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As Halifax politicians decide the harbour cleanup P3, theres a lesson to be learned from the regions last privatization experience. The region privatized the construction and operation of a major landfill to a consortium led by garbage giant Browning-Ferris International, a company linked to harbour cleanup pusher Suez. The landfill was part of a ground-breaking new recycling and composting program. While the program is in many ways an environmental leader, the landfill has been plagued with problems.

The $44 million landfill and sorting facility opened in 1998, taking only material that could not be composted at other facilities. A year later, city staff told the region one of the Otter Lake landfill buildings needed a $2-million expansion because it couldnt handle the volume of garbage, leading to questions about the planning that had gone into the site.

In June 2000, council voted at a secret meeting to let BFI walk away from its 25-year contract to run the landfill. The corporation had been sold to the US-based Allied Waste Industries, which reportedly didnt want any Canadian operations. BFIs majority stake in the Mirror Nova Scotia consortium was sold to the local minority shareholder, Municipal Enterprises Ltd.

Council came under fire for the secret decision ratified in public without any explanation. A city lawyer warned councillors not to disclose confidential information, after news of the deal was leaked to local media. Halifaxs Daily News responded by criticizing what it called an attitude insulated from public dismay about how policy decisions involving millions of dollars are thought to be the sole concern of administrators and businesses.

The editorial condemned the lawyers claim that leaks from secret meetings could have a stifling effect on the discussion of issues, and went on to say secret meetings have dubious legal standing and in any case are harmful to democratic debateIf there is any stifling to be done, the staff are experts.

A month before BFI left town, the Nova Scotia Government Employees Union released a report showing Halifaxs solid waste disposal costs were double and in some cases more than triple those in publicly-run systems. Even compared with other solid waste operations with private sector involvement, Halifaxs per-person disposal costs at $52.81 are excessive.

When you look at solid waste, and you see were going to do the same kind of thing to our wastewater, it concerns me, says Halifax regional councillor Dawn Sloane.

Former councillor Howard Epstein remembers the original solid waste contract and the approval process, which mirrors how the harbour cleanup deal was done.

It was a whacking great huge document, several hundred pages. And staff made a limited number of copies available and said, well, were going to vote on this in a couple of days. This was completely unrealistic to expect 23 lay people to come to grips with all the ins and outs without a good amount of time to understand it.

And when you deal with something like that, there has to be a public dimension to it as well, engaging the community so that everyone has an opportunity to know whats in the proposed contract and comment on it. That didnt happen.