Waste to Energy: Time to Reconsider?

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Now that Mayor Bloomberg’s been re-elected for a second and final term, his administration can once again focus on an issue that was placed on the back burner during the campaign: garbage.

REPORTER: The city council is considering Bloomberg’s 20-year plan to retool four city-owned waterfront waste transfer stations, use them to pack garbage into containers, barge the containers to New Jersey or Staten Island, and put them on trains to distant landfills. Environmental advocates like Mayor Bloomberg’s idea because it reduces long-haul trucks, and promises to close private garbage transfer stations in several overburdened neighborhoods.

But what if the mayor spent some of the political capital of his record re-election victory on pursuing another way? One that several scientists, including some at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, believe is environmentally superior to landfilling trash. And that’s burning it. Burning it for electricity.

BOSSOTTI:: In a nutshell, we are taking the municipal solid waste that you and I throw out in our homes and we convert it into energy at temperatures up to 2,000 degrees.

REPORTER: Steve Bossotti is the manager of Covanta Energy’s waste-to-energy plant in Hempstead. The facility is one of four on Long Island. It burns about 900-thousand tons of garbage a year, and creates electricity to run the plant, and power 65-thousand homes. That sound behind him is from fans that help control temperatures inside the combustion chamber.

BOSSOTTI: and what you hear is the little siftings of stuff, glass, broken glass, maybe some aluminum…it’ll fall through the grate and go out through the ash to where it gets recovered further down.

REPORTER: You’re probably wondering how any part of this process can be environmentally advantageous. Burning garbage, burning anything – oil, natural gas, wood – produces bad things, like mercury, dioxin, smog, soot, acid gasses and greenhouse gasses. Nickolas Themelis says, fear not.

THEMELIS:You know, fire was a gift of the gods to people wasn’t it? Prometheus, in Greek mythology, got chained to the rocks because he gave – fire has been a good thing.

REPORTER: Themelis heads the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University. A chemical engineer by training, he’s spent the last eight years studying waste to energy. Opponents call it incineration, for a reason. The word conjures up unregulated, uncontrolled smokestacks, belching toxic clouds. Indeed, in the 1980s, waste to energy plants were top sources of mercury and dioxin. But the EPA issued new standards in the mid-90s, and since then, waste to energy plants have made dramatic improvements. Themelis says mercury emissions from the country’s waste to energy plants have plummeted, from 80 tons annually in 1989, to about two tons in 2000.

THEMELIS:if you start like this, “oh yeah, the poisons will come out.” People say millions of tons of dioxins. And the fact is, it’s grams of dioxins. So, what are we going to go by?

REPORTER: Specifically, twelve grams of dioxin a year, says Themelis, a 99 percent reduction in dioxin levels since the late 80s. Backyard barrel burning and fireplaces generate fifty times that amount. Waste to energy has so improved its emissions, the EPA now considers the industry one of the cleanest producers of electricity.

At the plant in Hempstead, emissions levels are monitored all day, every day, by people like Gary Unhammer.

UNHAMMER:They’re very – I’m sorry, one second, gotta make a little adjustment here.

REPORTER: What’d you just notice?

UNHAMMER:The steam flow is dropping a little bit. (beep, beep) I just have to adjust the air flow right now.

REPORTER: You know that barrel of oil that cost as much as 70 dollars last summer? A ton of garbage generates as much electricity as that barrel of oil…and New York City is a veritable Middle East of garbage, pumping out 12-thousand tons of it a day. What about the ash? Environmental groups have called it “toxic,” and the ash from the smokestacks is, but when it’s mixed with bottom ash, the residue inside the combuster, it is stabilized, and is no longer considered a hazardous waste. It, too, is landfilled, but it represents ten percent by volume of the original garbage. And it does not give off the potent, smelly greenhouse gas methane, the way rotting garbage does. John Waffenschmidt is an ecologist, and the director of business development at Covanta Energy, which runs the Hempstead plant.

WAFFENSCHMIDT: If you actually look at it, like, again, using science and measure, what comes out of ash, what comes out of garbage, what’s emitted from ash, what’s emitted from garbage, you;ll actually conclude that you’d rather sit next to an ash landfill than a garbage landfill.

REPORTER: Allan Hershkowitz: Frankly, there are many, many concerns when it comes to incinerators.

REPORTER: Allan Hershkowitz is a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. While he concedes waste to energy plants are cleaner, he believes we still know too little about their emissions’ overall effect on public health to take the risk…especially in New York City, which already fails to meet federal health-based air quality standards.

HERSHKOWITZ: And by the way, it’s an inferior form of materials management. We would absolutely do better ecological and economically if instead of incinerating paper, we recycled it, plastics, we recycled it. It does not make sense to take oil from the Arctic Refuge or from other ecologically outstanding areas or from politically unstable dictatorships from the Middle East, turn them into a plastic bottle, use it once and then burn it. When we could be taking that highly refined product and recycle it over and over and over again at energy savings.

REPORTER: A draft Sanitation Department study of our garbage found New Yorkers are not robust recyclers. Fifty-three percent of our recyclable paper, and 43 percent of recyclable metals, plastic and glass end up in landfills. Mayor Bloomberg’s draft solid waste management plan includes aggressive goals to increase recycling in the next ten years. There’s also a bill in the city council that would require electronics manufacturers to take back and recycle old computers and other e-waste if they want to do business here. Bill Sheehan, with the Product Policy Institute, says when government officials focus on incineration, they concede defeat in the battle to rein in our throwaway society, and get manufacturers to do their part.

SHEEHAN: Three quarters of what municipalities are now managing is product waste and that’s where we feel the inefficiency is, and we’re proposing that there be a gradual phasing out of this system where taxpayers will pay to manage anything that comes down the pike.

REPORTER: Garbage incineration advocates agree with environmentalists: there has to be more recycling. EPA statistics show communities that burn garbage for electricity have higher recycling rates than the national average. But, unlike local environmental officials, Covanta’s John Waffenschmidt doesn’t think garbage reduction, and garbage burning, are mutually exclusive.

WAFFENSCHMIDT: The question here is not, what is the best thing to do for recycling? We should do the best thing we can do for recycling. We should do waste reduction, those are the steps we should take first. But once we’ve done that, there’s still waste sitting at people’s doors right now.

REPORTER: The European Union has already made a decision about what to do with that waste by the door. It should NOT be landfilled. Member countries must cut back their landfilled waste by 65 percent. And what they’ll be allowed to landfill must be non-recyclable and non-combustible. For the EU, it’s recycle, or burn. Antonio Bonomo, with the Italian waste to energy company, ASM, says if energy can be extracted from garbage, why waste it?

BONOMO: I think, generally speaking, in the U.S., there has been no commitment to energy saving. But if you have scenario that oil prices is very low, the incentive to save it is low. But now that the price of energy is much higher, and it will go even higher, then from this perspective, there is a good opportunity for investment.

REPORTER: Bonomo was at Columbia University for an international conference about the latest waste to energy technologies. Most of the world’s 600 waste to energy plants are in Europe, many in countries with high recycling rates: Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands. There, they appear to have moved beyond the debate of whether we should be burning garbage for energy.

Here, we have not, and that’s due in large part to the thick, political scar tissue we’ve developed since the fight to stop Mayor Ed Koch’s plan in 1981 to build a waste to energy plant in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Harry Szarpansky: I was going thru trying to find old photos of the protest by Hasidic community, but I couldn’t lay my hands on it…

REPORTER: Deputy Commissioner Harry Szarpansky worked on the project. The plant would have been built directly across the street from a densely-populated residential area of Greenpoint –Williamsburg. About three thousand tons of garbage would have been barged to the facility, and burned for electricity. Szarpansky remembers the public outcry. He’s framed a New York Times photograph of the sanitation commissioner, and an article, dated January 28th 1983.

Szarpansky: This is Norman Steisel, standing and testifying at the Board of Estimate, with the audience….

REPORTER: Steisel has his arms crossed and his face set. Seated behind him in the hearing room are row upon row of Hasidic Jews.

SZARPANSKY:This is when the community voiced their objections and they turned out en masse. City Hall was surrounded by yellow school busses which brought, some estimated, 50,000 members of the Williamsburg community to Lower Manhattan.

REPORTER: It took 15 years, but public officials eventually lost the political will to build the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator, and it was finally removed from the city’s solid waste management plan. In 1996, Governor Pataki signed a law closing Fresh Kills, AND banning any waste to energy project at the Navy Yard that might have replaced the landfill. Many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief. Politicians applaued. Environmental groups considered it a step in the right direction. Not Jack Lauber.

LAUBER:I happened to know what happened there and it was tragic.

REPORTER: Lauber, a retired biochemical engineer who used to work for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates New York’s ten waste to energy plants, saw a missed opportunity for the city to get something in place that would have evolved as the technology, and the standards, improved.

LAUBER:Those who were stirring up people and creating all this fear just didn’t understand the technology. I know, I dealt with some of them. It became just pure hysteria, you know, the devil burns and the Lord recycles, and that’s about how logical it was. [laughs]

REPORTER: Shortly after Mayor Bloomberg took office, he started talking about reconsidering waste to energy….but a chorus of criticism from elected officials and environmental advocates prompted the Mayor to back off that idea within months. Meanwhile, a task force of sanitation and economic development officials is skipping waste to energy technologies altogether, and is studying brand-new methods that may be commercially feasible – and publicly acceptable -- for New York City twenty years from now. Deputy Sanitation Commissioner Walter Cwartacky, who also worked on the rookyn Navy Yard project, wonders if the effort will mean anything in the end.

CWARTACKY:New technology, resource recovery, waste to energy, all of them work, but all of them need sites. Where are you going to put a facility to which 100 to 200 trucks a day are gonna go?

REPORTER: No one wants to live next to a waste transfer station. No one wants big, smelly gargage trucks thundering down their street. Mayor Bloomberg’s plan would redress some of those burdens, which have been borne disproportionately by the neighborhoods of Greenpoint/Williamsburg, and Hunts Point in the Bronx. The mayor’s barge to rail system still depends on landfills, though. Columbia University’s Nickolas Themelis points out that landfills, and their greenhouse gasses, affect us all.

THEMELIS:I think all the mayor is doing with that is he’s cutting down the transportation effects. He does not do away with effects of landfills. That still continues. The landfills have a modern life of 15 to 20 years. Just think of that.

REPORTER: Themelis and other advocates for burning trash for electricity firmly believe science is on their side. But so far, politics is not.

Correction: Harry Szarpanski and Walter Czwartacky were misidentified as Deputy Commissioners in the New York City Department of Sanitation. Szarpanski is an assistant commissioner, and Czwartacky is a director of special projects.