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

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Wheelabrator's Dave Jones outside a burner in the Baltimore plant.
Jonathan Wilson
Wheelabrator's Dave Jones outside a burner in the Baltimore plant.

Dave Jones manages the Wheelabrator Waste-to-Energy plant in Baltimore. "Our first stop will be the elevator lobby of the fifth floor," he says on a recent tour.

Jones explains that from there, we'll be able to look out over the refuse storage pit. Once there, 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.

There's about three tons of garbage that's being fed into a feed hopper. Outside of the pit is about 3,500 tons of garbage, says Jones. The company works to convert all of this waste into renewable energy.

The Baltimore plant is 30 years old, and while Wheelabrator says it's constantly updated, they are planning a newer, more energy-efficient facility.

More energy, more efficiency

Mark Lyons, the project manager for Wheelabrator in Frederick County, says the new $400 million facility in Frederick — the largest public works project in the county's history — will be more efficient. "The boilers will be more efficient, the facility will have a higher online availability, and it will generate more electricity per ton of solid waste processed," he says.

He says the new plant will have a net electricity output of 45 megawatts — enough to power about 45,000 homes.

"This plant serves two benefits: safe, reliable waste disposal and renewable energy generation."

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 two years ago, during the last round of Frederick County elections.

"Numerous county commissioner candidates ran on a platform of anti-Waste-to-Energy Project — they were all defeated," he says. "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."

Fighting against Wheelabrator

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. He lived here for 32 years.

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 million plant.

"They rely on elected officials and citizens being uninvolved and uninformed. Their projections don't work out, and the municipality finds itself with a big debt, and 10 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," Burruss says.

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.

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, 8 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.

"They're going to dump 400,000 gallons of contaminated water into the Potomac River every day for 30 years," Holstein says. "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."

Burning vs. recycling

Some arguments against the Frederick plant aren't simply local.

Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, 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, and not burned for energy.

"Food and yard waste — they're not suitable for combustion," he says. "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."

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

"You'll find that communities that utilize waste-to-energy typically have higher recycling rates than the national average, and even some of the highest rates in the country, he says. "That's because they're more focused on the proper disposal of waste and the recovery of materials."

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.

Jonathan's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories.
 For more information, click this link.

Photos: Waste-to-Energy


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