Fiscal Woes, Long-Held Fears Spur Waste-to-Energy Debate

Fiscal Woes, Long-Held Fears Spur Waste-to-Energy Debate

October 11, 2012 at 11:59 am

More trash awaits processing in Peekskill. After the burning, the ash is cooled and sifted for recyclable metal and the remains, about 10 percent of the initial volume, are sent to landfills. Photo by Marc Fader/ City Limits.

In the years since a tugboat nosed the last barge full of garbage into the massive Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island when it was officially closed back in March of 2001, the tax burden and environmental impact of dealing with New York City’s trash have increased dramatically. City officials estimate that in a single year, tractor-trailers log 40 million miles to haul 3 million tons of trash from the five boroughs to out-of-state landfills, mostly in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The flat cost of shipping trash to landfills has risen from $62 per ton in 2001 to $92 per ton last year. A recent report by the Citizen’s Budget Commission concluded that, “The waste that New York City sends to landfills generates about 679,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year – the equivalent of adding more than 133,000 cars to the roads.”

To address the growing problem, Mayor Michael Bloomberg included a partial solution in his 30-year master plan for the city, PlaNYC, which calls for the construction of a new Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility to process trash that cannot be recycled. A Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued in March of 2012 to the private sector to build a facility, “…using reliable, cost-effective, sustainable and environmentally sound waste to clean energy technology.”

Among the requirements in the RFP was a mandate that the pilot facility be located either in the five boroughs or within an 80-mile radius of the city. It would have to begin by processing 450 tons per day, with the city making no capital investment but paying a tipping fee once it starts sending trash. The 450-ton per day capacity would have to double if the pilot is successful. The bid went out in March, applications were due by June 5th and the award was supposed to be announced in early September. A Bloomberg spokesman last week said the proposals were still under review and an announcement might be made in November. The administration estimates that over 30 years if expanded facilities could accommodate two million tons of trash annually, the city would save about $119 million dollars per year and combined greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 240,000 metric tons per year.

Almost immediately, environmental justice advocates began protesting, saying the writing on the wall leaned toward a WTE process called thermal processing, which many feel is a fancy code for incineration. The New York Public Interest Research Group reacted to the RFP’s announcement by organizing protests and labeling thermal processing as unsafe, unproven and inequitable to communities of color.

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