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A tale of two trash burners 

by Pia K. Hansen


Steven Garwood is a bit tired of all the incinerator talk around Bonners Ferry, Idaho, these days. People have gotten it all wrong, and that wears him down.


"I'm so tired of people using that word. We are not proposing an incinerator," he says, "we are proposing a waste-to-energy plant, and there is a big difference between the two. With an incinerator, the point is just to burn stuff to get rid of it -- in a waste-to-energy plant, you produce power."


Garwood is the administrative/finance director of the Kootenai Tribe in North Idaho, and he's convinced -- as are at least some members of the Kootenai Tribal Council -- that he has found a viable solution to a couple of problems the tribe and nearby Bonners Ferry are facing.


The tribe is proposing to build and operate a 12.5-megawatt waste-to-energy plant (WTE) on its land outside of Bonners Ferry. The project comes with a $25 million price tag, of which almost $23 million would come from undisclosed private investors.


First, Garwood says, a WTE would produce power, something that's a hot commodity these days and would be a good source of revenue for the tribe. Secondly, it would bring at least 31 living wage jobs to Boundary County -- "jobs you can actually support a family on without having your wife go to work when the kids are small," as he puts it. Finally, it would eliminate the need for landfills, which Garwood says are notoriously bad.


The proposal to build a WTE on tribal land in rural Idaho is by no means a new idea.


"The Clinton administration wanted to promote the use of biomass technology instead of the use of fossil fuels. The idea was that landfills are not a good thing and that though natural gas is a cleaner energy source than coal -- it's not a lot cleaner," says Garwood. "So in '95, we got a grant through the Department of Energy to do a study of the construction of a WTE. We got $100,000, and the study was completed in '97." Back then, a megawatt would sell for about $28, and the Tribal Council decided it wasn't economically feasible to go through with the project.


Since then, power prices have skyrocketed. Over the past year, a megawatt hour has sold for anywhere from $30 to $1,800 (although the price was recently capped by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at around $150). With those prices in mind, Garwood found the old study, dusted it off and read it again.


"We contacted a consultant and updated it to today's power prices and circumstances," he says. "The Tribal Council gave its permission to everything. And the project looks a lot better today, than it did back then."


Still, nothing is set in stone just yet.


Meanwhile, many local residents are not exactly greeting the project with open arms. Instead, they seem ready to fight the project.


"I can't believe that anyone would even consider building an incinerator out here," says Linda Langness, who's on the board of the newly formed Boundary County Concerned Citizens. "I don't know, someone has made this sound like a really good thing, but I'm not sure they understand the implications of building such a facility."


Garwood seems to think people are getting carried away prematurely.


"We haven't done the environmental assessment study yet," he says. "We haven't selected a site yet, and there has been no formal applications filed either. We're still in the fact-gathering phase."





Waste-to-energy plants are known producers of dioxin, which is considered among the most dangerous of carcinogens. Plant operators say they can minimize air pollution risks with screening systems, but in Spokane at least, that has yet to be proven. A health impact study, which was to be completed before the Spokane plant began operating in 1991 has yet to be finalized.


The Spokane WTE plant's emissions are tested for heavy metals and other pollutants on an ongoing basis by an independent consulting firm -- but not tested for dioxins. Why? Because there currently is no technology available that allows for the continuous testing of emissions for dioxin, and there are no dioxin limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) either.


Other common air pollutants from WTEs are heavy metals mercury and lead, as well as carbon monoxide (a greenhouse gas), and sulfuric and nitrous oxide (chemical components that contribute to the formation of acid rain).


Considering all this controversy, the obvious question that area environmentalists are asking loud and clear is why would anyone want to build such a plant?


Garwood has an answer to that: He insists the technology in the proposed Kootenai WTE would eliminate most, if not all, air pollution problems.


"We are going to do things totally different from how they do them in Spokane," he says. "Basically, they take the trash can and empty it into the burner with whatever is in it." At the proposed Kootenai WTE, Garwood says all trash is going to be sorted -- a method also known as biomass technology.


"We'll take out all recyclables that are still in the trash -- either mechanically or by hand -- and the plant will recycle that," says Garwood. "We'll also take out anything that shouldn't go in the burner in the first place, such as drywall and batteries, certain plastics and aluminum cans." This should cut down on dioxins, which mainly stem from burning PVC and other chlorinated materials.


Staff at the Kootenai WTE would actually sort through the 200,000 tons of solid waste, sawmill waste and other hog fuel the facility is designed to handle every year. Some locals say that may be a good idea, but they doubt it can be done.


"Do you think someone is going to reach down and find every single dirty baby diaper and take it out?" asks Langness. "Personally, I don't think so."


Sorting of the trash is key to achieving the low emissions this new approach promises, says Garwood. Developed by Energy Products of Idaho in Coeur d'Alene, this "fluidized bed combustion technology" ensures a much better combustion of moisture rich fuels -- as kitchen trash, for instance -- at the same time as it cuts down on emissions and ash, according to the company's Web site.


"In the Spokane WTE, the trash is dumped on a grate, which shifts back and forth as the combustion is going on," says Garwood. "With our type of technology, the trash is mixed with sand, which is blown around as the combustion takes place. The sand scrapes off the layers that are already burned, so on a whole it burns a lot better."


This type of burning, says Garwood, makes for a lot cleaner process with much less waste after the burning. Most WTEs have to pay to get rid of what's left after the combustion process. Some ash may even be classified as a hazardous waste product because it's contaminated with heavy metals, but not in this case, says Garwood.


"The ash is not toxic after this process, and there is significantly less [not properly burned] material to haul away at the end of the process," he adds. "Between the burning and the sorting, very little comes out at the end of the process that hasn't been burned."





Since the proposed WTE plant would be located on tribal land, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality does not have jurisdiction over it; it will fall directly under the federal EPA's jurisdiction.


Dan Meyer, in the EPA's regional office in Seattle, says the agency has met with the Kootenai Tribe but that's as far as the permit process has gone.


"We outlined the requirements for the tribe, and they have since put together an application for the project, but they haven't given us a construction schedule yet," says Meyer. "Once we receive the application, the permit is turned around in about a year, including time for public hearings and the following address of any comments that are brought forth."


Some local residents believe the tribe is beyond federal regulations, but that's not correct.


"In our case, we have to go through more regulatory levels," says Garwood. "If we were a non-Indian facility, we would be classified as a minor source of air pollution, and we wouldn't have to go through the process of obtaining a PSD [prevention of significant air quality deterioration] permit."


Meyer seconds that: "Trust me, they must have a permit before they begin building. As far as we are concerned, this is going to be a major source [of air pollution]."


Another question is whether rural Boundary County really needs a WTE to get rid of its solid waste. Today, the waste is deposited in an unlined landfill, which is operated under an exemption from current environmental regulations because the population in the area is sparse and the annual solid waste tonnage is low.


"I can't see it any other way than they must have to import trash from other places. Their proposal says the WTE needs 100,000 tons of waste per year to pay for itself, and 200,000 tons to make money," says Langness. "Well, by the most generous estimates Boundary County only produces 7,000 tons a year -- the rest has got to come from somewhere else."


One external source that's already mentioned in the proposal will be the Creston Landfill located just north of the border in British Columbia, on the Salish First Nation's land.


This landfill is nearing capacity, and in exchange for using solid waste from there as fuel, the Creston Landfill will take fly and ordinary ash from the Kootenai WTE.


Other than that, Garwood says the Kootenai plant potentially could take solid waste from all over the region -- including Spokane and Coeur d'Alene.


"In the first phase of the project, we'll burn just wood waste from sawmills around here. There's plenty of that and we can get it for $3 a ton," says Garwood. "In the second phase, we'll burn more and more sorted solid waste. In the third phase, we'll sort out the biodegradables and construct a methane gas facility which can extract and utilize the gas from the waste."


He says he doesn't understand why environmentalists are so up in arms about the proposal. He has personally called several environmental organizations who admit biomass technology is vastly different from mass burning technology -- and a good solution.


"My issue with local environmental groups is that they don't look at the big picture. They should look at what comes out of natural gas fired plants and compare to what's going to come out of this one -- it's almost the same," says Garwood. "At the same time, we are reducing the need for landfills, increasing recycling and bringing 31 direct high paying jobs to Boundary County."


But the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) is opposed to the project.


"At first we were neutral, because we didn't know what the tribe was proposing," says Jerry Pavia of the ICL. "Then we researched the project and the technology, and now the main reason we are opposed to the WTE is that we feel the economics don't work."


Pavia says he doesn't doubt that the EPI technology is the best available on the market, but because he doubts the plant can run as smoothly as projected, he's still concerned about the environmental impact it will have.


"Right now, we are all about educating the public and the tribe by sharing the research we are doing," he says.


The same goes for Concerned Citizens of Boundary County (CCBC). "We have met with the tribe, and we are sharing all the research we do with the Tribal Council," says Michael Richardson, CCBC spokesperson. "We have gone through a lot of information on almost every single incinerator in the U.S. We believe we have evidence that these WTEs don't work. Yes, they will use pollution control and they will comply with EPA standards -- but EPA standards are still two to three times less stringent than they are in Europe. So as far as we are concerned, there is still going to be toxic emissions."


Greenpeace just released a report titled, Incineration and Human Health, which identifies more than a dozen serious health effects by workers and communities at or near incinerators. Rich Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace's toxics campaign, doesn't believe biomass technology is much better than regular incineration.


"Burning is burning no matter what technology you use. The only difference is what goes into air pollution and what goes into the ash," says Hind. "You can't turn frogs into gold, just as you can't get rid of lead and mercury."


Hind says building new WTEs and incinerators to cash in on today's high-energy prices is a very dangerous trend; power plants should rather be replaced by recycling or windmills. "If you go through the trouble of sorting the waste as thoroughly as these people propose to do, you don't need to burn it. You'd be much better off with a recycling program," he says. "Some bureaucrats think they are safe if they require the incinerator to only do this and that. It's like they believe they have Ralph Nader running the plant -- well, they don't. Just because there is a limit doesn't mean people stick to it. Next time you see anybody driving the speed limit, call and let me know."


But Garwood remains optimistic, and the tribe has applied for a $500,000 community block grant -- with the city of Bonners Ferry's blessing -- to continue the research into the project.


"We still believe we can do it in a clean, responsible and cost effective way," he says.





A plan to convert Spokane's WTE plant to energy production is raising eyebrows at City Hall -- and hopes among environmentalists


Two Eastern Washington University economics professors raised more than a few eyebrows at City Hall earlier this month. Tom Truelove and David Bunting released a study saying the Spokane waste-to-energy (WTE) plant could be transformed into a natural gas burning power plant, allowing the city to make money in the booming power markets.


"Everything would stay the same, except the solid waste would be hauled away," says Bunting. "All we are saying is, we believe the incinerator could be used better, like this, than it currently is."


Wheelabrator, the company that operates the Spokane WTE, requires the processing of at least 248,000 tons of garbage every year. The power generated at the facility is sold to Puget Energy for a set price, on a contract that runs through 2011. This power revenue pays for the construction bonds.


The EWU professors' study -- which was commissioned by the Gallatin Group on behalf of an undisclosed client -- argues that the tipping fee at the WTE, which will soon be $98 per ton, is much more expensive than the tipping fee at the Roosevelt Regional Landfill in Klickitat County, where the same fee, including transportation, is $48. That fact combined with the high power prices makes it economically feasible to transform the WTE to a power plant and haul the trash away.


But in a written response to the study, city of Spokane officials say it would cost $20 million to terminate the contract with Wheelabrator, a cost that's not included in the study.


"No, that's not included, but we don't think that's a show stopper," says Bunting. "If that $20 million was financed through the power sales, all that would add would be $2 per megawatt -- with current prices, that's not a lot."


The city also states that after the plant construction bonds are paid off in 2011, the money generated at the Spokane WTE could be put to other uses, including lowering the tipping fee. Of the current $97 per ton tipping fee, about half goes to pay for closure of landfills, recycling efforts, the city/county compost facility and educational programs.


The study assumes it will be possible to continue to buy natural gas at relatively low prices and sell the power at high prices -- a standpoint the city sees as overly optimistic.


"We are always supportive of looking at ways to improve efficiencies and gain savings for our customers -- the citizens of Spokane," says Roger Flint, division director for public works and utilities for the city of Spokane. "But in this case, the cost efficiencies don't seem to be there."


The city has looked into possibly adding a gas-fired generation plant at the WTE site, but expensive expansions of the natural gas line and the power grid at the site are prohibitive to this solution.


Still, Bunting maintains the city should take a closer look at the study. "Can I guarantee that this will be an economic benefit to the city? Well, the answer to that has to be maybe," he says. "All we are saying is there is not a compelling reason to stop [research] here. Economic decisions are never crystal clear, and our study is mainly suggesting this transition could be a good idea. I guess we're saying, when opportunity knocks you still have to open the door."


The study also offered hope to those in the community who believe the WTE plant is poisoning citizens. While a health impact study was supposed to be completed before the plant opened in 1991, for a variety of reasons, that study is yet to be completed, nearly 10 years later.


"We are working on the study, but it will be awhile longer before it's done," says Lloyd Brewer, environmental programs manager for the city of Spokane. "The contract with our consultants, Pioneer Technology out of Olympia, ends by the end of October. We are committed to getting it done within the contract period, but to say anything more than that right now would be difficult."


As the study is being worked on, a local grassroots group, People for Environmental Action and Children's Health (PEACH) has waged a major battle against the WTE plant, saying that it's dangerous to area residents because it emits dioxin, which is a PBT (a persistent, bio accumulative, toxic chemical).


In a recent statement, PEACH's president Bright Spirit said: "In our Spokane community, we have double the national rate of asthma, above average rates of cancer and alarming levels of developmental disabilities. Burning our garbage is poisoning our children."


By turning the plant into a natural gas-fired energy producer instead of a garbage burner, air pollution would not be eliminated, but dioxin could be removed from the emissions stream.
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