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MoCo Struggles With Incineration

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SILVER SPRING, Md.– While industrialized cities spew chemicals into the atmosphere, Montgomery County is wondering whether or not to take out the trash. 

The county is facing the decision of what to do with its incinerators, facilities that take in trash and produce ash to be shipped to a landfill. On one hand, they pollute the air. On  the other, what else can be done with the roughly 1,800 tons of trash currently being burned each day?

The incinerators are responsible for consuming around 98 percent of the trash burned in the state. The fires that power them also generate enough electricity to power around 40,000 homes, leading to tax cuts for the facilities.

Environmentalists say that because incinerators burn plastics and other materials that aren’t biodegradable, they “can produce air pollution, are expensive to run and devour resources such as paper and plastic that otherwise could be recycled,” says Eric Goldstein, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

“There’s no way to do incineration in a good way,” agrees Mike Ewall from the Energy Justice Network (EJN).

EJN reports that incinerators are even worse than coal burning factories, producing 28 times as much dioxin, two and a half times as much CO2, six times more lead and twice as much carbon monoxide.

Not only do incinerators spew harmful chemicals, but EJN says they’re also expensive to run. When looking at the cost to build, incineration is 2.7 times as expensive as coal and one and a half times as expensive as nuclear power plants (one of the most expensive forms of energy). In terms of operation and maintenance, the numbers are 11 times as expensive and 4.2 times more expensive, respectively.  

Groups like the Sierra Club have ideas like the Zero Waste Plan that are designed, if implemented, to get Montgomery County on the way to being an incinerator-free.

But others say incinerators can be modified with scrubbers and vents that can make them environmentally friendly, and point to studies that show no discernable health effects from incinerators. 

But the question still remains: what do we do with all the trash if the incinerators are gone? 

As it turns out, MoCo isn’t prepared to deal with it. There is no active landfill in the county, meaning the trash would have to be shipped out. 

“[The Shady Grove Transfer station] isn’t configured to send waste to landfills by rail,” wrote former County Executive Isiah Leggett in a letter to Christopher Skaggs, the executive director of Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. “A shift to landfilling would also necessitate approximately 30,000 tractor trailer round trips per year, to facilities located between 70 and 150 miles away. If the county were to shift away from incineration before 2026, it would result in an additional $18 million in increased costs per year.” 

Those opposing the closure of the facilities are quick to point out that closing the incinerator will lay the trash in the laps of less wealthy jurisdictions. If the incinerators are closed, there could be negative effects on poor and minority communities.

“I have real challenges about sending significant amounts of waste into small minority communities in Virginia or Inner-city Baltimore” says Leggett in a statement explaining his policy regarding incinerators.

Amid all the convoluted debates about industrialization over the past three years since the issue first made headlines with a trash fire, little has changed. 

Closing down the incinerators by 2022 was a big part of Elridge’s election campaign, but when he got into office, Leggett extended the contract with Covanta, the company that manages the incinerators, until 2026. 

Now Elridge is facing backlash for going back on his campaign promise. 

“I’m not going to do a bad solution in ’22 just to say I did it in ’22,” he says.“I would rather be on a path to a good solution. If it’s a year or two or three years later, I can live with it, as long as it’s a better solution than what we’re doing now.”

Stan Edwards, manager of the energy division of the Department of Environmental Protection, says the county currently has launched a “comprehensive planning process” entitled Aiming for Zero Waste: A Vision for Sustainable Materials Management in Montgomery County.

“The County is in the process of assessing how solid waste should be managed in the future.” says Edwards. 

But with no concrete plans being made, it’s hard to say what the future will hold. In the meantime, residents will continue to take out their trash, incinerators will continue to operate, and MoCo will continue to be baffled by the question: what to do with all the trash?

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