How the city lucked out on Plasco

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Joanne Chianello, Ottawa Citizen

The city is having a little trouble extricating itself from its relationship with Plasco Energy. As our Matthew Pearson reports, the environment committee voted to officially cut ties with company on Tuesday, but city solicitor Rick O’Connor says the city can’t unilaterally cancel its contract with Plasco without a judge’s permission now that the company is under creditors’ protection.

It won’t be entirely smooth sailing over the next while for the city when it comes to Plasco, and not just because the city needs a court’s permission to unilaterally end its contract. Decommissioning the Plasco site, which sits on city land, looks like it’ll take 18 months. Plasco had already given the city a $300,000 deposit for the decommissioning and Tuesday, Kirkpatrick told councillors that he was “comfortable” that the deposit would cover the winding-down costs. Let’s hope he’s right.

Also over the years, the city has paid Plasco a so-called tipping fee to take our garbage for the company to process in its facility, although at the moment of the creditor protection filing, it’s the city that owes Plasco $15,000.

So, all in all, Ottawa taxpayers get off fairly lightly. (The people of Blind River were not so lucky, as the Citizen’s Vito Pilieci describes — they’re owed almost $18 million by Plasco).

But it wasn’t always clear that taxpayers were to be shielded from any possible Plasco fallout.

Indeed, in late 2011, the Citizen reported that the city was in discussions with Infrastructure Ontario, the provincial agency that lends money to to municipalities, about possibly getting Plasco a loan.

Here’s a bit from my Nov. 3, 2011 column:

On Tuesday, Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli told Citizen reporter Mohammed Adam that the city and Plasco had “made some preliminary contact with Infrastructure Ontario.” Also that the “city and Plasco have an agreement to move forward in partnership with an expanded facility.”

Infrastructure Ontario is owned by the provincial government. Among other things, the Crown corporation manages public infrastructure projects and doles out low-rate loans to back them. Chiarelli was quick to point out that he was not in any way involved in approving an Infrastructure Ontario loan.

The agency does not give loans to private companies, only to municipalities and related entities.

Soon after media reports about the city’s discussions with Infrastructure Ontario surfaced, all talk about the possibility of the city taking an equity stake in Plasco came to a halt. It’s hard to say for sure that it was media reports that ended those discussions, but we’d like to think our reporting had a hand in it!

And to be fair, there were many skeptical councillors who wouldn’t have supported the idea of taking an equity stake in Plasco and directed city staff to come up with a contract that posed virtually no risk to taxpayers. Which is more or less what happened. (Turns out, you get what you pay for.)

But there’s something else in this whole Plasco mess about which we can count ourselves lucky. We now have time to devise a proper garbage strategy. We’ve got 43 years left in the landfill, so there’s no need to rush to replace Plasco with another Plascoesque technology. As a city, we’ve reached a 52% diversion rate for curbside, so clearly there’s more to be done on that score. (The green-bin program has loads of room for improvement, from helping people use it more effectively, creating a workable strategy for buildings, and possibly renegotiating the contract.

Do we need a solution to handle the residual waste? Sure, eventually. But as Coun. David Chernushenko says, the key is to get that residual waste down to smallest amount possible and then burn it, or plasmify it, or whatever. The environment committee chairman — who appears to have the support of some councillors and all of the handful of public delegations who spoke to the Plasco file at Tuesday’s meeting — wants to make every effort to increase recycling and reduction, and that includes lobbying the province to change the packaging standards for manufacturers. (The province could also enforce its diversion targets for the IC&I sector — that’s industrial, commercial and institutional — which are woefully low.)

There’s plenty the city could do to extend the life of the landfill before taxpayers shell out tens of millions for some sort of incinerator. Perhaps we could consider fees related to the amount of garbage we produce, instead of a flat fee per home. The New York mayor, for example, announced last month that the city will ban single-use styrofoam by summer. There’s no reason Ottawa can’t do the same.

We’re lucky to have the opportunity to take another shot at waste diversion. We’re lucky we have the time to consider what could work more effectively and to try new strategies. And now we just need to see whether we’re lucky enough to have the political leadership to make a real change on how we produce and handle our garbage.