Something's rotten in the city of Hamilton
Photos by Hannah Walters-Vida
As a result of severe odour issues this summer, Hamilton’s central composting facility has been shut down for the past five months. The odour issues bring up questions about the long-term future of the plant and its place in the city.
The Dirt on the Plant
The Hamilton central composting facility opened in 2006 after a citizens’ committee appealed to the city to implement a waste diversion plan.
In 2012, the city set the goal of diverting 65 per cent of its waste from landfills by 2021. As of mid October of this year, only 45.4 per cent of total waste was diverted.
The city identifies the central composting facility as a key component of the waste diversion strategy.
According to the 2017 Public Works Odour Mitigation update, “The CCF is a major component of the City’s integrated waste management system which strives to increase overall waste diversion to extend the lifespan of the City’s Glanbrook Landfill.”
Raising a stink
Over the past two years, citizens have been affected by unpleasant odours coming from the plant.
While the plant is located in the industrial sector on Burlington Street East, it is close enough to north end residential neighbourhoods for the odours to carry over.
The cause of the odours likely stems from a 2016 provincial ruling that increased the mandatory moisture percentage for curing compost.
According to Cornell University, compost that is too moist can produce a strong sulfurous odour due to anaerobic conditions that arise.
Following the provincial ruling, there were isolated complaints of odour coming from the plant. In 2016 the city received 20 odour complaints related to the CCF, and in 2017 they received 10.
However, in June of 2018, the odour problems intensified. Residents in the Grenfell Avenue area began complaining of putrid odours.
For two weeks, the smell was so strong that residents had to shut windows to prevent the smell from entering into their homes.
According to councilor Sam Merulla, until this past summer the odour problems coming from the CCF had been isolated. The city had plans in place to deal with the odour issues on a smaller scale.
“It went from being an acute problem to a chronic problem, but we had a plan in place to deal with the acute nature of it,” stated Merulla. “But then when it became chronic it was just beyond repair, that's why we had to shut it down.”
No Time to Waste
On June 25, the CCF stopped accepting new organic material and the city went about the process of temporarily shutting down the facility.
Waste management staff began an investigation into the underlying causes of the odour issue. It was announced that operations would not be resumed until the issues had been addressed.
Immediately following closure, green waste was shipped to the Glanbrook landfill.
This past September, council directed staff to seek out of town compost facilities to take some of Hamilton’s green waste.
The Hamilton public works department did not return a request to comment on the current state of out of town shipments. The city has also not made it clear how much, if any, green waste is being diverted to landfill while the plant awaits its reopening.
Beginning April 1, the city will temporarily ban leaf and yard waste from green bins. It will instead be composted in open air piles in the Glanbrook landfill.
Another short-term initiative that the city implemented in response to the shut down was to offer free in-house compost bins for wards one to five residents to compost household waste in their own backyards.
According to environment Hamilton executive director Lynda Lukasik, this could be a viable strategy to ease pressure on the CCF even when it reopens.
“To encourage people to keep the stuff if they've got a backyard, keep those organics on their property and put them to good use, supplementing garden soil, that's a pretty good idea,” stated Lukasik.
Mulch More to do
The city is currently working towards a startup plan for the CCF. The plan will identify the cause of the odours and outline a strategy for responsibly reopening the plant. The plant cannot be reopened until the province approves the plan.
The city was expected to submit the plan by Nov. 14, but as of yet it has not been completed.
Key long-term issues for the plan to address include odour mitigation, capacity, location, and operation.
When the odour issues began in 2016, the city investigated a number of odour mitigation methods.
Carbon filters were recommended, as they were the simplest, required the least modifications, and were the most cost effective.
The city was waiting on provincial approval to implement carbon filters when the chronic odour problems at the plant began.
The startup plan will have to outline strategies for odour mitigation in order for the province to grant permission to reopen the plant.
The CCF has been accepting green waste from Halton and Simcoe regions to increase revenue. However, recent odours cast into question whether the plant has the capacity to accept more waste from neighbouring communities.
Lukasik stated that the facility should aim to fulfill Hamilton’s needs first, and then think about bringing in waste from other communities.
“[The challenge is] striking the right balance between ensuring that Hamilton is properly served and then figuring out, ‘is there any space left that we can safely use to bring in more?’” said Lukasik.
The location of the facility has been contested since its inception. Its proximity to residential areas in the north end of the city causes odours to be noticeable from people’s homes.
Air quality issues have historically disproportionately affected residents in the lower city. A 2011 mobile air monitoring study conducted by Rotek Environmental Inc. demonstrated that the north end of the city experiences higher than average levels of air pollutants.
Merulla contested the location when the plant was built in 2006. He argued that it should be placed somewhere further away from residential areas.
“I personally believe there should be a policy in place that it has to be within a certain radius of a residential area,” said Merulla. “So I thought that a rural setting would be better.”
Lukasik noted that its current location also has its benefits. Namely, the proximity to users reduces the length of routes.
“If you think about the fact that the bulk of the population is much closer to where the facility is located right now, versus if we had the facility on the outer edge of the city, just from a collection and delivery to the facility point of view, to me it makes sense that it's here,” she said.
The operation of the plant is another long-term question to consider.
The city owns the plant but AIM Environmental operates it. In 2012, city council voted to extend AIM Environmental’s contract until 2020.
Especially in light of the recent odour issues, Merulla has been advocating to publicize the plant’s operations.
“Anything to do with what I see as essential — public transit, waste management, the core services that we provide, I'm a true believer that they should never be within the hands of the private operator,” stated Merulla.
The city has two years until the contract with AIM Environmental runs out, at which point they will decide whether to bring operation in house.
Hamilton’s rapidly expanding population and ambitious waste diversion targets will put increasing pressure on the city’s composting facilities in the years to come.
Merulla noted that it is important to take the time to properly deal with the issues before reopening the plant.
“The thrust of the initiative is to do it right, not hastily,” he stated. “Once we are confident that the issue has been dealt with and it's not going to be repeated, then it will be up and running.”