Proposed green waste facility in burnaby axed after public outcry and grassroots organizing

Burnaby’s proposed organic waste facility is a gas plant masquerading as climate progress, and the city is proposing to destroy protected wetland habitat to build it.

A version of this article was published as an OpEd in the Burnaby Now on March 13th, 2023. Shortly after the article was published, and after hundreds of Burnaby residents wrote to city council, handed out flyers, and voiced their opposition, Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley directed Burnaby City Council to reverse their prior decision to consider Burnaby Fraser Foreshore park as a site for this project. Mayor and Council also vowed to reconsider future use of the un-democratic Alternative Approval Process mentioned in this article.

The battle over the location of Burnaby’s Green Recycling and Organics (GRO) facility has been framed as a choice between climate progress and habitat preservation, when in fact its ability to advance climate progress is weak at best.

Destroying a wetland

The proposed facility will result in the loss of 21-acres of dedicated parkland, including eight acres of sensitive wetland habitat. Fraser Foreshore Park–selected as the GRO facility’s potential site–is a large parcel of undeveloped green space situated among a sea of warehouses. A city sign that greets visitors to the park describes it as containing “a diversity of habitat types which are becoming scarce in the Fraser River; mature cottonwood forest, river estuary, tidal lagoon, tidal meadow, and old field meadow.”

Map showing where the GRo facility is located. It takes up a large portion of the Fraser Foreshore Park.
Proposed footprint of the GRO facility (yellow) within Fraser Foreshore Park.
Satellite imagery of the extent of industrial and agricultural development in the area.
Satellite imagery of the extent of industrial and agricultural development in the area.

In the Lower Fraser Region–defined as the area between Hope and Delta–more than 71,000 hectares of historic wetland habitat has already been lost. These are lands that used to provide refuge for juvenile salmon and migratory birds, sequestered carbon, and managed flooding. Protecting the small pockets of wetland habitat that still exists is therefore critical for supporting the recovery of species that rely on them.

The proposed GRO facility site was also the recipient of a habitat restoration project in 2001, which was designed to compensate for habitat loss elsewhere, putting into question the usefulness of Burnaby’s plan to offset the loss of this habitat with restoration work of their own. The irony of planning to compensate for the destruction of habitat that was created through prior compensation is palpable. In addition, a 2016 study on habitat compensation projects in the Lower Fraser region determined that only 33% of projects actually accomplished the goals they set out to. 

“Renewable Natural Gas”

What is incredible too, is that a facility being touted by the city as an “important step towards becoming a carbon neutral city” would in fact be designed to generate greenhouse gasses. Referred to by many names–“biogas”, “renewable natural gas (RNG), “biomethane”–the outcome is simple and troubling: the gas to be produced by the GRO facility is methane, a potent greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the warming power of CO2

Unmentioned by proponents of the GRO project is that one of the foundational purposes of composting is to reduce the amount of methane generated when green waste goes to landfill. This is accomplished by keeping the decomposition process aerobic, as methane-producing microbes are not active when oxygen is present. The GRO facility on the other hand, will deliberately maintain an anaerobic environment in order to generate methane.

Gas companies have a well-documented infatuation with “renewable natural gas”. It is the industry’s latest tool since the term “natural gas” was coined in the attempt to keep the public attached to a product that is increasingly being identified for its role as a harbinger of climate change and children’s asthma. It is unsurprising then, that the city has entered into an offtake agreement with FortisBC to sell excess methane not sent to Burnaby’s gas lines. Given the link between the increased use of RNG and rate hikes in other jurisdictions, FortisBC is no doubt eyeing the GRO facility as a revenue generating machine. 

By continuing to invest in new gas producing facilities, Burnaby is also supporting the maintenance of existing gas infrastructure well into the future, hindering the push to electrify other sectors and activities, including home heating, cooking, and transportation. 

Renewable natural gas projects are useful in some contexts like sewage treatment, where the production of methane is unavoidable. The capture of methane in these processes can contribute less to the greenhouse effect but ultimately, methane warms the planet when it leaks or is burned, regardless of how it is produced. 

At a time when the IPCC is stating that no new fossil fuel projects can be approved, camouflaging the methane-producing GRO facility as a step towards climate progress is deeply disturbing. 

A secret site selection 

Burnaby has also kept its process of selecting a site for the facility extremely opaque. No information has been provided regarding alternative sites that were being considered. In fact, as detailed in a staff report, Burnaby was unaware that its proposed site within Fraser Foreshore Park was dedicated parkland when it made the initial proposal in 2021, only realizing that the land needed to be un-dedicated in February 2023. This is part of a larger pattern of the city’s ongoing transparency issues, highlighted by its recent litigation seeking to prevent a Freedom of Information Act release of details surrounding city-owned land.   

There are also questions regarding the sale of a similarly-sized plot of city owned land to Larco Investments in 2021 to develop a film studio. Why was this land–which was not situated within a wetland–not considered for the GRO facility, which was already well into the planning stage at the time of the sale? 

Are park dedications meaningless?

Un-dedicating parkland for this project demeans the original intent of park dedication, a powerful tool that municipalities have for land protection and habitat conservation. Hidden in the staff report is a short mention of a future District Energy Utility facility situated on land adjacent to the GRO facility, indicating that more of Fraser Foreshore Park could be at stake. 

It means something when we commit to dedicating parkland via referendum. It means that a majority of residents consented to protecting a parcel of land in perpetuity, not until the mayor and council decide otherwise. It means that residents considered the natural state of the land more valuable than any future development. And if we do decide to un-dedicate parkland, it must therefore be residents that make this decision, via a referendum.

Undedicating parkland set aside explicitly for conservation is insidiously a slippery slope. While Mayor Hurley has said that no more parkland will be undedicated under his watch, the choice to pursue un-dedication in Fraser Foreshore Park with meager public consultation sets a chilling precedent for the future of Burnaby’s parks. How climate-forward does a project need to be before it justifies destroying a park and wetland habitat? Who rules on the merits of its benefits?  These are the difficult questions that need to be worked through within the public domain, not behind closed doors.

Call to action

The GRO facility will undergo an Alternative Approval Process (AAP) vote. If 10% of Burnaby’s electors (~16,800 people) submit an Elector Response Form in opposition, the motion to un-dedicate the parkland within Fraser Foreshore Park will be sent to a broader referendum. People eligible to vote in Burnaby are able to submit their opposition until April 28th

Forms can be submitted in person at Burnaby City Hall (4949 Canada Way) to the Legislative Services Department or at 24-hour drop boxes located at both City Hall entrances. 

You can also mail your response to:
Legislative Services Department, Burnaby City Hall,
4949 Canada Way
Burnaby, BC V5G 1M2

Join us in calling for the City of Burnaby to protect the wildlife and unique habitat in Fraser Foreshore Park.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
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