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March 6, 2008

Making Trash Go Away Part 2

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The February 26th joint meeting between Frederick and Carroll County over how to make trash go away came after two years of discussions and deliberations resulting from the Frederick County commissioners’ adoption of Resolution 06-05, on February 16, 2006.


That resolution directed the Frederick County Division of Utilities and Solid Waste Management to work with Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority to investigate what a local Frederick County or regional waste-to-energy plant would look like.


There are several driving factors which have lead Frederick County – as well as many local jurisdictions – to investigate the next generation of approaches to solid waste management.


Frederick County is currently spending approximately $15 million per year to truck 800 tons of the stuff per day 192 miles into Virginia. There is no doubt that rising gas prices are sure to make that cost increase precipitously.


Additionally, there continues to be a growing concern that Virginia may follow the lead provided by Pennsylvania, which in 2004 “adopted a series of surcharges on landfills to stem the flow of out-of-state waste,” according to an October 30, 2007, report by the Frederick County Division of Utilities and Solid Waste Management.


Of course, the factors weighing heavily on local government, including the leadership of Virginia, are that landfilling trash is more-than-ever environmentally suspect, economically unfeasible and an unacceptable neighbor for most communities.


Increased environmental awareness has led to a more thorough examination of landfills, which has concluded that it leaves a toxic legacy for which our children’s children will have to clean up, at an enormous cost.


Moreover, the environmental costs of trucking such a huge amount of trash are gathering more attention as a contributor to greenhouse gases and air pollution.


One of the options on the table is to construct a 1500-ton-per-day waste-to-energy facility with Carroll County at a cost of $323 million. If Frederick were to build the plant jointly with Carroll, the economies of scale would provide a $75 million savings for Frederick citizens.


As part of the investigation into the idea of building a waste-to-energy plant, in March 2007, “the Evaluation Committee and Commissioner David Gray visited seven European countries to meet with European waste management authorities,” according to the October 30, 2007, report.


Why Europe? Because the European Union (EU) is far ahead of the United States in cutting edge technology – especially when it comes to the environment. The EU also has the strictest environmental regulations in the world.


In the late 1990s, most of my environmental colleagues and I were under the belief that waste-to-energy presented too great a threat to our air quality to outweigh its benefits.


However, research in the EU indicates that an undue air quality consequence is no longer the case.


In a German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety study in September 2005, it reported, in part:


“In the eighties of the previous century, waste incineration plants came to be the symbol of environmental contamination… Today, more than half of all household waste (55%) is recycled… Since June 1, 2005, untreated waste is no longer landfilled. And because of stringent regulations waste incineration plants are no longer significant in terms of emissions of dioxins, dust, and heavy metals…”


The January 2007 edition of a multi-jurisdictional newsletter from the European Union cited numerous statistics and studies in reference to the strict environmental regulation of the impact of waste-to-energy plants in Europe.


It cited the aforementioned German Environment Ministry study and a 2006 presentation at the Technical University of Vienna which noted:


“Whereas in 1990 one third of all dioxin emissions in Germany came from Waste to Energy plants, for the year 2000 the figure was less than 1%. Today it is even lower…”


The newsletter also noted that according “to the UK Environmental Agency, 15 minutes of millennial fireworks celebrations in London produced more dioxin than would more than a century’s operation of the South East London Combined Heat and Power Waste to Energy facility.”


In 2006, the waste-to-energy issue blew up in the Toronto, Canada, mayoral election, which prompted Christopher Hume to write in “The Hamilton Spectator”:


“It’s time for the opponents of incineration … to wake up and smell the garbage… Opponents should travel to Europe to see for themselves how a state-of-the-art incinerator works. One thing they would see immediately is that two-thirds of each plant is devoted to filters, scrubbers and the machinery of emission cleaning.”


Mr. Hume wrote: “And even if the criticisms by … opponents were justified, the fact remains that dumping garbage in a landfill site is far more environmentally destructive, damaging, and disgusting than an incinerator.”


Many who follow environmental issues closely could not agree more with Mr. Hume, who said that most of the objections to incineration “are based on information that’s thirty years out of date.”


Fast-forward to just last week, on February 28, it was announced that the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority’s integrated solid waste management system, of which the waste-to-energy plant is a critical component, has earned ISO 14001 certification from the international certification body, “Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance Ltd.,” for its environmental management system.


In my visit to the facility in June 1993, one of the more fascinating components of the operation was the fact that as recycling increased, the authority was feeding the incinerator by mining the existing landfill.


Hopefully the existing landfills in Carroll and Frederick Counties are the last landfills in history and can be removed and the land area reclaimed by mining them and feeding the material to a state-of-the-art waste-to-energy facility.


Not to mention the ability to generate electricity afforded by a waste-to-energy plant. Numerous news accounts have recently identified that Maryland’s demand for electricity will exceed existing generation capacity by around 2012.


Throw-in the ability to create and sell electricity and the idea of mining all our existing landfills and waste-to-energy is today perhaps the worthiest option – or at least, the lesser of evils.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:


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