When a local government proposes to solve the garbage crisis by
building an incinerator, critics say, (1) it will be far costlier than
you're being told by the project's proponents; (2) the ash will be
toxic and therefore will create expensive and liability-laden
environmental problems; (3) you need to keep the garbage flowing in to
pay off the loans on the incinerator, so you will become a garbage
junkie, unable to break the habit, unable to initiate modern programs
like waste reduction or recycling.
But the big engineering firms and their bankrollers accuse these
critics of being narrow-minded nimbies lacking technical expertise,
hysterical housewives who are anti-progress, anti-business, anti-
Politicians are caught in the middle. They may sense that these huge
projects seem reminiscent of an older, discredited way of doing things,
but they know which side their bread has always been buttered on; it
seems dangerous to oppose what the big boys are proposing. So a whole
generation of local politicians has staked its reputation (and its
retirement benefits) on building garbage incinerators.
The first garbage incinerator in New Jersey came on line last July with
great fanfare. Officials trumpeted to the media that this was the wave
of the future, the solution to the state's mountainous trash woes.
Sixteen other garbage burners are now in the pipeline in New Jersey,
steadily abuilding. The only one that has come on line is in rural
Warren county, and its story should be a lesson to local politicians
everywhere: be careful before you buy one of these expensive machines--
they really are more trouble than you're being told.
Set amid corn fields and woodlands 40 miles west of Newark, NJ, the
Warren county plant is losing $12,000 a day every day it operates. It
has run up a deficit of $1.5 million during its first 6 months of
operation. The plant cost $52 million to build and it's supposed to
burn 2200 tons of garbage each week (400 tons per day), but in reality
it's only processing 1600 tons per week, 27% below expectations. The
firm that built it, owns it, and operates it under contract to the
county, Blount Engineering of Montgomerey, Alabama, agreed to charge
the county "only" $98 per ton but that was based on 2200 tons per week.
(Blount turns some of the trash into steam, then into electricity, and
sells the electricity at a profit. This is how they can afford to
charge "only" $98 per ton for the garbage.) With fewer tons coming into
the plant, the county will have to pay Blount more--up to $135 per ton.
The county doesn't have that kind of money, so now officials are
scrambling to find more garbage to bring into the county, to meet their
obligations to Blount. Warren county has become a garbage junkie--
desperately seeking ways to import garbage, to keep up the payments on
its expensive machine. Warren officials are negotiating now with nearby
Hunterdon county, wooing that county's trash.
It is important to bring in more trash because the alternative--making
cash payments to Blount instead of giving them the required 2200 tons
of trash week--will drive up the price per ton that the people of
Warren county have to pay to get rid of their garbage. If the price
rises much above $98 per ton, the whole project could collapse because
it won't be able to compete with other ways of handling the county's
trash. (To try to make sure the economics looked good, New Jersey
passed a law making it illegal for Warren residents to send their trash
anywhere outside the county. But competition from composters and
recyclers inside the county could drive the incinerator over a cliff.)
Warren officials are blaming their trash shortage the state's mandatory
recycling law, which has just begun to take effect. The state's law
only requires 25% recycling and it hasn't achieved anything close to
that yet--but it has already become clear that even a little recycling
is devastating to the economics of an incinerator. If New Jersey ever
got really serious and achieved over 70% recycling, which seems to be
possible to do (see RHWN #108), the state's 16 incinerators would all
turn into fabulously expensive white elephants. This means that
politicians who are pushing these projects will have to take a stand
against recycling--thus committing themselves to resisting the tidal
wave of recycling now sweeping the country.
The Warren incinerator has run into other unexpected problems. The 480
tons per week of ash left over from burning Warren's garbage actually
has tested toxic 45% of the time, and the incinerator was built on the
assumption that it would produce toxic ash only 30% of the time. When
the ash tests toxic, it can't be shipped to a dump in Pennsylvania for
$60 per ton, but must be shipped to the Model Cities hazardous waste
landfill (operated by Chemical Waste Management, Inc.) in Niagara
County, New York, where the cost of disposal is $250 per ton.
Warren officials have now started to search for the source of the toxic
metals (cadmium and lead) that are playing havoc with their ash.
However, they admit it's like "looking for a needle in a haystack,"
says Bart Carhart, executive director of Warren county's pollution
control financing authority. Mr. Carhart says he hopes they can find
the cadmium source without having to cut off all industrial trash
coming into the incinerator. Cutting off the industrial trash flow
would make the project's financial picture even bleeker.
Politicians must understand that these incinerators are not a bad deal
for everyone--they're only bad for taxpayers and for politicians.
Incinerators make good sense from the viewpoint of companies like
Blount Engineering. They build the plant with other people's
(taxpayers') money, so they're taking no financial risk. They have a
contract that says the local government must "put or pay"--put
sufficient garbage into the furnace to make it run profitably, or pay
the difference in cash. If the ash tests toxic, local government has to
pay the added expense, not Blount. When the whole thing sags because of
citizen pressure to start recycling programs, or pressure from
environmentalists to tighten the lax definition of ash toxicity, Blount
won't fare any worse. Even if the whole project goes bust, Blount has
already made most of its money--the big profits were in the
construction of the machine itself. And after all, no Blount official
ever has to stand for election; it's local politicians who will take
the heat while local taxpayers pick up the tab. Blount will be long
gone, wooing other politicians in other towns, selling blue sky
solutions to our brown and earthy problems.
WRENCHING IN TEXARKANA: FEB. 10-12
The Wrenching Debate series of grass roots meetings, and confrontations
with polluters, continues February 10-12 in Texarkana, Arakansas. (See
RHWN #96 and #105.) These meetings aim to discover a new direction for
grass roots work. Lois Gibbs, John O'Connor, and a phalanx of local
grass roots activists will conduct a citizens' hearing on Saturday. For
details, phone Patty Frase: (501) 794-0102 or Jimmie Hays (501) 772-
7905 in Arkansas. The Wrench meeting begins at 1:00 Friday afternoon at
the Mount Zion Baptist Church (221 Tilson St., Texarkana). Other events
are scheduled throughout the weekend.
Descriptor terms: incineration; warren county, nj; ash; cadmium; lead;
hazardous waste; landfilling; blount engineering; al; recycling;