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April 16, 2008

How to Make Trash Go Away

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Tomorrow the Carroll County Board of Commissioners will deliberate in open session and – hopefully – make a decision regarding the offer from Frederick County to join forces to make 1,100 tons of trash a day go away.


In recent separate interviews with Carroll County Public Works Director Mike Evans, and Carroll County Commissioners Mike Zimmer and Dean Minnich, the conversation quickly turned away from the actual choice to the intellectual, critical criteria necessary in order to make such a legacy decision.


Both commissioners bristled over the political threats and emotional advocacy and pleaded for more scientific information.


Commissioner Minnich immediately identified science and long-term safety as a decision driver. Commissioner Zimmer also identified science; and both commissioners agreed that a thorough public education and discussion process was critical.


And what an education process it has been so far. In a series of recent conversations with a few old-timers, all agreed that we have never witnessed such an exhaustive and open public discussion and education process on any public policy decision or environmental issue.


Bear in mind, a review of my files indicates that this is my fourth go-round regarding what to do with trash in Carroll County in 41 years – going back to 1967. It was a few short years after the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, that trash really hit the fan in Carroll County.


It has not been a pretty picture ever since. It was back in those days that the county began to take control of – or close – a number of unpermitted de-facto landfills – and then proceeded to open more. Waste-to-energy was rejected once in 1984, and twice in the mid-1990s. Co-composting failed to get the nod in the late 1990s.


Since 1965, with one exception, every landfill, in which Carroll County has had some degree of participation remains to this day under consent decrees with the Maryland Department of the Environment for the necessary mitigation of environmental hazards. Currently there is no apparent relief on the horizon from the costs to the environment or the financial expenses to landfilling.


Back in the first go-round in the 1970s, many felt that the best management approach to solid waste was source reduction and recycling.


It would take 18 long years to get the Maryland Recycling Act passed in 1988. That legislation required a recycling rate of 20 percent.


Twenty years later, getting the recycling rate increased is still illusive. In 1998, on the 10th anniversary of the law, the Baltimore Sun ran a lengthy analysis in which the Maryland General Assembly member who spearheaded the recycling initiative, Montgomery County Sen. Brian Frosh, admitted “that recycling has been costlier than expected. His 1988 bill predicted significant cost savings…”


Later in the article, the $250 million cost of recycling 2.5 million tons was compared to the $83 million it would have cost to landfill it instead. The rest of the article went downhill from there.


Those opposed to landfilling were less than pleased. Four decades after the first Earth Day, the recycling rate in Carroll County is only around 30 percent.


Nevertheless, many are still convinced that recycling is the answer. The rub, however, is what to do with the residual trash until we can increase the recycling rate – and what to do with the materials that stubbornly resist recycling.


This is where the only viable, safe, and cost-effective alternative is waste-to-energy.


Whatever the Carroll County commissioners decide tomorrow, it is hoped that they appropriately address the myriad legitimate concerns that have been raised by responsible people – all right, even the concerns posed by irresponsible people.


One of the first concerns is the cost. This secretly amused many ardent environmental colleagues and critics alike. Since when have environmentalists quibbled over the cost of any environmental initiative?


The option on the table involves a 20-year contract with a vendor. This essentially codifies and stabilizes the cost much longer than can ever be predicted for the ever-increasing cost of shipping the stuff out-of-state or landfilling it.


Assuming that the cost of electricity will continue to rise – and many consider electricity to be a recycled use of trash and not a “product,” nevertheless the return as a result of selling electricity will only increase, long after the initial debt for the facility has been amortized.


The air pollution concerns including, but not limited to, heavy metals, dioxins and greenhouse gases (CO2) have been adequately addressed by a series of studies in Europe, and by two specific multiple pathway health risk assessments contracted for by Montgomery County in 1989 and 2003.


The August 2005 German Federal Environmental Agency reports (“Status Report on the Waste Sector’s Contribution to Climate Protection and Possible Potentials,” and the September 2005 “Waste Incineration – A Potential Danger? Bidding Farewell to Dioxin Spouting” were very reassuring.


A student of the topic should not overlook the Eunomia 2006 report called “A changing climate for energy from waste: final report for Friends of the Earth,” or the Greenpeace study “Energieperspektive 2050,” from April 2006.


One concern for many has been the claim that recycling and waste-to-energy are not compatible. This has been found not to be true in a number of anecdotal testimonies and confirmed by at least one definitive study released in June 2006 (“Recycling and Waste-to-Energy Compatibility: The Tough Questions Finally Answered,”) by Kiser Environmental Consulting.


Nevertheless, the best answer came from Mr. Evans, who said, “If we can sell it for $10, why should we pay $75 to get rid of it?”


Perhaps the final straw for many is that waste-to-energy facilitates the safest final disposition of endocrine disruptors that will hopefully be removed from wastewater and the ability to mine and return to productive use existing landfills.


Even though there is no silver bullet answer to trash at present, waste-to-energy provides the best answer many have seen in the last four decades.


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


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