Waste-to-Energy: Step Backward or Forward?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to turn trash into energy — at least a little bit. The city collects more than three million tons of waste a year from residences and institutions, and the administration has proposed a pilot project to convert some of that into electricity.

But both the location and the technology are "To Be Determined." The city is currently soliciting proposals, and if a project gets off the ground, it could take years to develop.

Last week, City Hall altered one attention-grabbing part of its Request for Proposals: it’s no longer offering Fresh Kills as a possible site for a “Waste-to-Energy” plant, following an outcry by residents of Staten Island, elected officials and environmentalists.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn praised the withdrawal, saying a plant would “a step backwards towards the bad old days of Fresh Kills Landfill.”  Her rival candidate to succeed Mayor Bloomberg, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, said “It is a tremendous relief that Staten Islanders no longer face the prospect of an experimental waste-to-energy plant at Fresh Kills.”

But Nickolas Themelis, director of Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center, said politicians and environmentalists are using an out-of-date caricature of waste-to-energy technology.

“They’re describing the plants in the 1980s,” Themelis said. He explained tighter standards by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and improved technology have greatly reduced toxic emissions — for instance, from 80 tons of mercury a year nationwide to one ton.

The request for proposals specifically excludes "conventional incineration" or "mass burn" methods.

Themelis said “combustion is combustion,” but there are significant ways of mitigating what gets into the air. One technique in widespread use is to inject activated carbon dust to capture heavy metals.

Nick Dmytryszyn, an environmental engineer for Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, said the city needs to consider all options technologically — but not geographically.

“We’re in favor of the concept. What is there to fear, if it's a modest pilot project that meets environmental clean air criteria and is made with private money?” Dmytryszyn said. “But why single out Fresh Kills, instead of just saying ‘any properly zoned public or private land?’ With Fresh Kills, they’re just opening old wounds, and it’s totally unnecessary.”


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Comments [4]

nasser sarari from yemen

Dear Sirs
please inform me the one ton of waste how many watt of power give you
at temp. 35c

Sep. 07 2012 06:23 AM
David Casler from Columbia University, Manhattan

@ Elm Park Civic

Your odor point is valid, but out of date. A modern waste to energy plant has a negative air pressure that passes from the collection station to the combustion chamber, where it is used to ignite the fuel stock. At this stage, the aromatic hydrocarbons you smell are rendered into carbon dioxide, which is odorless.

Apr. 20 2012 08:02 PM
Elm Park Civic from Elm Park, Staten Island

No matter how clean, odorless, safe, etc. the plant may be, the garbage will not be teleported in: it will travel by truck; the garbage will be open to the air while being transferred into the facility, or it will be stored somewhere pending the conversion. For some reason no one considers this! Elm Park is an area with residential - peoples' homes! located adjacent to the M3-1 zoning required for a waste-to-energy facility. While the RFP calls for environmental justice consideration, our experience shows that to be a window-dressing requirement. We have been told that this plant can go anywhere, as of right, and that our concerns are baseless because these plants are so clean and safe. We are also told that our concern makes us "job killers."

Apr. 17 2012 07:27 AM
Ranjith from New York

Please find a written explanation of Professor Nickolas Themelis to the last question of this program here

Thank you

Apr. 17 2012 02:53 AM

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