Call for trash incinerator prompts heated criticism

December 26, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

To burn or to bury the 1,200 tons of trash generated every day in Anne Arundel County? The question facing county officials is whether it is better to risk air pollution with an incinerator, or ground water pollution and added costs with a landfill.

If they continue to bury the trash, even an expanded county landfill will reach capacity in 15 years. Building a new one, even if space could be found, would cost an estimated $1 million an acre.

But mention a popular alternative -- a waste-to-energy incinerator -- and red flags are raised.

"It's a stupid idea and it's a ridiculous idea," snapped James Martin, president of the Severn River Association. "It takes solid waste and all the hazardous materials in it, vaporizes it and spews it out into the atmosphere."

A task force looking at Anne Arundel's solid waste needs into the next century called such an incinerator "an innovative and cost-effective way of dealing with trash.

"We're coming up on the year 2000 and we're not doing anything differently than what the Indians used to do" -- dumping trash in a hole and burying it, said A. Newth Morris III, a Glen Burnie businessman who chaired the panel.

Nearly everyone involved in the county's waste disposal

deliberations agrees that residents and businesses must continue to recycle and compost trash as much as possible. And they agree that you can't recycle everything. But they don't agree on what to do with the remaining 400,000 tons a year.

Incinerator proponents, such as Mr. Morris, emphasize that his plan ensures that "what is left over after you've recycled and composted can be disposed of as efficiently and as environmentally soundly as possible."

Opponents say bury it. Maximize recycling, encourage consumers to re-use products instead of discarding them and place the rest "in a properly operated and well-developed landfill," said Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, known for his environmental activism.

But the county's recycling goal is only 20 percent of the trash generated. Mr. Winegrad insists that figure could increase to 50 percent "if the county made an all-out effort to reach commercial-industrial [users] and went to yard-waste mulching."

Even the higher figure isn't enough, incinerator fans say. It only will delay the inevitable: closing the Millersville landfill and trying to find another site, a difficult task because of the risk to water in the large number of aquifers under the county.

Processing site

"It's uncertain, given the geology of the county, that you could site another Millersville within our borders," said Tom Andrews, the county's chief environmental officer.

Incineration reduces the trash volume by 90 percent, Mr. Morris said. Millersville would become a processing site where the leftover ash would be deposited and trash that is buried there now could be mined and burned, creating even more landfill capacity.

"The facility there could then be able to go on in perpetuity," he said.

Opponents of incineration worry about the environment and economics.

They fear emissions from the smokestack -- mercury and dioxin -- and what is left in the ashes after the trash is burned, mercury and heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead.

According to a 1992 study by Clean Water Action, solid waste incinerator emissions are the fastest-growing source of mercury in the county's air.

More than 12,000 pounds of mercury is spewed into the Maryland skies each year. And 5,000 pounds of that comes from three municipal waste incinerators: the BRESCO and Pulaski plants in Baltimore, and the Harford County incinerator at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"That's a lot when you consider that one thermometer of mercury can contaminate a 50-acre lake," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, state director of Clean Water Action.

But mercury emissions can be controlled by injecting activated carbon, which absorbs the mercury, into the smokestack and catching it all in a fabric filter, said Michael A. Gagliardo, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority.

"The emissions from these facilities have been tested. The emissions are known, and the emissions are very low, especially compared with [coal and oil] burned to produce electricity," Mr. Gagliardo said.

Ruling awaited

The ash, however, could be classified as a hazardous waste. The U.S. Supreme Court has already heard arguments to settle a difference of opinion between two appellate courts, and a decision is expected this spring.

"If that goes against the incinerators, I can tell you, they're in big trouble," Mr. Winegrad said. The ash, instead of going to the local landfill or even being used as road fill, would have to go to a much more expensive hazardous waste landfill.

Mr. Gagliardo counters that field tests by the Environmental Protection Agency have shown that any heavy metals in the ash bind to the ash particles and do not leach from landfills into ground water.

Incinerator opponents also fear that burning trash gives residents and businesses no incentive to recycle.

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