Waste-To-Energy Fights The Fires Of Opposition

With projections of future growth and future waste on the upswing, citizens and municipalities alike are seeking more expansive, yet environmentally friendly solutions for America's trash disposal. Many industry insiders say that converting waste to energy (WTE) is the perfect solution.

Construction projects underway reflect integrated planning, which encompasses aggressive recycling in combination with re covering energy from waste that cannot be recycled, according to Kent Burton, president of the Integrated Waste Services Association (IWSA), Washington, D.C. "Integrated waste planning is starting to be a closed-loop system," he said.

While no one answer can solve all problems, retrieving energy from waste materials keeps landfilling at a minimum. A portion of that reclaim-reuse-refuel picture even envisions a use for ash from incinerators in roadbed aggregate and landfill covers.

All methods of waste disposal face opposition from citizens and politicians, and WTE has had its share of detractors. Those who subscribe to the NIMBY ("not in my back yard") perspective cite everything from the cost of such a system to the potential dangers dangers which many in the industry say are paper tigers.

"Sometimes when a plant is proposed, opponents bring a lot of people in to speak at a public hearing and say a plant will be a smoke-belching, cancer causing blight on the landscape," said Robert Gould, senior associate with New York's Governmental Advisory Associates.

Gould, co-editor of the "Resource Recovery Yearbook," has just published a sixth edition containing a comprehensive overview of industry information, statistics, graphs and charts.

"The public casts a baleful eye when a plant is in the planning stages," he said, "but I haven't heard a lot of bad press from neighbors of WTE plants built in the last 10 years. Once a plant is built, no one seems to care about it anymore, since all of the terrible things predicted just don't seem to happen."

Regulation Issues The WTE industry boasts that there are quite a few projects operating in the country, and that they work well. Still, Gould said that the status of WTE plants is complicated. "Most problems right now fall into the regulatory area, probably with flow control, an issue facing the Supreme Court this year," he said.

Flow control dictates that a guaranteed quantity of solid waste is available to a facility within a given jurisdiction. Counties previously have had the option to pass regulations requiring waste to go to a county specific disposal site. Without this type of regulation, haulers may elect to haul ref-use to a nearby county with a low landfill tipping rate, where disposal might be cheaper.

As the site-specific disposal requirement is challenged, both private haulers and plant operators anticipate the outcome. "A fair number of projects could be in trouble if they find themselves unable to compete with some cutrate landfill operations due to an absence of flow control regulation," Gould said.

Many landfills have been closed, and more are threatened with closure, due to stricter regulations. In reaction, some have reduced tipping fees to fill as much landfill space as possible before stricter regulations go into effect. While that represents a possible bargain for private haulers, it looms as a threat to the financial stability of WTE plants.

If flow control is legislatively prohibited, Gould said, it could mean that a county WTE plant in a given area cannot be guaranteed to receive a specific amount of garbage tonnage per year. "Without that guaranteed flow coming in, such a facility might not be able to pay for itself," he said.

Other issues that weigh heavily in the establishment of WTE facilities include ash disposal from municipal incinerators and waste export, which is the process of hauling garbage across state lines for disposal.

"Ash from incineration was once considered special, but not hazardous waste," Could said. Hazardous waste would require far more secure and costly landfilling, and several organizations have brought suit questioning the Environmental Protection Agency's determination that incinerator ash is not hazardous.

"If the court rules that incinerator ash is hazardous, that will certainly have an effect," Could said.

"The ash question does not concern whether it should be treated as a hazardous waste, as so many think," said Jonathan Kiser, director of waste services programs at IWSA. The question, he explained, is whether there should be a requirement to test the ash for its characteristics.

"As long as you properly manage ash in a modern landfill facility, there is no issue with regard to human health or the environment. That point is lost on the part of certain policy makers and politicians," said Kiser.

Some states have decreed a moratorium on transporting out-of-state waste into their areas, while private haulers claim that such a prohibition impairs their ability to do business. Although the waste export issue goes beyond WTE, it still impacts the industry.

Industry insiders admit that WTE costs have risen, but blame much of that rise on increased regulations. "The EPA has chosen municipal solid waste incineration as a test case to regulate as much as they can to show they're doing a good job," said Gould.

Looking to the future, Kiser feels that the whole notion of how we will manage our trash suggests a bright outlook for the WTE industry. "As we speak, there are seven projects under construction with a design capacity of 8,830 tons a day, so the industry is doing well in that regard," he said.

The projected growth of U.S. trash as a fuel will produce enough additional power for over 500,000 homes by the turn of the century, a figure Kiser categorized as "a very conservative estimate."

Kiser said that even if 50 percent of the nation's trash is being recycled by the year 2000, more than 110 million tons will still require disposal. Currently, about 31 million tons are being handled at the 125 WTE plants in operation.

"There are a lot of misperceptions in the media about the industry's present circumstances that give the idea of a garbage crisis and so forth. There's been a going-out-of-business sale at the dumps of America whose operators have seen the writing on the wall to comply with the EPA mandates and have undercut the market for systems managing garbage in a protective way," said Kiser.

Many consider converting garbage into energy to be another form of recycling, and recycling is booming. According to IWSA data, 540,000 tons of ferrous metal are being recycled at facilities, post-combustion, which the steel industry calls "automatic" recycling because all 540,000 tons are recoverable with ferrous magnets. WTE does not operate in a vacuum. Almost every WTE plant in the country has recycling going on in the area (see Table 1 on page 24), and the industry is very much in favor of the integrated approach, according to Gould."In a good integrated system, WTE is a serious alternative to landfilling, once you've reduced and recycled all you can," he said.

Shattering Myths "With modern waste management practices, you get what you pay for," Kiser said. "You have to look at the whole system. Landfills are necessary to handle any non-recyclable and non-combustible remains. As a country, we need to step up to the issue of protecting the environment worldwide, and do it based on the latest technology." (See Table 2.)

Houston-based Ref-Fuel operates four WTE plants, according to Lyle Hanna, public relations director. The first, located in Hempstead, N.Y., went on line in 1989 and was followed by one in Newark, N.J. Both handle about 2,500 tons a day.

The company built a regional facility in Preston, Conn., that handles 600 tons of waste per day from a group of small communities in that area.

The fourth facility, located in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was ac-quired this year from Occidental Chemical Corp. It differs from the former three in that it uses refuse derived fuel versus mass burn.

"One of the myths we need to counter is that we compete with recycling," Hanna said. "The public is heavily educated on recycling, and you can lose perspective of the fact that it's not very pragmatic to say, 'We're recycling now, so forget about the landfills and waste-to-energy plants.' Only so much waste can be recycled; what's achievable and what makes sense can be two different answers."

The Counter-Attack Wheelabrator, in Bucks County, Pa., brought its first WTE plant on line in 1975 in Sawgus, Mass. The plant, which converts 1,500 tons per day from waste to energy, was refurbished two years ago and is expected to extend another 18 years, said Rich Felago the company's vice president.

Like other companies blazing new paths in the industry, Wheelabrator is no stranger to opposition and controversy. To combat what Felago called the unfounded fear and misconception surrounding WTE plants, Wheelabrator developed a program called Home Town Advantage.

"We propose to put a plant in an area, and then we ask the people in the community to do a reverse request for proposals," said Felago.

Wheelabrator asks if the community would like to host the plant in return for certain benefits such as jobs. Felago said the company first finds a receptive community, then representatives go there to provide factual information before the residents receive misinformation.

"People appreciate knowing the truth and prefer not to have hysteria-mongers come into their community," Felago said. "We look now to get ourselves invited into communities, and that seems to be the way to go."

A good example of advance preparation is Wheelabrator's Gloucester County plant, Felago said. Prior to siting the plant, an opposition group fought its location through three litigious levels, topping out at the New Jersey Supreme Court. Once the plant went into operation, the group disbanded. The previous head of that opposition party is now the Gloucester facility's biggest supporter, Felago said.

"He has been asked many times, and responded that the plant is not a problem and is a good neighbor," said Felago, who attributes that response to the fact that Wheelabrator did what they said they were going to do at the site.

The WTE Solution While many communities are coming of their own volition to an integrated system involving burning, burying, recycling and converting via WTE, Hanna admits that community education is still necessary.

Many factors affect a decision to add WTE to a community's waste disposal plan, including its maintenance and operation after construction.

Education involves explaining what a plant can do for a community and becoming a part of the community, according to Hanna. Ref-Fuel maintains a 24-hour hotline at its facilities to dispel any concerns that may arise. Its employees become members of the local community, involving themselves in charitable events, living in the neighborhoods and responding to concerns of the public.

While a community can opt for a privately owned WTE facility, Ref-Fuel finds little resistance to company ownership, Hanna said. Public financing with a bond issue is a common method used to fund WTE plants. Such bonds are normally computed over a 20-year calculated life span of the facility, which Hanna said regularly extends much beyond that two-decade period.

Hanna admits that there is no single solution to the cost question due to the variables involved. He cited a Long Island facility with a $110 tipping fee, saying it's a virtual sandbar that sits over the drinking water aquifer.

Although prices have fluctuated in recent years, the area generally has a higher utility rate than some parts of country, he said, and their option is to long-haul waste, either to up-state New York or to other states.

"When you multiply a ton per person, per year, everything works toward waste-to-energy making a lot of sense," he said. "Will the price shock the community? If you take the Long Island scenario, you could potentially lower disposal costs."

In many areas of the country, it wouldn't be practical to develop a WTE plant, Hanna admitted, such as in Western states with wide expanses of land suitable for landfilling (see Table 3 on page 26). Still, he said, recycling is universal and any burn facility will always require landfills for disposal of ash.

"We are, and will continue to be, a viable option. If there are stumbling blocks, they are certainly being met, and we see our share [of waste for disposal] growing somewhat in the future," Hanna said.

Despite the obstacles, WTE facilities continue to be developed. "We expect to be around, efficiently processing waste, for a long time," said Felago.