEP/WSF operations are terminated. Therefore, it is recommended that operations at the FEP and WSF be discontinued.”

An overhead photo from a slide deck included in the staff report to council shows the Otter Lake landfill. — Photo: HRM

If the FEP and WSF were closed, trucks would dump the garbage onto the tipping face close to the landfill. The waste would be visually inspected there for prohibited material before being dumped into the landfill cell currently in use, Cell 7a.

The closure would also mean “small quantities of recyclables,” up to 2% or 1,000 tonnes annually of incoming waste, would end up in the landfill, Philopoulos wrote. And HRM’s diversion rate — the percentage of its waste kept out of the landfill — “would drop from 60% to approximately 57% as result of deactivating the FEP/WSF (maintaining HRM’s standing as one the top three cities, amongst participating municipalities in the Municipal Benchmarking Network).”

The increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the extra garbage in the landfill is expected to be offset by the decrease in energy consumption from the facility, Philopoulos wrote.

If closed, the facilities would be placed in standby so they could be started up again in the future.

Third time’s the charm for Halifax?

This is not the first time HRM has made this proposal.

In January 2013, a different consultant, Stantec, recommended HRM shut down the front end processor and waste stabilization facility, arguing the facilities “do not provide a useful function compared to their stated purpose in the 1995 Strategy.” SNC Lavalin reviewed the Stantec study and came to the same conclusion.

In April 2013, council voted to start a consultation process on the change, and the provincial legislature passed a resolution “that all members of this House of Assembly direct the Minister of Environment to reject any requested changes to the Otter Lake Waste Management Facility operating permit that would remove the requirement of front-end separation and waste stabilization.” Then-Environment Minister Sterling Belliveau also wrote to the mayor to notify council that the province wouldn’t approve changes to the FEP or WSF at Otter Lake.

Public consultation identified widespread opposition to the idea, and in December 2014, council voted to maintain the status quo and have staff return to council “no earlier than March, 2019 with a report and recommendation respecting the effectiveness of the front end processor facility and waste stabilization facilities based on system and other changes since conception including diversion outcomes resulting from the changes currently being implemented.”

Garbage on the tipping room floor in the front end processor at Otter Lake in a photo in a slide deck included in the staff report to council. — Photo: HRM

In the meantime, council implemented a limit of four garbage bags per household, required (mostly) clear bags, and started allowing the export of industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) waste — garbage from businesses, apartments, and other commercial buildings, which tends to contain more compost — to landfills in other municipalities.

In the latest report, Philopoulos wrote that those changes had a “significant impact on the quantities of waste being processed through the FEP/WSF and disposed of in the landfill at Otter Lake.”

“As a result, the total quantity of waste processed through the FEP/WSF and landfilled at Otter Lake has dropped from over 134,000 tonnes (2014/2015) to just over 45,000 tonnes (2016/2017) after one year of both policies being implemented,” Philopoulos wrote.

The clear bag policy and the elimination of ICI waste coming into Otter Lake has also meant that there’s much less compost, or “putrescible” material, in the trash — down from 19,000 tonnes in 2014 to 4,100 tonnes in 2019.

Cell 7A at Otter Lake — the one currently in use — is seen in a photo in a slide deck included in the staff report to council. — Photo: HRM

HRM also made a new agreement in 2016 with the contractor that runs the landfill on its behalf.

Mirror Nova Scotia, a subsidiary of the Municipal Group of Companies, which also owns Dexter Construction, has operated the landfill since it opened.

Under the new agreement, the municipality agreed to pay a per-tonne fee that includes the cost of capping and creating landfill cells. The municipality used to squirrel money away in reserve accounts for that purpose, but now just pays Mirror about $130 per tonne of trash delivered, and that payment covers everything.

Built into that contract, meant to last 20 years, is an option for Mirror “to provide notice of early of termination in the event that the legal entitlements have not been amended to remove the obligation to operate the FEP/WSF,” according to Philopoulos’ report. If Mirror exercises that option, HRM’s tonnage fee increases to $170 until termination at the end of 2023, when it would need to hire a new operator.

Committee still opposed to closure

In 2018, Mirror and HRM went to the Otter Lake Community Monitoring Committee with the Dillon Consulting report to propose the shutdown of the FEP and WSF. The committee rejected the proposal in a letter from executive director Reg Rankin, a former Halifax regional councillor, arguing that the agreement between HRM and the Halifax Waste Resource Society requires the processing.

There was little progress until November 2020, when the municipality told the committee at a meeting that it was planning to apply to close the FEP and WSF. Committee chair Scott Guthrie wrote a letter to HRM asking for more details, and in December 2020, Philopoulos replied with the Dillon report attached, writing:

The FEP/WSF were implemented based on the Strategy as a safeguard in the event that the broader HRM community did not embrace source separation at a time when HRM did not have an organics program. Today, HRM’s organics program is mature and has significantly changed the composition of waste being sent to Otter Lake, namely a significant reduction in the quantity of putrescible food waste. Additionally, with Regional Council’s decision to allow for the exportation of commercial waste outside the boundaries of HRM in 2015, the quantity of waste being disposed of at Otter Lake has been reduced by more than two thirds and is currently generally limited to only residential waste.

HRM remains fully committed to environmental protection. To that end, HRM staff believe that Otter Lake can be operated in an environmentally sound manner, fully compliant with provincial regulations, without the FEP/WSF. This includes no impacts to the local community. Additionally, this measure will help reduce long-term costs to operate Otter Lake.

In a March 2021 letter to the mayor and councillors, Guthrie, as president of the Halifax Waste Resource Society, argued any changes to the process at Otter Lake are subject to the renegotiation of the agreement between the Society and HRM. Guthrie also noted HRM and Mirror had presented no alternative to the current process, opting instead to just dump waste directly into the landfill. He wrote that the society is “considering next steps, if deemed necessary, to stop this continual attempt by HRM staff to remove the current regulations.”

At council last week, the issue was punted to a future committee of the whole meeting. Coun. Iona Stoddard, representing Timberlea-Beechville-Clayton Park moved to defer the item to give the Community Monitoring Committee more time to organize its response. At that meeting, councillors will be able to speak more than the two times allowed during regular meetings.

That future meeting has yet to be scheduled.

If council does approve the change, the municipality and Mirror will make an application to the provincial Department of Environment and Climate Change.

Despite the province’s previous opposition to any changes to the processing at Otter Lake, Philopoulos wrote that the minister “would be required to consider an application from HRM and Mirror to amend the operating permit in accordance with the requirements of the Environment Act and the regulations thereunder.

“There is no legislative or regulatory requirement that municipal solid waste must be processed or treated to reduce its potential to generate landfill gas, leachate, and/or odour,” he wrote. “Otter Lake is currently the only landfill in Nova Scotia that operates a FEP/WSF.”

If Iain Rankin — son of Reg Rankin, executive director of the Community Monitoring Committee — can hold onto the Premier’s Office in the upcoming election, that will be an even tougher sell for HRM.

Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. It is truly amazing how the neoliberals will come up with contorted reasoning to justify not paying a few people wages. Mind you, paying the Municipal Group huge profits is OK – it’s actually a thing with the province too. Keep the front end processing, keep the few jobs it creates, keep the stuff out of the landfill that doesn’t belong there. The one thing that should be changed is having HRM take over the actual running of the landfill instead of throwing money to a private operator.

    It’s also important to note that HRM’s stellar record is dependent on a whole lot of our garbage (the ICI) being shipped out to other municipalities. There should be a province wide strategy for dealing with human waste (first by reducing it) and, except in exceptional circumstances or where it is better for the environment, that waste should be dealt with close to where it is created.