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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Waste of Energy

by George Baggett, Kansas City Greens

Waste-to-energy or "resource recovery" became buzz words of the early 1970's at a time when landfills were found to be leaking. There had been a long period of almost no regulation of what was going into landfills, and instead of addressing that problem, the US EPA and several state agencies were prodded into looking at other alternatives, namely incineration. It sounded great, turning a liability into a product, in this case: burn garbage to make energy. It sounded too good to be true, and it was.

With years of experience with "waste-to-energy," what have we learned?

We have learned that waste-to-energy is both a myth and a sales gimmick that borders on deception. Very little energy is generated by these facilities when compared to coal-fired electrical generating plants of similar cost, and the net energy gain is minimal when considering the energy input to build and maintain these burners.

Taking over a billion dollars out of the City of Detroit's budget for a garbage incinerator...is an abomination ...And for what—a machine that generates a minuscule amount of energy, turns solid waste into hazardous waste ash, and distributes mercury all over the region.

It is important to remember the history and genesis of the incinerator industry as we know it today. In the mid 1970's and in the midst of a temporary energy crisis, there were numerous engineering firms twiddling their thumbs who had previously been involved with the development of nuclear power plants. It was at a time when the energy that had been thought to be "too cheap to meter" became known as the most expensive means to boil water known to man. As orders for new nuclear plants diminished, Babcock & Wilcox, Combustion Engineering, Westinghouse and some large engineering firms like Bechtel and Roy F. Weston were desperately looking for something else to do. So they began to promote mass-burn garbage incinerators, much in the way they had promoted nuclear power.

Like their previous work, money was no object, since the taxpayer was paying the bill. A case in point is the now notorious incinerator built for the City of Detroit. The cost to the citizens of Detroit for this facility in its interim form is $438 million dollars, plus finance and interest charges of roughly another $600 million. When you consider the need for an additional $120 million for pollution control equipment to be retrofitted in phases over the next few years, this is nearly a billion-dollar liability that has never been able to operate within its permitted emission limits.

Taking over a billion dollars out of the City of Detroit's budget for a garbage incinerator (that has caused nothing but grief) is an abomination when considering the other tremendous infrastructure needs of that city. When the city was unable to meet their bond payments for the facility, they were forced to borrow $18.5 million from their police, fire and public works departments. And for what—a machine that generates a minuscule amount of energy, turns solid waste into hazardous waste ash, and distributes mercury all over the region.

In a private conversation with one engineer involved with the project, I asked how he could, in good conscience, sell such a facility to the City of Detroit, knowing full well that an electrostatic precipitator would not capture any mercury. His response was: "They had their eyes open when they bought it." He sounded like a used car salesman, and, in effect he was saying, "Let the buyer beware!"

Until recently, I thought that the Detroit Municipal Incinerator debacle might end up holding the record as being the source of the most litigation. For those who might profit from litigation, I urge a careful watch of the problems unfolding as a result of incinerators at Hudson Falls, New York, and Lake County, Florida. It may be the case that the incinerator industry will soon create full employment of lawyers, a form of legal relief to be know as Aid to Dependent Lawyers (ADL).

When one considers the ash disposal problem, cost overruns, the need to retrofit, continuous operational problems, the air pollution problems and the spiraling cost to burn garbage now, the parallels with the nuclear power industry are uncanny.

Environmental groups are indebted to the incinerator industry: The one major benefit from the assault of the incinerator industry on our society has been the unified mobilization of citizens to confront this rush to burn. They have formed a network to help other communities at the drop of a hat when confronted with a waste-to-energy. A cadre of engineers, scientists, chemists and medical professionals are ready, willing and able to provide quality information and technical support.

A final note. I recently heard that the City of Detroit has sold its incinerator to Philip Morris for $54 million, a company with a long history of denial that it had anything to do with promoting lung cancer. It seems fitting.

This article was excerpted from a presentation to the Air and Waste Management Association Meeting in Kansas City.

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