Burn Baby Burn

by Doug Nadvornick & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ate in 2011, Spokane Waste-to-Energy plant officials may hold a gigantic mortgage burning party to celebrate making the last payment on the bonds that financed the West Plains incinerator. Around that same time the contract will end with Wheelabrator Spokane, the company that has operated the trash burning plant for the city since it opened in 1991.

That leaves some burning questions: Will Spokane continue to torch its trash? (Probably.) If so, will the city opt to operate the plant itself or re-up with Wheelabrator? (Don't know.) Will unincorporated Spokane County and the cities and towns now under contract to route their refuse to the incinerator choose different paths for their garbage? (Don't know.) And once the bonds are retired, will the cost of hauling a load to the plant go down? (Probably.) "We're working on projections as to how much the tipping fees will decrease" from the current $98 a ton, says Suzanne Tresko, the recycling coordinator for the Spokane Regional Solid Waste System.

Tresko and her colleagues have nearly finished writing a new management plan for the system. It hasn't received much public attention yet -- in part, Tresko believes, because there's nothing urgent driving it. "We're not up against a timeline like we were 20 years ago when we needed to close our [north-side] landfill and find another place for our garbage," she says.

Solid waste system officials held public meetings in January and earlier this month. They plan to release their draft plan for a 30-day public review early in April, before submitting it to the Washington Department of Ecology in May.

Much of the plan focuses on uncontroversial items, such as removing as much recyclable material from the waste stream as possible to minimize the amount of trash burned (and, if possible, to avoid having to build a third boiler at the plant). The main area of disagreement is political: Should the city of Spokane continue to manage the regional trash system (incinerator, transfer stations, recycling programs, etc.) as it has for the last 16 years? Should the head of the city's solid waste department also run the incinerator?

There are some who believe the city of Spokane and Wheelabrator have a pretty sweet deal. Take out the $17 million in annual bond payments and the plant actually makes money. Power generated from burning garbage is sold to Puget Power, netting the city about $12.5 million a year, compared to about $11 million in plant operating costs.

Critics argue that even though county residents provide a big chunk of its revenue when they take their trash to transfer stations, the county has little say in the oversight of the plant.

"I don't feel like we're in a good place here," says Spokane County Commissioner Mark Richard. "Many of our core concerns haven't been injected into the discussion."

Commissioners sit on the two committees that provide advice to the system -- the Liaison Board of local elected officials and the Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC) -- with elected officials and members of the disposal and construction industries.

Still, Richard says, their authority is limited. While the commissioners do have the power to accept or reject changes in tipping fees (and recently rejected a proposed increase), they have no control over spending at the plant, except for expenditures of more than $1 million. Richard says he isn't confident that the solid waste system spends its money well because its finances aren't transparent.

"I think we need a third-party independent audit," he says.

SWAC Chairman Scott Carpenter wants more than that. Last September he advised the entities that are contracted to send their trash to the incinerator to consider a different form of garbage governance.

"It would be in the best interest of all stakeholders within Spokane County that the Director of the Regional Solid Waste System be independent of the City of Spokane," Carpenter wrote.

"The city is one of the incinerator's major customers," says Carpenter, an Itron employee. "That's like Itron letting its major customer manage its business. We think that's a conflict of interest. What's good for the city is not necessarily good for the rest of the system."

A change of governance is possible, says Damon Taam, the system's contract manager, but not until interlocal agreements with the system's customers expire -- in 2011 for the cities of Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake, and 2014 to 2016 for Spokane County and the other cities and towns.

"The system is owned and operated by the city of Spokane," says Taam. "It's not legally possible to suddenly change and give the plant to another jurisdiction."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ritics say they're not talking about a change of ownership, just a change in management. Carpenter says he hopes a new oversight board can be created this year as part of the new management plan.

Some, like Mike Noder of MoMike Demolition and a member of the SWAC, believe the process of creating a new management plan is a sham. "A propaganda ploy," he says.

Noder claims solid waste officials are more interested in perpetuating an inefficient system than in holding the city and Wheelabrator accountable for years of poor spending decisions and some of the nation's highest tipping fees. He and several friends contribute information (and snarky commentary) about the incinerator to two websites, www.spokanewastetoenergy.org and www.spokanewasteofenergy.org. They and several other longtime critics of the plant would love to see the trash burner shuttered when the bonds are retired.

Richard and Carpenter aren't ready to go that far.

"No one is interested in mothballing the plant," says Richard, "but we want to look at waste-to-energy plus options. We want flexibility." And options.

"[Spokane City Councilmember] Bob Apple talked recently about selling the plant to a private contractor. What would that mean? There are all kinds of alternatives available to us."

Carpenter says if solid waste system officials ignore the concerns of the county and people outside the city of Spokane, "the players may go off and do their own thing. There are three major waste companies with landfills here looking for customers."