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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fact or Fiction? Fact or Opinion?

Jan H. Gardner

The Internet provides many of us with the ability to communicate in an instance and with an ability to discover an incredible amount of information on any topic with the touch of a few keystrokes. We can "Google" any phrase, person, place, or topic and have multiple sources of information appear before our eyes almost instantaneously! It seems magical, particularly for those of us who remember the task of researching homework assignments at the public library using a paper card catalogue!

This abundance of readily available information has its advantages and disadvantages. The sheer amount of information can be overwhelming and difficult to absorb. It can also be difficult to sort through conflicting information and details to determine what is accurate and factually correct. There are many sources of information that are not fact based but rather opinion based making the information that seems factual unreliable. Some information may be inaccurate or incomplete because the source has simply not done their homework (presumably the old fashioned way)! Just because it is in print and published online doesn't mean the information provided is accurate.

Sources of information that could be unreliable or more opinion than fact include websites and web pages created by individuals or unidentified groups, wikipedia and other wiki's, Internet forums, You Tube, and blogs. Many of these sources provide opinion and information based on opinion. It is important to recognize that almost anyone can create a website. If the source of the information or the individual or organization responsible for the website is unidentified, then the information may not be credible. The best sources of information are often from websites established by longstanding, known, and identified sources. It is difficult for the average person researching a topic online to sort fact from fiction and fact from opinion!

The Internet has become a significant source of information and commentary about the solid waste issues facing Frederick County. There are Internet forums with threads debating the pros and cons of WTE, recycling, composting, and resource recovery. Frequently, these forum discussions go "off topic" and sometimes the dialogue is contentious. There is a mix of information and opinion in these discussion forums. There are new websites focused specifically on Frederick County solid waste issues, at least one without an identified source. Some of the information is accurate and some of it is not. There are lengthy e-mail exchanges among a large group of individuals with plenty of information shared often utilizing Internet research. These exchanges have also ventured "off topic" and some discussions have been confrontational diminishing otherwise productive dialogue. At the end of the day, we all need to sort through the massive amounts of information available on this subject to determine what information we can believe and rely upon and what information is simply not accurate or dependable. The source of the information clearly matters.

In an effort to sort fact from fiction and fact from opinion, I will do my best to provide answers to some frequently asked questions about Frederick County solid waste management issues. I will do my best to separate fact from fiction and fact from opinion.

Why hasn't a Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility been constructed in the United States for the past decade?

It is factually true that a WTE facility has not been constructed in the United States for more than a decade though several jurisdictions are considering WTE facilities including Frederick County and Harford County in Maryland. The most recent WTE facilities constructed have been in Europe and Asia. This is why a contingent of county representatives toured solid waste disposal systems in Europe including four mass burn WTE facilities, a mechanical biological processing facility, recycling processing facilities, and a large automated organic composting facility.

It is somewhat a matter of opinion as to why a WTE facility has not been built in recent years in the United States. The availability of low cost mega-landfills and overall market conditions are major factors. WTE facilities are generally considered as viable disposal options in areas of the country where land is limited or very expensive for use as a landfill. Most of the WTE facilities in the United States are located in or near population centers, where the cost of land is most expensive and the availability of land most limited. By way of example, there are numerous WTE facilities in New England, Long Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. Many metropolitan communities, both counties and municipalities, have made a choice in the last decade to ship their trash to out-of-state mega-landfills. Shipping trash long distances has become dramatically more expensive due to the rising cost of fuel and due to some states adding surcharges for out-of-state trash. As existing mega-landfills fill-up, many communities will be forced to find new mega-landfill options, often located at greater distances, with the increased price tag associated with shipping waste longer distances. As shipping to out-of-state landfills becomes more expensive, more communities are likely to consider other options including WTE facilities. In my opinion, the availability of less expensive mega-landfill options and market conditions are the primary reasons no WTE facilities have been constructed in the United States in recent years. (This is a mix of fact and opinion.)

Has the County considered shipping waste to out-of-state landfills by rail vs. by truck?

Yes. When the County put out bids for both the interim transfer operation and the long-term transfer of waste to out-of-state landfills, both truck and rail options were requested. The County received no bids for rail options. The County staff has recently asked the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority (NWMDA) to re-assess rail options. To facilitate the use of rail, the County would have to transfer waste by truck to a rail siding and depending upon the out-of-state landfill may have to do the same on the receiving end. (This is fact.)

Has the County considered alternatives such as plasma gasification waste-to-energy or waste to ethanol?

Yes. The County has considered new technology alternatives, but has made a conscious choice to not invest in unproven technologies. The County decided, based on advice from solid waste management and financial advisors, that in order to raise capital and reduce risk associated with constructing a facility, the technology must have demonstrated performance history confirming its operating capabilities for a minimum of three years and the facility must be proven at a size no less than 80% of the selected facility.

Plasma arc and plasma gasification waste-to-energy systems have not yet been demonstrated in a large-scale operation. A large-scale plasma waste-to-energy system is currently under construction in Florida but has not yet been operational and will not open for another year. The Maryland Department of Environment has expressed concern about this technology because it consumes a tremendous amount of electricity, pollution impacts are not well defined or known, it is not clear whether a large scale operation is practical and the costs of operation are not known. It would be difficult to obtain permits for a plasma waste-to-energy facility with these unknowns. There is a mix of opinion regarding pollution from plasma systems and concern that pollution impacts are significantly greater from plasma gasification and plasma arc systems than mass burn waste-to-energy.

Waste-to-ethanol is also relatively new technology. County staff has reported, to the best of their knowledge and research, that there are no full-scale municipal solid waste-to-ethanol facilities operational in the United States, or for that matter, in any other country. There are at least eleven waste-to-ethanol pilot plants or demonstration projects are under construction in the United States. These plants often utilize a specific waste stream such as agricultural waste or similar commercial waste. Municipal solid waste is not an ideal uniform feedstock for biological processes. Its organic and cellulosic material content can vary significantly. At this point, the costs and environmental impacts are not reasonably known. (Response is fact based while noting a "mix of opinion".)

Has the County considered requiring air emission standards similar to European standards?

Yes. Should the County proceed with a WTE facility, the County will require the most advanced state of the art technology available. Specifically, both vendors that have submitted WTE proposals have included air emission limits, which are stricter than required by the EPA and the State of Maryland. Specifically, both vendors have proposed European type advanced NOx reduction systems and European waste management systems. (October 26, 2007 staff report. This is fact.)

Why doesn't the County implement a Pay As You Throw or volume based trash collection system?

The County provides trash disposal but does not perform trash collection. The municipalities in the County provide trash collection, generally through a contract with a private hauler. The City of Frederick provides trash collection to its residents through city employees. Residents and businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county receive trash collection through individual contracts with haulers or through their HOA contract with a private hauler.

The County has no existing regulatory authority to require private trash haulers to collect trash on a volume basis or pay-as-you-throw system (PAYT). PAYT systems require consumers to pay by the bag, by weight, or with a system of multiple sizes of trash bins with graduated pricing. The County does have the ability to bid out trash collection countywide as one contract for all the unincorporated areas of the county. This bid would effectively eliminate the majority of the haulers doing business in the County and would make the County dependant upon a single hauler for trash collection services.

The County Commissioners have requested legislative authority for solid waste franchising to allow the creation of numerous collection districts, that could be bid or contracted with multiple haulers and accommodate the current mix of small, medium, and large haulers doing business in the County. Franchising would allow the County to maintain a robust system of collection with multiple haulers. This legislative initiative has failed repeatedly. Franchising would also allow the County the ability to require single stream recycling countywide, as well as, yard waste collection and periodic bulk waste pick-up. The County does not have the authority or ability to regulate haulers through licensing agreements. All haulers are licensed by the State of Maryland through the Department of Labor and Licensing. Municipal governments can implement pay-as-you-throw systems within their respective municipalities through their contracts with private haulers.

There have been many questions about the County's legislative authority regarding pay-as-you-throw systems. The County Attorney will be providing an overview of all the County's legislative authority related to solid waste management at a BOCC meeting on September 9, 2008. This meeting can be viewed on channel 19 or through the Internet.

Pay-as-you-throw or volume based trash collection would create an incentive to reduce the waste stream and increase recycling and composting efforts. The County Commissioners would like to consider pay-as-you-throw in combination with expanded single stream recycling to divert a larger amount of waste from our disposal stream. At this juncture, our legislative ability to implement such a collection system is limited. (Comments are fact based.)

Why consider accepting trash from Carroll County? Won't this mean hundred of trash truck traveling through Frederick County on a daily basis?

The Frederick County Commissioners are considering partnering with the Carroll County Commissioners to construct a regional Waste-to-Energy facility. Carroll County is also shipping its trash to out-of-state mega-landfills. Partnering with Carroll County provides both jurisdictions with an economy of scale and lower overall cost per ton for disposal. The partnership with Carroll County is being considered to reduce costs and share risk. If the partnership with Carroll County proceeds and a regional WTE facility is located in Frederick County, the truck traffic associated with shipping Frederick County's trash out-of-state could be eliminated while the truck traffic associated with accepting Carroll County's trash would be added. Frederick County is currently generating approximately 40 long-haul trucks per day, give or take, to ship our waste out-of-state. Carroll County is currently generating about 30 long-haul trucks per day, give or take, to ship their waste out-of-state. Thus, if a WTE facility is located in Frederick County, approximately 40 long-haul truck trips will be potentially eliminated, while 30 long-haul truck trips will be added, resulting in a net reduction of about 10 long-haul truck trips. Since the waste will be transferred, the timing of the truck shipments can be controlled and the truck traffic accepted into Frederick County could be required to occur during non-peak hours or even in the middle of the night. Depending upon the location of the WTE facility, Frederick County could continue to transfer trash within the county. Individual trash trucks from residential or commercial collection will not be delivering trash from Carroll County to Frederick County. Specific details would be defined in a contract or agreement between the two counties. (This is factual information that has been publicly discussed.)


In conclusion, sorting fact from fiction and fact from opinion is challenging! I personally place a high value on the information from county and municipal solid waste professionals and their experiences. They are on the front line of waste management. In my experience, reliable and known sources of information provide the best information. There is not a single answer or single approach to responsibly managing solid waste in a manner that protects public health and the environment.

Jan Gardner is President of the Frederick County, Maryland Board of Commissioners

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Has Frederick County looked at burning waste at the Baltimore City incinerator? Just the facts please...also some have pointed at the lehigh Cement incinerator...?