Eight national environmental groups are releasing a report today that, in Vermont, may mark the opening salvo in a debate over plans by an electric utility and a major trash hauler to someday build several trash-to-energy plants in the state.
The report, entitled “An Industry Blowing Smoke,” disputes claims by proponents of such plants that the advanced system they use to convert solid waste to renewable energy is both good for the environment and step toward energy independence.
“They provide little to no benefit when compared to mass burn incinerators, while being even a riskier development,” the report says in part. The report will be released this afternoon at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Providence, R.I.
“The core impacts of all types of incinerators remain the same: They are toxic to public health, harmful to the economy, environment and climate, and undermine recycling and waste reduction programs,” the report also said.
An advance copy of the report was provided to the Free Press by Jessica Edgerly, an official with Toxic Action Center’s office in Vermont. Edgerly said she fears a trash-to-energy facility could expose Vermonters to dangerous amounts of dioxin, a known carcinogen.
“We don’t need any incinerators in our state,” she said.
Jim Bohlig, chief development officer for Casella Waste Systems, and David Hallquist, chief executive officer of Vermont Electric Cooperative, disagree — vehemently.
Bohlig and Hallquist contend the small, trash-to-energy plants they hope will dot the state some time in the near future actually embody a green technology that is safe and ecologically sensible.
“Waste conversion technologies are a superior option to traditional solid waste management practices and these technologies are more than capable of meeting the most stringent air quality standards,” Bohlig said.
Richard Valentinetti, the longtime director of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Air Pollution Control Division, said he’s intrigued by idea of an environmentally friendly waste-to-energy plant, but skeptical as well.
“It’s still too early to size up something like this,” Valentinetti said. “Things are happening so quick with the issue of biofuels. You may jump on something today as being a big deal and find out it does not mean an awful lot in a year.” Bad reputation
If Casella and Vermont Electric Cooperative are to win support for their plans from state regulators and the public, they’ll have to overcome bad memories of Vermont’s most recent experience with trash incineration, the Vicon Recovery Systems plant in Rutland.
The $55 million waste-to-energy plant ran for just nine months in the late 1980s before its state air quality permit was pulled over health concerns about emission from its 165 foot-high stack.
John Casella, founder of Casella Waste Systems was for a time a part owner of Vicon. Bohlig said last week that Vicon got a bad rap, but what his firm is proposing now represents a whole new way of converting trash to energy.
Bohlig said the new “gasification” technology, unlike conventional combustion incinerators that burn trash and use the heat to make generate power, accomplishes the same end by heating the trash in an oxygen-deprived chamber to extremely high temperatures.
The heating process results in the production of “syngas” a synthesis gas that can be used to generate electricity. A small residue of dioxin — well below federal Environmental Protection Agency emission limits — is also produced.
The key, said Bohlig, is finding a way to separate any unwanted or hazardous solid waste out of the “waste stream” that fuels the plants. The company, which has been lauded for its commitment to recycling and green technology, is working on perfecting a front-end trash-sorting system at test sites in Boston and Buffalo.
Hallquist said if Casella can do that, their proposal to start building one-megawatt, trash-to-energy plants at sites around Vermont can work. He said the two men first pitched the plan to Valentinetti, representatives from environmental groups leaders and others during a meeting this spring.
“We hope that by that by the end of 2010 we will have fully vetted this and the issue of waste emissions,” Hallquist said.
Edgerly, of Toxic Action Center, said she hopes that day never comes.
“We have two major concerns,” she said. “The first is this will definitely create a new toxic waste problem for our state … Second, once you build these facilities, you have to provide the fuel to feed them and that demand will directly compete with the composting and recycling industry.”
She said there are other risks associated with the plants, should they malfunction. According to the report, a large German gasification incinerator had to be shut down in 2004 following an explosion, leaks in the heat chamber and the release of cyanide-contaminated wastewater from the facility.
There are about 140 gasification plants of various kinds worldwide, including 19 in the United States, according to the Gasification Technologies Council.
“Incinerating the nation’s trash is a dirty, damaging and short-sighted non solution to the waste management problem,” said Elizabeth Courtney of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, another environmental group opposed to the trash-to-energy concept.
“Recycling, composting, reducing the amount of waste we generate and consuming less in general is the only real long-term solution that helps protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and makes the most efficient use of the world’s dwindling natural resources,” Courtney said
Hallquist said he’s not fazed by the report or the opposition of environmental groups to his and Bohlig’s plans.
“I think a healthy public debate on this is a good thing,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is bring a project to Vermont out of ignorance that’s going to cause a problem.”
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or e-mail at email@example.com. To get Free Press headlines delivered free to your e-mail, sign up at www.burlingtonfreepress.com/newsletters.