Haines Junction wants to change the way it deals with its garbage.
The mayor, George Nassiopoulos, has been touting for years a gadget that, if it works as promised, will gobble up garbage while producing few nasty emissions.
He sees the technology, known as gasification, as a green, clean way of the future.
But resident Dave Weir worries the device may put nasty chemicals into the air. He insists the project is a glorified incinerator – a charge the mayor disputes.
So does Rod Taylor. He’s best-known as the former ecotourism operator who unsuccessfully challenged Premier Darrell Pasloski for leader of the Yukon Party in 2010. But he’s also a founder of Waste to Energy Canada, a company that recently built a gasifier for Old Crow.
Gasification burns garbage at a low heat, with little oxygen. Bits of the trash start to vapourize and become gas. That gas is then used to blast the remaining garbage at extremely high temperatures.
This process destroys most dangerous chemicals, Taylor has said. What’s left is filtered, leaving an exhaust that’s no worse than what comes out of a truck, said Nassiopoulos.
Weir didn’t worry about the project until he started reading up about plants in Europe and Alaska, he said. He accuses the mayor of only considering information from industry.
No matter how hot or how well filtered, the gasifier will send tiny particles into the air and no one knows whether they’re harmful or not, said Weir.
“The science is inconclusive,” he said. “Certainly these modern incinerators are much better than the old ones, from an emissions point of view, but these particles are about one-thirtieth the size of a human hair. They cannot be accurately measured by weight, and that’s the way emissions are measured in our regulations and standards.
“We know that dioxins and heavy metals are bad. What we don’t know yet is whether nanoparticles of those things are worse, or better. But we do know that incinerators will put them out. And they’ll put them out right next to a residential area.
“Do we want to be the guinea pigs for this?”
Nassiopoulos asserts his research is balanced.
“I don’t feel I’ve just painted a rosy picture because I have nothing to gain from this,” he said. “I’m just doing the best I can to do my job as mayor to deal with the issues that face the community.”
And size makes a big difference, said Nassiopoulos.
The gasifier being proposed for Haines Junction will be much smaller than those in Alaska or Europe, he said.
The burner will be about 10 cubic metres, or the size of a camper trailer. It will only burn when there is a full batch, 20 to 30 times each year, and the exhaust stack will only be about four metres high, which will keep the exhaust within the community’s landfill, where the plant will be built.
Stantec, a consulting firm, was hired to look into health concerns and found none, said Nassiopoulos.
Weir is also concerned that the plant may harm the community’s recycling and compost goals. People may become lazy and take less time to sort their recyclables, he said.
But the town has no plans to stop recycling, said Nassiopoulos.
“We’re taking diversion very seriously,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is deal with stuff we can’t recycle.”
Options are limited, said Nassiopoulos: bury the garbage, ship it to Whitehorse using trucks that produce more exhaust than the plant would, or try gasification.
“You can’t have no impact,” he said. “We’re completely committed to recycling, and we’re not promoting laziness. If we get to a place where we can recycle 100 per cent, great. We can turn the thing off. But I think we’re a long way from 100 per cent diversion, and this is what we can do in the meantime.”
Weir’s also worried about finances.
In the past, Nassiopoulos told the town it will only cost about $1,000 each year in either diesel or propane.
“But a similar plant in Egegik, Alaska, costs about $21,000 in fuel each year, plus another $6,000 or so in maintenance costs. Another plant in Skagway shows fuel costs of $53,000 per year, and another $12,000 annually for maintenance.”
Nassiopoulos admits his $1,000 quote was a little low, but emphasizes that this plant would be much smaller, and newer than those in Alaska.
With some rough math, he figures about 300 gallons of fuel would be needed each year, costing about $2,000. But those numbers are not firm, he said.
The territory is studying the project’s details and costs. That report is expected by the end of this month.
The gasifier is expected to cost $500,000. The cost of the plant and renovating the dump is already earmarked in the territory’s 2012-13 portion of the federal Build Canada Fund.
The territory is prioritizing Haines Junction’s plans because it’s been identified as a regional facility, taking in garbage from Beaver Creek to Champagne, said Wes Wirth with Community Services.
But before that can happen, Weir and other concerned citizens have called for a referendum. They’ve suggested it be held in October, at the same time Nassiopoulous will have to rebid for his job.
Nassipoulos isn’t opposed to the suggestion. He just hopes community members accept the result, he said.
“Most people support the idea,” he added.
If the town does decide on the gasification plant, Nassiopoulos doesn’t expect it to be installed for another year.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at