Waste To Energy Or Wasted Energy?

COMMENT

September 12, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

By canceling their trip to a Tennessee composting plant, Carroll's commissioners unwittingly may have done the county's Waste to Energy Committee a big favor.

Staying home means that the commissioners won't be blatantly undercutting the efforts of this high-powered citizens' committee develop alternatives to dumping solid waste into landfills.

But committee members shouldn't be surprised when commissioners Julia W. Gouge, Donald I. Dell and Elmer C. Lippy disregard their findings.

In the past, the commissioners have had the decency to ignore the recommendations of these citizen committees after they completed their work. This time around, they may not even wait.

There is nothing unusual about the commissioners' behavior. Elected officials on all levels routinely appoint committees to investigate politically sensitive issues that they would like to avoid. After the committees absorb the political heat and make their recommendations, the elected officials ignore them.

Half the problems facing the U.S. government -- from solving the deficit to downsizing the federal work force -- would probably be solved if presidents and congresses of the past three decades adopted some of the recommendations of the hundreds of commissions they created. Instead, most of their reports were accepted with great fanfare and then relegated to a shelf at the Library of Congress to collect dust and provide interesting insights for future doctoral theses.

When the commissioners appointed the Waste to Energy Committee last January, the committee's task was to examine the feasibility of Mr. Dell's proposal to build a waste-to-energy plant in Finksburg that would burn the county's garbage, use treated wastewater as coolant and generate cheap energy that would attract business and industry.

The commissioners named 23 people of differing backgrounds and expertise to the committee. They also told the committee to report back its findings in 18 months.

Chaired by former Sykesville Mayor Lloyd R. Helt Jr., the committee has not restricted its investigation to examining Mr. Dell's proposal.

Instead, it seems to be exploring all the possibilities -- other than landfilling -- of disposing of solid waste. It has toured waste-to-energy plants in Baltimore and Lancaster, heard testimony from a variety of experts and has slogged through reams of reports and articles on the subject.

The commissioners haven't been marking time on the solid waste issue, either. After reviewing reports that Carroll may not be able to meet the state requirement that 15 percent of the county's solid waste be recycled by 1994, they directed their staff to draft an ordinance calling for mandatory recycling.

In addition, Mr. Lippy, who initially supported Mr. Dell's waste-to-energy plant, has now become much more interested in composting as a cure-all for Carroll's solid waste disposal problems. He joins Mrs. Gouge, who advocated composting over in cineration as a cost-effective, environmentally safe means of garbage disposal.

Into this fluid situation stepped Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, who has been unhappy with the county's entire solid waste collection and disposal system. He convinced the mayors of Carroll's municipalities to ask haulers to submit a unified bid on garbage collection. As a result, the towns now have a significantly lower cost for collection than the rest of the county.

He also recognizes that being on the right side of the garbage issue can be politically advantageous, particularly for someone with countywide political ambitions.

So when Mr. Brown mentioned at the commissioner's quarterly meeting with the mayors in August that he had visited a large-scale composting plant while on vacation in Tennessee, the commissioners were quick to sit up and take notice. They immediately got their appointment books and scheduled a visit to see the Bedminster Bioconversion Corp. plant in Sevier County, Tenn., for themselves.

No one seems to have expressed any concern that a well-publicized trip to a composting plant might undercut the efforts of the commissioners' own Waste to Energy Committee. In fact, the commissioners decided to broaden the group making the trip to include committee members.

But logistics seemed to have overwhelmed the entire endeavor.

Rather than flying to Tennessee and risk being accused of squandering taxpayer money, the commissioners planned to take two days to drive down to Tennessee.

But as the number of people making the trip grew, they decided chartering a bus might be a better idea. However, a two-day bus charter was more expensive than they had planned.

The crowning blow came when Rachelle Hurwitz, one of the committee members, pointed out that the trip was scheduled to take place on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Faced with all these complications, the commissioners canceled the trip.

The Waste to Energy Committee will continue to meet, and Mr. Helt is intent on producing a report by next year.

Will the commissioners pay attention to the committee's findings, or will they continue to forge their own way on solid waste? Only the commissioners can answer that question.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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