Faced with unsustainable costs, the Yukon government closes rural waste management facilities

·6 min read

There is no “away,” as in to “throw away.” As every household chore manager knows, to throw away does not mean in the waste basket, or just the garbage can. Somebody has to sort it, bag it and take it out to the street.

And still, it has not gone “away.” Not everyone has street pick-up. Rural folks drive their garbage to landfills and recycling centres. That waste is transferred to Whitehorse by truck, and some of the reusable and recyclable waste is shipped south.

It’s a complicated and expensive system to manage. Politicians are feeling the heat about their proposed closures in Keno City, Silver City, Braeburn and Johnson’s Crossing.

“At this stage, nobody’s paying the full cost of garbage production,” said Richard Mostyn, Yukon’s minister of community services. “They are paying a portion of the cost, but they get to know how much it is costing the territorial government and municipalities to deal with garbage.”

According to the 2018 Ministerial Advisory Committee’s Report on Solid Waste, there are 27 waste management facilities that serve the residential Yukon population. These 27 facilities are operated by two government departments, eight municipalities and are permitted by Environment Yukon. Highways and Public Works is responsible for three, and Community Services operates 11 community landfills and five transfer stations.

Not included in the report are the industrial/mine permits issued to mining operations in the territory. Environment has an agreement with the ‘compliance monitoring and inspections’ branch within Energy, Mines and Resources to inspect permitted commercial dumps that are associated with mines. The environmental health branch in the department of Health and Social Services permits sewage disposal sites.

The streamlining, standardization and rationalization of costs has been on the government agenda for many years. Higher standards, better processes, expectations of diversion, ever-increasing quantities of waste and climate change urgencies are all adding to the pressure to do something.

The president of AYC, Gord Curran, said, “Some of the considerations were the need to manage better environmental risk, operate using clear standards, and have comparable user fees at all municipal and YG sites. This meant that all sites needed attendants, gates, and, potentially, infrastructure upgrades. As a result, the potential for closing smaller facilities within a reasonable distance from regional facilities was discussed as part of the rationalization of services, but mainly by YG since they operated the smaller sites.”

Curran continued, “Municipalities never dictated or advocated that they should be closed. However, I distinctly remember advocating to YG that the communities affected by the closures need to be consulted about the changes.”

Mostyn maintains that both he and his predecessor minister and colleague, John Streicker, have been engaged and listened to community voices on multiple occasions. For politicians it has not been easy, while residents don’t feel heard. Residents have suggestions and ideas to help make things more workable.

“I have no doubt that the elderly will find ways to carpool and work together and really build community around this as well,” Mostyn said. “I mean, this is about innovation. I have every confidence in their ability to innovate and come up with solutions to this new way of dealing with our waste in the territory making for a cleaner, better territory.”

Perhaps other solutions will be generated next week, when Mostyn travels north on the Alaska Highway to meet with residents affected by the proposed closure at Silver City.

The total operational costs for all 27 locations came in around $3 million, not including transportation, recycling and composting. Including these other costs brings the total figure to the report’s stated $10.5 million in 2018, at least $11 million now.

“Simply, it is not sustainable,” Mostyn continued. “So if you produce garbage, you will pay a portion. Twenty per cent of the cost of dealing with that garbage is going to be paid by the person producing it.”

But this deal is not done yet. The Yukon government still needs to reach agreements with municipal landfills. The release reads “As these agreements are reached, the Government of Yukon will close down the smallest, most expensive (per capita) transfer stations and concentrate savings into regional landfills.”

These new regional agreements between YG and municipalities are in the works. Officials with Mayo, Haines Junction and Teslin confirmed that the agreements are just being negotiated now. Dawson, Whitehorse and Watson Lake already have agreements to accept waste from outside their boundaries.

There is a shortage of data on waste volume and weight that is handled in the system. Scales might be needed and databases developed to track and cost. Tipping fees seem to have been accepted at Marsh, Mount Lorne, Tagish and Carcross for over a year now. The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) with industry is being fast-tracked in Environment as part of Our Clean Future.

These sometimes contentious principles of garbage and producer pay, and whether or not rural service delivery expectations are realistic and affordable, and who incurs tourist burden — all come dangerously close to the elephant in the room. A councillor who declined to be identified, whispered that it has been many decades since a rural property tax increase has happened in the territory. Questions of what is fair varies by the beholder.

Achieving parity is problematic. Communities don’t want to be held to a higher standard than industrial mine sites, and the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) is concerned about that as well. It is a problem of bad actors.

Lewis Rifkind of YCS wrote in an email that “any large industrial operation generates large amounts of waste is of concern (think antifreeze alone) and it all has to be disposed of properly. The responsible companies do a good job, it’s the irresponsible ones that YCS gets worried about. We’re utterly dependent on the mining inspectors to monitor and control this.”

Mike Bailey, the operator of the Mount Lorne Community Transfer station with 30 years of experience in solid waste would like to see investment in innovative infrastructure and, have the federal government phase out or ban the production of the plastics that resist recycling (specifically numbers 6 and 7), like happened with chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in the eighties.

People with different kinds of experience like Bailey and Rifkind were not on the Ministerial Advisory Committee, nor was anyone from an unincorporated community.

It’s a problem of smallness, remoteness and fair attribution of the benefits and burdens of a political society, and the need for compromise between efficiencies and flexibility.

Somebody has to take out the garbage.

Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Yukon News

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