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Mayor Q&A: Burnaby plan to build waste facility on wetlands a 'tough decision' — but necessary

"We have looked at every option. We have sweated over this; we have had sleepless nights over this," Mayor Mike Hurley said on the organic waste processing plant proposed for sensitive wetlands at Fraser Foreshore Park.
The City of Burnaby is proposing a 21-acre green waste facility at Fraser Foreshore Park.

Burnaby has been facing a significant amount of pushback on a proposal to carve out 21 acres of wetlands to build a green recycling organic waste facility.

The city says the green waste plant, called “GROW,” would process green waste from Burnaby and neighbouring communities and reduce the equivalent of 14,000 tonnes of carbon emissions (equal to taking 3,000 cars off the road), while local environmentalists and park-goers have expressed concerns about the sensitive wetland ecosystem at Fraser Foreshore Park.

But the mayor says there’s no alternative.

The Burnaby NOW sourced questions from reader letters and asked the mayor about the GROW facility proposal. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Facility location: ecologically sensitive

Burnaby NOW: Can you talk a little bit about the fact that this is an (ecologically) sensitive area? It’s been described as a “rare wetland tidal meadow,” and the city promised to protect the wetland meadow and parkland when it was originally dedicated. Why this spot?

Mayor Mike Hurley: It’s really the only spot that this can be done, and our staff has done an exhaustive list of properties. We recognize that there are a lot of concerns around this, and we share those concerns. However, trade-offs have to be made, and we have decided that we have a climate emergency and that we have to move forward in the best possible way that we can start finding solutions to meet the challenges ahead, which are huge. It’s going to take trade-offs; it’s going to take big moves, and this is one of those big moves that’s going to need to be made.

We’re all going to feel a little uncomfortable, or a lot uncomfortable with some of these moves. However, to meet our climate change targets, these moves have to be made.

I’m going to ask a few specifics about potential alternate (sites) because the city’s done an exhaustive search, but the public might not see that. For example, we’ve been asked about the Riverway Golf Course. Why are you choosing a park with sensitive wetlands versus a golf course, which is pretty close to the park area?

The Riverway Golf Course, apart from being a big part of Burnaby’s recreation facilities, is a sensitive area in itself. There’s much wildlife that thrives there; there are many, many important streams that run through there as well. … While some people may say, why not use that? It comes with just as many ecological challenges as the other piece of land.

One question we have from a letter writer: Burnaby has a reputation for having large cash reserves historically. Why not use some of it to purchase property somewhere and leave the parkland as is?

It’s not easy to find parcels of land in Burnaby. And if we could find a parcel of land to purchase for this that would be suitable for this type of facility, we would do that. Unfortunately, that land is very, very hard to find.

I know this has been discussed … but the 3990 Marine Way land, also nearby, was sold in 2019. Is there any comment on that land there?

That piece of property was looked at as well. There’s 12 usable acres there, but it also (is near) very important streams. … Number one, it’s not big enough. Number two, again, there’s ecological challenges there too.

Regional needs and city finances

This facility would help with regional needs for organic waste processing. What has Metro Vancouver contributed to this project?

We haven’t discussed this with Metro Vancouver at all. Our first and foremost (issue) is to take care of our own organics. That’s the most important thing to us, and we can do that in the most friendly way to our environment, instead of trucking it – who knows where in the province – with diesel trucks. That’s the number one thing. We haven’t sat down and had that discussion with Metro Van yet about what they might contribute, but first and foremost we’re responsible to look after our organics. That’s our first priority.

The reason the facility would be so large … at 150,000 tonnes of capacity, would be to eventually sell 100,000 tonnes of excess capacity to other municipalities. So why is it Burnaby’s responsibility to build a facility that large for the region’s needs?

It’s not Burnaby’s responsibility, but the reality is our needs are going to grow too. And if we get better at separating organics, many of our buildings are multifamily – we’re going to need much more capacity as our city grows. … If (there is) space left that our neighbours might be able to share, that’s something we would address at that time. But first and foremost, we’re responsible to look after our organics, and make sure they’re composted in the most environmentally friendly way.

The facility would cost Burnaby $182 million to build, and then you would save the $3.6 million currently spent on organic waste process. And you could potentially make about $1.8 million (on selling the excess capacity to other governments). There’s also going to be the RNG possibility, (which we) don’t have numbers for yet. Is the money you could make on this project … is it that much in the grand scheme of Burnaby’s financial plan?

This is not at all about anything financial for us. This is about doing the right thing: looking after our organics and attacking, in the right way, on climate change. Our community has demanded that we declare a climate change emergency. We have to treat this like an emergency. We have got six years between now and getting … our emissions down. This is an emergency. So it’s going to take big moves. We’re not looking at this through any financial lens, we’re looking at this as something we must do. It’s not a “nice to have.” … This is something that must be done.

This has been a difficult decision for council, really, really difficult, and it’s sat heavy with many of us. I know it’s caused me sleepless nights, and I’m sure other councillors too. These are tough decisions. Very tough decisions. But at the end of the day, we have to meet these targets. That’s what we’ve promised to do, and that’s what we’re going to do.

Environmental issues

You’re saying these big moves will require trade-offs. But why is the trade-off basically vulnerable animals that have limited habitats? … This is pitting environmentalists versus environmentalists … Why not just take 5,000 cars off the road and make streets carless?

Those kinds of moves are likely going to have to follow up as we head towards zero emissions by 2050. I mean, this is just the start. We don’t start these moves right away, all this accumulates, and it gets harder and harder to meet our targets. There are many other moves, like you’ve suggested, that will have to be made as we move along. This is just the start. It’s not for anyone to think this is going to be an easy job to get down to zero emissions. This is going to be very, very difficult, and I’m very aware of the challenges ahead.

The city’s environmental strategy states over and over again that (the city) wants to “protect and enhance habitat on public and private lands,” and it wants to “encourage development that respects and reduces the impact to our ecosystems and wildlife.” This seems contrary to that.

Actually, we’re going to enhance the wildlife strategy by a three-to-one ratio because of this move. We’re also still adding more and more lands to our parks, and we intend to continue down that strategy of adding to and enhancing. Everything we do is done with that lens.

On the … compensation package, one person wrote us and said they were “puzzled” by the enhancement compensation and asked why the enhancement was only offered when there’s the removal of a park at stake.

The enhancement’s ongoing; it never ends for the city. Our staff are working on this everyday. Sure, it’s not out there being publicized, but our staff are working very, very hard to ensure that we’re looking after every aspect of our environment. I think we can hold our heads up when it comes to looking after streams and daylighting our streams, and we’re certainly a leader in that … and will continue to be a leader.

One writer says that this area was previously enhanced as a salmonid habitat. So … that habitat will be destroyed and supposedly compensated with other habitat restoration. Isn’t that kind of defeating the purpose of habitat restoration in the first place?

I don’t believe so. I believe that we’re going to improve on every aspect there. … I understand that people will come up with reasons not to do this. I could come up with many myself. But our job as a council is to find solutions, and this is the best solution we can come up with.

Some people are quite frustrated. They’ve written us to say, when this was dedicated as parkland, the covenant did not read “unless something else comes up,” (and) once you allow one excuse to develop greenspace, there’ll be 100 other requests. Can you speak to whether or not there will be other parkland that would be undedicated?

No, there’ll be absolutely no other parkland undedicated in any way, shape or form. This is something that, as I said, is a huge trade-off, not a very comfortable one, but one that we have to do because we’re responsible for our own organics in the city. … We want to do this in a circular kind of way. … Out of this process that’s happening, we’ll have our own RNG that will allow us to move away from diesel trucks for our heavy-duty fleet. … These are all moves that are being made with that reduction in carbon in mind.

Civic engagement

On your end, the city knows what options have been considered, but I don’t think the public feels that they know what decisions have and haven’t been considered. Why hasn’t this come to council since 2019? Why haven’t there been updates or more opportunities for engagement prior to this plan coming now?

It's been worked on for a long time, but it takes our staff a long time to go through these processes of looking at every possible opportunity to do this somewhere else … It’s very hard to make decisions until you’ve gone down all those roads. So, as soon as you have decided that this is the one we have to look at, then we’ve gone to the public.

This goes to the alternate approvals process. Why was this process chosen instead of going to a referendum or even on last year’s ballot?

It wasn’t done on time for last year’s ballot, number one. And number two, we are in an emergency. We’re not in a marathon here. We need to move.

Is there anything else that would maybe assuage the public? Or is it just “trade-offs have to be made”?

There’s not much more I can say. We have looked at every option. We have sweated over this; we have had sleepless nights over this. And really, there’s no other alternative. If this facility doesn’t go there … it’s not going to happen. And, therefore, we’ll be trucking our organics somewhere in the province, and that’s not good.

Is there anything that should be asked?

We need to talk about this circular piece, and that our organics are going to start compounding. It’s a composting facility that’s going to give us good compost for our city facilities, and hopefully for city gardens as well, which is better for the environment because it’s circular. Also, the RNG, which we’ll be putting directly towards our fleet, which will allow us to move away from a diesel fleet in the most environmentally friendly way. … Then we add that into our district energy system, which will be coming right out of their facility beside that. That’s really going to be the engine that’s going to go a long way to us meeting our climate change targets.