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Burning questions 

by Pia K. Hansen


The grassroots group Boundary County Concerned Citizens (BCCC) has landed a visit from one of the most sought-after thinkers on waste management, Dr. Paul Connett. The group hopes he'll be able to shed some light on the waste-to-energy plant (WTE) that may soon be built on the Kootenai Tribe's land outside of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.


On Saturday, Connett will be speaking at Bonners Ferry Junior High School, addressing the group's concerns about the proposed $25 million project. Representatives from the Kootenai Tribe and from Energy Products of Idaho (the company that would build the plant) are invited to the forum as well, but neither have confirmed their participation.


Since the controversial WTE proposal was revived this spring, discussions and accusations have been flying back and forth in the small North Idaho community.


On one side is the Kootenai Tribe's representative and finance director Steven C. Garwood. He says building the 12.5 megawatt plant is an excellent opportunity for the tribe to make some money on the currently high power prices. He insists the technology used is environmentally safe -- all garbage would be sorted before it's being burned to cut down on dioxin pollution, for instance -- and that the plant would bring at least 31 badly needed jobs to the rural area.


On the other side is a group of local residents, BCCC, that claims it's not flat-out opposed to the project; however, it wants more information about the plant before it's built.


Connett, who's currently traveling in Canada, has given more than 1,500 public presentations on WTE technology in the U.S. as well as in 40 other countries. He is a professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University in New York, and publishes the newsletter Waste Not. His main argument is that WTE technology will become less and less viable because of its impact on the environment, and that it would be much more desirable to start doing research into sustainable ways of living on the planet.


"Far from being the universally proven technology claimed by its promoters, the incineration of municipal trash with energy recovery has been an experiment which after 20 years has left citizens of industrialized countries with a legacy of unacceptably high levels of dioxins and related compounds in their food, their tissues, their babies and their wildlife," Connett told the Fourth Annual International Waste-to-Energy Management Conference in Amsterdam in 1998.


But Garwood maintains that Connett's arguments about pollution don't apply to this WTE. He insists the technology the tribe will be using will eliminate most, if not all, air pollution problems mostly because the trash will be sorted before it's burned.


"We'd like to see what Connett has to say about this technology," says Linda Langness, a BCCC member who's not convinced.


While the BCCC has been very outspoken the last couple of weeks, the same can't be said about the tribe. The receptionist at the tribal office in Bonners Ferry said earlier this week that Garwood is the only person who's allowed to talk to the press about the project. Garwood couldn't be reached. And no official statements have been issued by the tribal council, something that's fueling BCCC members' distrust of the entire project.


"I'm not sure what they are doing any longer," says Michael Richardson, a BCCC spokesman. "The last I heard was that the tribal council tabled the vote on the project last Tuesday [Aug. 14]."


It also worries local residents that the proposed plant falls outside the Department of Environmental Quality's jurisdiction because it's being built on tribal land. There, it falls directly under the Environmental Protection Agency's jurisdiction, and BCCC members are concerned that the tribe is working on obtaining permits without informing the community.


"We have a hard time following what they are doing," says Langness. "I'm afraid they'll have all the permits in hand all of a sudden, and then there'll be nothing we can do as far as requiring further research or other environmental assessments than the ones they have done."


Earlier this year, the EPA's office in Seattle said it had outlined the requirements for the permit process, but had not received a construction schedule from the tribe yet. Once the EPA receives the application, it will take at least a year for the agency to turn around the permits -- including a public commentary period.


Langness says that the main purpose of the open forum is to provide and share information about WTE technology with anyone who's interested.


"This is a very big deal for us," she says. "We want the citizens of Boundary County to be able to judge for themselves about the impact and the feasibility of such a plant. I'm convinced Connett is the best we can get to help us do so."





Paul Connett is speaking on Saturday, Aug. 25, at 7 pm at Bonners Ferry Junior High School. Call: (208) 267-5680.
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