Waste-To-Energy: A Wise Or Risky Plan For Dealing With Trash? (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Waste-to-Energy: A Wise Or Risky Plan For Dealing With Trash?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
Our next story on today's Debt show is about two kinds of debt, financial and environmental. Maryland's Frederick County is looking to build the largest public works project in its history. A $400 million waste-to-energy plant. Supporters say it will solve the local landfill space crunch and provide renewable energy. Critics, though, say this plant and the entire waste-to-energy philosophy need to be scrapped. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson has more.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:31
Dave Jones manages the Wheelabrator Waste-to-Energy plant in Baltimore and he's taking me on a tour.

MR. DAVE JONES

00:00:37
Our first stop's going to be the elevator lobby up on the fifth floor.

WILSON

00:00:40
Jones explains that from there, we'll be able to look out over the refuse storage pit. As we arrive, he opens one of the windows looking out onto the pit as a mechanical claw scoops trash out of the main pile and lifts it to one of the bins that sit above the burners.

JONES

00:00:55
At this instant, you're looking at about three tons of garbage in that refuse crane grapple. It's getting ready to get fed into, you know, what is unit one's feed hopper. You know, out in that refuse storage pit right now, you're looking at about 3,500 tons of garbage.

WILSON

00:01:08
The Baltimore plant is 30 years old and while Wheelabrator says it's constantly updated, the company also says the facility its planning for Frederick County will be even better.

JONES

00:01:18
Frederick will simply be newer. It'll have newer technology. The boilers will be more efficient. The air quality control equipment will be more sophisticated. The facility will have an higher online availability and it will generate more electricity per ton of solid waste processed.

MR. MARK LYONS

00:01:34
That's Mark Lyons, the project manager for Wheelabrator in Frederick County. He says the new plant will have a net electricity output of 45 megawatts, enough to power about 45,000 homes.

MR. MARK LYONS

00:01:46
This plant serves two benefits, safe, reliable, cost-effective solid waste disposal and renewable energy generation.

WILSON

00:01:54
Lyons has been working on the project through years of controversy and local opposition, but as far as he's concerned, the referendum on the plant happened more than two years ago, during the last round of Frederick County elections.

LYONS

00:02:06
Numerous county commissioner candidates ran on a platform of anti-Waste-to-Energy Project, they were all defeated. Every county commissioner in Frederick who was elected or reelected ran on a platform of supporting the Waste-to-Energy project. So I think the voters in Frederick have spoken.

WILSON

00:02:24
Ellis Burruss runs a printing shop in Brunswick, Md., a town that sits on the southern edge of the county, right along the Potomac River.

SHEIR

00:02:31
So how long have you been in Brunswick, now?

MR. ELLIS BURRUSS

00:02:33
About 32 years.

WILSON

00:02:36
Burruss ran for county commissioner a few years back, he opposed the Wheelabrator project and he lost, just as Lyons points out. But Burruss is still convinced the project can be stopped, as more people dig into the details of the plan, especially the financial projections coming from the banks that will front the money for the $400-plus million plant.

BURRUSS

00:02:56
They rely on elected officials and citizens being uninvolved and uninformed. Their projections don't work out and the municipality or the county finds itself with a big debt. Ten years later people look at their tax bill and say, what's this extra $200 all about? Well, it's too late then. You're already invested.

WILSON

00:03:15
For one thing, Burruss worries that the revenue projections from the sale of power from the waste-to-energy plant don't account for what happens if the cost of electricity continues to go down. But there are environmental concerns about the plant as well. Wheelabrator is planning to pipe in wastewater from an adjacent treatment plant and use it for various cooling purposes. The water will then be piped into the Potomac River, eight miles away. Wheelabrator says the water will in some ways be cleaner than it was when it entered their plant, but Bruce Holstein, a member of the No-Incinerator Alliance, isn't buying it.

MR. BRUCE HOLSTEIN

00:03:48
They're going to dump 400,000 gallons of contaminated water into the Potomac River every day for 30 years. And the state of Maryland is apoplectic about, oh, we have to clean up the Bay. Well, a good starting point would be, don't build the incinerator.

WILSON

00:04:03
And some arguments against the Frederick plant aren't simply local. Allen Hershkowitz is a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says the entire Waste-to-Energy paradigm is flawed when applied at the municipal level. He says about 80 percent of the municipal waste stream should be recycled, not burned for energy.

MR. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ

00:04:22
Food and yard waste, they're not suitable for combustion. They're full of moisture, they emit high levels of nitrogen when burned. You don't put food and yard waste in your fireplace. They should be composted. Paper is recyclable. Paper should not be burned. Plastics are recyclable.

WILSON

00:04:38
Mike Marschner is Frederick County's former director of utilities and solid waste. He says waste-to-energy and recycling are not mutually exclusive. In fact, he says, it's just the opposite.

MR. MIKE MARSCHNER

00:04:49
Communities that utilize waste-to-energy for waste disposal typically have higher recycling rates than the national average or even some of the highest rates in the country. And that's because they're more focused on the proper disposal of waste and the recovery of materials.

WILSON

00:05:03
Residents and environmentalists only have a few more weeks to debate these particulars, at least as they pertain to the Frederick County plant. Marylanders have until May 20 to weigh in on the plan. That's when the Department of the Environment's comment period ends. I’m Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

00:05:18
This story came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network or PIN. To learn more visit metroconnection.org/pin.
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