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Source: The Capitol

Trash And Burn

Covanta seeks funds for waste-to-energy plants as environmentalists push back


Posted: August 21, 2011
Originally Published: August 19, 2011

Each day, the garbage trucks line up and rumble into a huge, boxlike building that towers over the surrounding housing subdivisions, shopping centers and fast-food joints.

Once inside, the trucks dump their garbage, which is scooped into a vast concrete pit. A mechanical claw above the pit descends into the mounds of trash and collects enough to fill a single truck, lifts it up and ferries over to one side, then dumps it into a chute to be burned—and ultimately to provide electricity for the plant’s neighbors.

If Covanta Energy gets its way, the state will help replicate the process by subsidizing more waste-to-energy plants like this one, which the company operates near Hempstead in Nassau County. But first, in order to qualify for millions of dollars in state energy subsidies, the technology must be designated as providing renewable energy.

John Waffenschmidt, a Covanta vice president for environmental science and community affairs, said the company’s plants reduce landfill waste and generate much-needed energy while releasing emissions well within state and federal standards. This alone should qualify the technology as renewable, he argued.

“If you are going to get rid of waste, you’re going to reuse and recycle as much as possible,” Waffenschmidt said. “Once you finish that process, you come to a fork in the road. You’re either going to go to a landfill, or you’re going to go to an energy-from-waste plant.

“If you choose to go to the energy-from-waste plant instead of going to the landfill, you’re going to actually produce less net greenhouse-gas emissions, because there’s no methane emissions whatsoever.”

Waffenschmidt’s argument is one of many the state Public Service Commission will sift through over the next few months as it weighs whether to put garbage on an equal footing with wind, solar and biomass as a renewable resource.

New York’s energy law already defines “wastes” as renewable resources, but the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a fee-based program the state established in 2004, does not include it in its own list of renewables.

Covanta will not have an easy task as it seeks to sway the commission. The company has failed before to be included in the RPS, which awards hundreds of millions of dollars, from a small monthly fee of about 25 cents charged to utility ratepayers. Many environmentalists are also staunchly opposed to including waste incineration in the RPS.

The idea that plants like Covanta’s can reduce landfill waste and produce energy at minimal cost is too good to be true, said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

“When you run a waste stream through one of these facilities, you’re not, at the end, left with zero waste,” Bautista said. “You’re left with the residue of what’s the post-process material, and that’s no longer just waste that becomes landfilled.”

A Covanta spokesman said the remaining ash, which is about 10 percent the size of the incoming waste, is tested for hazardous materials and disposed of in conventional landfills.

Bautista added that any plants sited in New York City would likely end up in poorer communities like the South Bronx, further burdening residents already struggling with health and environmental problems. Relying on such facilities would also put less emphasis on recycling, he said, since a steady stream of trash is needed to fuel operations.

Other environmentalists said waste-to-energy facilities can be useful, but some still oppose diverting money from other renewable resources.

Municipal garbage, while abundant, is neither emissions-free nor renewable, said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“It isn’t this secret war against incineration,” Esposito said. “If Covanta wants subsidies, they should talk to the state about that. But they shouldn’t be stealing renewable money.”

But Waffenschmidt argued waste-to-energy produces more energy with lower emissions than landfill gas and biomass, both of which are included in the RPS.

Numerous filters and a scrubber in the plant reduce dioxins, mercury, lead and other particulate emissions to well within state and federal standards, he added, and the facility also salvages and resells useful metals.

“If you really think about it—of all the products that we have in society, it’s probably metals that you want to keep in circulation more than anything else,” Waffenschmidt said.

But environmentalists aren’t convinced trash is just as good as wind and solar, and they’re pushing back.

“Nothing has changed from the first two times this was rejected, except now they’ve met with a multitude of state senators, the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office—they’ve really gone on a full-scale public relations campaign,” Esposito said. “I get it. They want the money. We’re saying, ‘No, not on our watch.’”